A floating city in the Maldives is beginning to take shape

A city rises from the waters of the Indian Ocean. In a turquoise lagoon, just 10 minutes by boat from Male, the Maldivian capital, a floating city is being built, large enough to house 20,000 people.

The city is designed in a pattern similar to brain corals, and will consist of 5,000 floating units including houses, restaurants, shops and schools, with canals in between. The first units will be unveiled this month, with residents starting to move in early 2024, and the entire city to be completed by 2027.

The project – a joint venture between the real estate developer Dutch Docklands and the government of the Maldives – is not intended as a wild experiment or a futuristic vision: it is built as a practical solution to the harsh reality of sea level rise.

The Maldives is an archipelago with 1190 low-lying islands, and is one of the world’s most vulnerable nations to climate change. Eighty percent of the land area is less than one meter above sea level, and with levels expected to rise up to one meter by the end of the century, almost the entire country could be under water.

Do you want to secure the future of your home from rising sea levels? Make it flow

But if a city floats, it can rise with the sea. This is “new hope” for the more than half a million people in the Maldives, said Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, the architectural firm that designed the city. “It can prove that there are affordable housing, large communities and normal cities on the water that are also safe. They (the Maldives) will go from climate refugees to climate innovators,” he told CNN.

The hub of floating architecture

Born and raised in the Netherlands – where about a third of the country is below sea level – Olthuis has been close to water all his life. His mother’s side of the family were shipbuilders and his father comes from a line of architects and engineers, so it seemed natural to combine the two, he said. In 2003, Olthuis founded Waterstudio, an architectural firm dedicated exclusively to building on water.

At the time, there were signs of climate change, but it was not considered a big enough problem to build a company around it, he said. The biggest problem then was the space: the cities expanded, but suitable land for new urban development was about to run out.

The Global Center on Adaptation is headquartered in the Nieuwe Maas River in Rotterdam. Credit: Marcel IJzerman

But in recent years, climate change has become “a catalyst”, driving floating architecture towards the mainstream, he said. Over the past two decades, Waterstudio has designed more than 300 floating homes, offices, schools and health centers around the world.

The Netherlands has become a center for the movement, home to floating parks, a floating dairy farm and a floating office building, which serves as the headquarters of the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA), an organization that focuses on scaling climate adaptation solutions.

Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of GCA, sees floating architecture as both a practical and economically smart solution for rising sea levels.

“The cost of not adapting to these flood risks is extraordinary,” he told CNN. “We have a choice to make: either we postpone and pay, or we plan and prosper. Floating offices and floating buildings are part of this planning for the climate of the future.”

Last year, floods cost the global economy more than $ 82 billion, according to reinsurance agency Swiss Re, and as climate change triggers more extreme weather, costs are expected to rise. A report by the World Resources Institute predicts that by 2030, urban real estate worth more than $ 700 billion annually will be affected by coastal and river floods.

But despite the momentum in recent years, floating architecture still has a long way to go in terms of scale and affordability, Verkooijen said. “It’s the next step in this journey: how can we scale up, and at the same time, how can we increase speed? It’s urgent with scale and speed.”

An ordinary city, just floating

The Maldives project aims to achieve both, to build a city for 20,000 people in less than five years. Other floating city plans have been launched, such as Oceanix City in Busan, South Korea, and a series of floating islands in the Baltic Sea developed by the Dutch company Blue21, but none compete with this scale and time frame.

Waterstudios town is designed to attract locals with its rainbow-colored homes, wide balconies and sea views. Residents will get around on boats, or they can walk, bike or ride electric scooters or buggies along the sandy streets.

The capital of the Maldives is enormously crowded, with no room to expand out into the sea.

The capital of the Maldives is enormously crowded, with no room to expand out into the sea. Credit: Carl Court / Getty Images AsiaPac

It offers space that is difficult to obtain in the capital – Male is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 200,000 people squeezed into an area of ​​about eight square kilometers. And prices are competitive with those in Hulhumalé (a man-made island built nearby to ease overcrowding) – starting at $ 150,000 for a studio or $ 250,000 for a family home, Olthuis said.

The modular units are constructed in a local shipyard and then towed to the floating city. Once in place, they are attached to a large underwater concrete hull, which is screwed to the seabed on telescopic steel posts that allow it to swing gently with the waves. Coral reefs that surround the city help provide a natural breakwater, stabilize it and prevent residents from feeling seasick.

Olthuis said that the potential environmental impact of the structure was thoroughly assessed by local coral experts and approved by public authorities before construction began. To support marine life, artificial coral banks are made of glass foam connected to the underside of the city, which he said helps stimulate corals to grow naturally.

The goal is for the city to be self-sufficient and have all the same functions as one on land. There will be electricity, mainly powered by solar energy generated on site, and sewage will be treated locally and reused as fertilizer for plants. As an alternative to air conditioning, the city will use ocean cooling in deep water, which involves pumping cold water from the deep sea into the lagoon, which helps save energy.

By developing a fully functioning floating city in the Maldives, Olthuis hopes that this type of architecture will be driven to the next level. It will no longer be “freak architecture” found in luxurious places commissioned by the super-rich, but a response to climate change and urbanization, which is both practical and affordable, he said.

– If I as an architect want to make a difference, we have to scale up, he said.