Are floating cities a near and realistic possibility? Can water be an asset instead of a threat? Is this a possibility not only for the wealthy, but also for the most vulnerable populations?
For Koen Olthuis, Menno van der Marel and the team at Waterstudio, a Dutch architecture and urban planning firm, floating architecture is an opportunity to overcome many of the limitations of building on land. They began the social enterprise Floating City Apps in 2013, as an opportunity to upgrade life of the poorest, living in slums, through floating structures. Recently they developed a partnership with Cordaid, one of the largest development aid organizations in the Netherlands, to expand the reach of their work.
From their perspective, our cities are too slow and static to keep up with our changing needs. Technology is developing at an exponential rate and societies’ politics and social needs are constantly changing. The oceans are rising at 3.18mm a year, threatening the 634 million people who live less than 30 feet above sea level. Rural to urban migration is increasing the strain on cities to adapt, especially when there is limited space for expansion – two-thirds of cities with over five million people are at least partially in low elevation zones. Floating cities offer additional space, safety from storm conditions and rising sea levels, flexibility and resiliency.
While floating cities are a real prospect, a community of 100,000 in the middle of the sea is likely 50 years away. An additional 20 years would be required for the city to be completely self-supporting. However, hybrid cities, built on the edge of existing cities and connected to sanitation and electrical grids, are already in development in the Netherlands.
While most of the projects are not currently affordable for the average person, there are opportunities to learn from the rich and bring the technology to the poor. 863 million people live in slums, most of which are close to open water. They are highly vulnerable to flooding, neglected by civil authorities, and lack the space and money for new infrastructure.
The goal of this organisation is to use floating functions, called City Apps, to improve living conditions in waterfront slums. The concept is simple: standard sea-freight containers are equipped in the Netherlands and transported by sea cargo to areas in need, where steel frame floating foundations are made on location, with recycled PET bottles.
Similar to adjusting a smart phone by adding apps, slums can be adjusted by adding different Floating City Apps. They can house the most essential services – such as sanitation, education, healthcare, community kitchens, garbage collection, and construction– and keep them dry in the case of flooding and storms.
Their ambition is for 500 Floating City Apps to be in place in the next five years. The Apps are not donated, but leased to local NGOs, entrepreneurs or municipalities to ensure the involvement and dedication of local parties. The first prototype is an investment by Waterstudio, which will be deployed in Manila, to act as a communication hub. It provides internet, which is extremely expensive for slum inhabitants, and serves as a social and educational platform.
An additional prototype in development is the waste bank City App. In Jakarta, Indonesia, for example, 30% of the waste ends up in the river, clogging waterways and causing health and environmental problems. When communities deposit waste in the App, they receive points that can be redeemed for benefits, such as phone credits and health care, or cashed in. Each Floating City App costs approximately €50,000.
Currently, investing in slums is a high risk venture, but building on water minimizes many of the impediments. As a floating structure, it will stay dry in the event of a flood, and the water below the structure absorbs the energy of storms, minimizing damages. In the case of evictions, or altered needs, the entire structure can easily sent back for the foundation to lease to another investor. They do not take up land, threaten landowners who do not want permanent slums or leave any environmental scars. The construction material is sustainable and highly durable, and the App is energy self-sufficient. 
Olthuis believes that one of the limitations is perspective, as “people have trouble imagining an urban future where city halls can be swapped for theaters on opening night, or entire Olympic villages can simply be towed around the world instead of rebuilt every four years.” Building on water is a new development, and there still are many potential unforeseen challenges and impediments. However, building on water opens a vast realm ofpossibility that is not just for the rich and famous.