Is ‘seasteading’ a delusion or could floating cities be a lifeline for Pacific nations?
The proposed location is a calm, circular Tahitian atoll.
The water is shallow and protected from damaging waves. Bobbing up and down in the lagoon are futuristic floating dwellings with clean lines and grass-covered roofs.
This is how the Seasteading Institute — a non-profit think tank — imagines the world’s first floating town will look.
“Green roofs, solar panels, and maybe little doors so it’ll look sort of like a little floating Hobbiton,” Joe Quirk, the institute’s president and co-founder, said.
“Seasteading is basically homesteading the high sea, and it’s the idea of creating start-up ‘nano-nations’ that float on the ocean.
“Long before we get to Mars, we’re going to see floating nations on the ocean.”
A tech libertarian fantasy?
When the Seasteading Institute first splashed into the media, its tech billionaire and libertarian proponents claimed floating nations would let people experiment with new forms of government.
These start-ups on the sea would also, conveniently, be drifting in tax-free international waters.
However in recent years it appears the pitch has been updated to target a wider audience.
Mr Quirk emphasises the eco-friendly technology and innovation potential, saying it could provide hope for Pacific nations coping with the impact of climate change.
“It would help people adjust to sea level rise, and experiment with voluntary governance,” he said.
“French Polynesia’s concerned they may lose a third of their islands by the end of this century. Right next door is Kiribati, which is concerned it could completely disappear.”
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Mr Quirk believes humanity will transition to floating cities very soon.
“Once they’re on international waters, they will essentially be floating, new, man-made nations,” he said.
The idea might sound as far-fetched as the plot from the mid-1990s film Waterworld.
But in 2017, French Polynesia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Seasteading Institute to scope out a site for the world’s first floating town.
Mr Quirk co-founded a for-profit company called Blue Frontiers to design the bobbing, eco-friendly village.
“The first seastead that Blue Frontiers will create, hopefully in French Polynesia, will be for about 300 people and it will be about 14 very small floating islands,” he said.
So, with some seriously considering floating communities, is it technologically possible? Environmentally responsible? And would anyone want to live there?
Yes, it is possible
“The idea of floating structures is not new,” CM Wang, TMR professor of structural engineering at the University of Queensland, said.
Alongside ancient floating bridges and fortresses, he points to more recent projects, including a 50 kilometre floating walkway in China, and Japan’s MegaFloat project — a prototype 1km long floating runway built in the late 1990s.
“[There’s] restaurants, and piers, even floating prisons, and also farming — there’s a recent dairy farm being built in Rotterdam,” he said.
Professor Wang said the largest floating structure in the world is currently the oil and gas storage facility, Prelude, off the coastline of Western Australia.
It’s roughly the size of six aircraft carriers.
But it’s not Australia’s only claim to fame when it comes to pioneering floating structures.
In the late ’80s, Townsville was home to the world’s first floating hotel.
The 200-room Barrier Reef Resort was placed inside a small circular reef, called John Brewer Reef, about 70km off the Queensland coast.
It withstood a cyclone, and showed it is possible — though financially problematic — to have permanent accommodation on the sea.
Is it environmentally responsible?
Peter Saenger conducted the original environmental assessments of Australia’s floating hotel project.
He said the floating structure had a minimal impact because of strict environmental regulations imposed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
“Once it was installed, water quality was monitored, and that was very good,” Professor Saenger said.
“Noise was something that worried people because of its effect on fish — that was monitored and found not to be the problem that some people thought it might be.
“The floating platforms attracted bird life — terns and gulls and boobies and so on started making an appearance.
“Locally that caused a slight enrichment in phosphates from bird droppings. Apart from that, everything was fine.”
However, he said some coral was damaged to get the floating hotel into John Brewer Reef.
“There were about 16 bommies — they were quite small, maybe a square metre to maybe 10 square metres — that needed to have their tops knocked off to allow the floating hotel to be taken in,” he said.
Professor Saenger said the floating hotel was moored to the seabed and allowed to drift while attached to a single mooring point.
He said shading might become a problem for larger floating structures, or those that are permanently moored in one place.
‘As long as you respected certain conditions’
In late 2017, the Seasteading Institute invited scientists and other experts in French Polynesia to assess the economic, scientific, and environmental impacts of its proposed floating town.
Neil Davies is the executive director of the University of California, Berkley’s Gump South Pacific Research Station on the island of Moorea.
He assisted with these workshops, and said the consensus was largely positive.
“It’s possible to build floating platforms that would not have a very negative impact, as long as you respected certain conditions about shading and the location of them,” Dr Davies said.
“If they were located right, if they were designed right, and of course that includes the waste treatment and the materials used and everything else.
“They could be done in this kind of environment and would have low impact or even possibly some beneficial impact — certainly a beneficial impact economically, for example.
“The other conclusion was that there’s certainly some interest in having this kind of capacity as it might be, and probably will be, a necessary response to rising sea level.
“Even if it might not be the ideal thing to do, it may become necessary.”
Would anyone live on a seastead?
But not everyone thinks a floating city would be a good idea.
Peter Newman, a professor of sustainability at Curtin University who has been involved in a range of city planning projects, said he was appalled when he first heard about the Seasteading Institute’s vision.
“It was basically saying: ‘us wealthy people deserve to live in a way where we can just live without anybody else worrying us — we can do what we like’,” he said.
“That kind of arrogance is, I think, something to be judged poorly.”
He described the idea of seasteading as an “apartheid of the worst kind”.
“Cities have to be inclusive,” Professor Newman said.
“Rather than helping to make them more inclusive and more sustainable with all these beautiful eco-technologies they’re talking about, they were just going to set themselves up and sneer at the rest of the world.
Professor Newman is also sceptical about whether floating communities would be able to entice long-term residents.
“The idea that you can create a little self-sufficient village and sit there in your glory and watch the rest of the world might last five or 10 minutes, but not much longer,” he said.
“Very quickly you want to do things and have opportunities for your children, and what do you do about health and education?”
However, Professor Newman did say new eco-technologies have made it possible to create self-sustaining floating cities like those proposed by the Seasteading Institute.
“They’ve got perhaps about a 5 per cent chance of working in most places,” he said.
“That 5 per cent is likely to happen somewhere — after all Jonestown, Guyana did happen. It of course collapsed, as most of these experiments do.
“I don’t think it would be mainstreamed in many parts of the world … I just think on a human scale it is appalling.”
He acknowledged some Pacific nations will have to find a way to respond to rising sea levels, but said floating cities weren’t the only solution.
The very obvious alternative is to move to higher ground.
“A little bit higher up perhaps would work, and be better environmentally … that land-water interface is exactly where most of the really interesting biodiversity is,” he said.
However, Mr Quirk believes it’s time to rethink how we design cities, by experimenting with new forms of government and social structures aboard these floating communities.
“Which would set off evolution in governance itself, which we think would solve a deep social challenge, which is the 193 monopolies on government that control 7.6 billion people right now,” he said.
Will we see a floating city soon?
In the midst of an election, French Polynesia’s Government didn’t respond to a request for comment.
However, in January 2018, French Polynesia’s ruling Tapura Huiraatira party confirmed its MOU with the Seasteading Institute was only designed to last a year, to assess the impact of a possible floating town.
Some have claimed that sinks any dreams of a floating community in Tahiti.
But Mr Quirk said the Seasteading Institute and Blue Frontiers have completed their impact assessments and are now awaiting a verdict on the proposal.
“French Polynesia allowed us to conduct three impact studies — an environmental impact study, an economic impact study, and legislation for what we call the ‘sea zone’,” he said.
“The agreement was for us to perform these two impact reports and deliver the sea zone legislation.
“We fulfilled that obligation, so there was no reason to renew the MOU.”
Mr Quirk is still upbeat about the project.
“French Polynesia could become the Silicon Valley of the sea … [it’s] perfectly positioned, both geographically and culturally, to take the lead on the seasteading century.”