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Over the entire history of human beings building cities, we've had to contend with the risk of floods. Besides flood narratives being a part of mythologies the world over, there are still living examples of cities overcoming the abyss from Wuzhen in China, to Amsterdam, Venice, and Seattle. But as the climate crisis threatens cities the world over with unprecedented sea-level rise, our conception of floating cities will have to continue to evolve.
Specifically, cities of the future may have to actually float. While the cities listed above are all built on a series of stilts so they stand above the water table, preventing future flooding may necessitate cities launching artificial land to break waves and prevent erosion. Nature has its own ways of protecting shorelines, from coral reefs to mangrove forests, but the climate crisis is endangering these natural wonders as much as our man-made ones.
The Buoyant Ecologies Float Lab, designed at the California College of the Arts, is one of the more recent experiments in creating artificial reefs, having launched a prototype into the San Francisco Bay in August 2019. The lab's irregular peaks-and-valleys shape is designed to facilitate a variety of sea life finding a home there, opposed to just the barnacles that tend to gather on other floating objects.
By attracting a diverse set of seaweeds and filter-feeders, its designers hope to produce a virtuous cycle of biodiversity, as the sea-flora attract different species of fish and crustaceans. Once becoming bountifully populated, researchers hope that these artificial floating reefs could offer coastal cities the same protections that natural reefs provide.
On the opposite coast of the United States, in New York, researchers and advocates have proposed a solution found in the region's natural past. When Europeans began colonizing New York, the bay was home to 220,000 acres of oyster reefs – and the Billion Oyster Project aims to bring them back. The plan already has backing from state and local governments, who were looking for a way to prevent the destruction of Superstorm Sandy from repeating as global warming increases the frequency and severity of such weather patterns. Besides acting as living breakwaters, oyster reefs provide a similarly fertile base for marine biodiversity as the Float Lab, and also act as natural water filters, helping to de-pollute the bay.
New York City may also provide another strategy for recovering land lost to rising seas: simply making more of it. From Collect Pond to Battery Park City, New York has a long history of filling in the various waterways that poked into Manhattan island with garbage and building on top of it. One of the most successful and surprising recent examples of such ingenuity is Freshkills Park in Staten Island.
Prior to 1948, Fresh Kills was – like most of New York geography naturally is – swampland. In 1948 the city turned it into a landfill, and by its closing in 2001, it was the largest in the world. But since its closing, the city has redeveloped the area, turning into the city's second largest park. Instead of trash, Fresh Kills now hosts a variety of thriving animal populations who make their home in the city's largest grassland habitat and tidal creeks.
Freshkills' quick transition from dump to park is hopefully a reminder of the resilience of nature, and that with enough ingenuity and political will, the climate crisis doesn't have to be a death sentence for coastal cities and human civilization at large. We have proof that we can make land out of garbage, and we know what we need to do in order to protect it – right now, it's just a matter of doing it before its too late. And to plan out what needs to be done, HERE offers a powerful suite of public infrastructure planning solutions.