Floating life: cities preparing for rising sea levels

Shira Rubin 5 July 2022

A unique Dutch neighbourhood is showing the world how cities can prepare for rising sea levels in a time of climate crisis

Marjan de Blok readjusts her body weight as she treads along the jetty linking a floating community on a canal off the River IJ. Through the whipping winds, she shouts greetings to many of her neighbors.

On the day I visited in autumn 2021, heavy rains and 80 kilometre-an-hour winds put Amsterdam, just a short ferry ride away, on alert. But in the northern neighborhood of Schoonschip, life carried on mostly as usual. De Blok visited with neighbors while the homes glided up and down their steel foundational poles with the movement of the water below.

“It feels like living at the beach, with the water, the saltiness of the air, and the seagulls,” she says. “But it also feels special because, initially, we were told that building your own neighborhood, it’s just impossible.”

Schoonschip

Schoonschip is setting an example for communities coming to grips with rising sea levels around the world

A long list of European lawmakers, urban planners, entrepreneurs and citizens have visited Schoonschip to see the real-life manifestation of a once science-fiction idea. De Blok, a Dutch reality-TV director, has shown them Schoonschip’s patchwork of environmentally focused social projects: lush floating gardens beloved by the water birds; a community center featuring floating architecture diagrams; and a nearby on-land vegetable patch. But the homes’ industrial-chic design and their immediate proximity to the city, she says, are what surprise visitors most.

"As the effects of climate change intensify, sea levels are forecast to rise"

Schoonschip can serve as a prototype for the more than 600 million people—close to ten percent of the world’s population—who live near the coast and less than ten meters above sea level. As the effects of climate change intensify, sea levels are forecast to rise somewhere between 30 and 240 centimeters this century, and storms are expected to increase in frequency and intensity. In the summer of 2021, at least 220 people died in Germany and Belgium from a once-in-400-year rain event. In Zhengzhou, China, 630 millimeters of rain fell in one day, killing nearly 300 people.

By the end of this century, the kind of intense precipitation events that would typically occur two times per century will happen twice as often, and more extreme events that would occur once every 200 years would become up to four times as frequent, according to a study published last year by a team at the University of Freiburg.

The Netherlands' relationship to water

The Netherlands has long contended with water—nearly a third of the country is below sea level and close to two-thirds is flood-prone. Since the Middle Ages, Dutch farmer collectives have drained water to make room for agricultural land. The groups evolved into regional water boards that keep the land dry using canals, dikes, dams and sea gates. Water management is such a normal part of Dutch discourse that many citizens are surprised to be asked about it, assuming it is common in every country.

The Dutch have historically lived on water. As international commerce flourished in the 17th century, foreign tradespeople moored their boats to the land to sell their goods. In the 1970s, people started converting boats into homes.

And over the past decade, Dutch water management strategists have sought to embrace, rather than resist, the rising sea levels brought on by climate change, with floating communities emerging in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht.

"Dutch water management strategists have sought to embrace, rather than resist, the rising sea levels"

These homes are relatively low-tech, constructed off-site and weighted by basins filled with recycled, water-resistant concrete, then pulled across the water by tugboats and moored in place. Heavy pieces such as pianos are counterweighed with bricks on the opposite side of the house, and interior design is carried out in line with the Dutch principle of gezelligheid, or “coziness.” Many rooms are outfitted with modular furniture that can be easily disassembled or reassembled to accommodate life changes such as the birth of children.

“It’s evident that sea waters will rise, and that many big cities are really close to that water,” says Schoonschip resident Sascha Glasl, whose architectural firm, Space & Matter, designed several of the community’s homes. “It’s amazing that not more of this innovation and building on water is being executed.”

De Blok, who has no engineering, architecture or hydrological training, says that she never intended to spearhead a movement in floating urban development. In 2009, she had become disenchanted with her life in Amsterdam. She worked all the time, bought things she rarely used and had little time to see friends.

De Blok and her family

Marjan de Blok with her familyin her floating home

On a cold winter day, she visited a solar-paneled floating event venue called GeWoonboot as part of a series of short documentaries she was shooting on sustainable living. She was stunned by its contemporary feel, its immediacy to the water and the city, and its use of experimental sustainability practices.

“Before I visited that boat, I wasn’t really conscious that I didn’t like the way I was living,” she says.

When she asked friends if they had interest in building a floating community, she was unprepared for the deluge of responses. She cut off the list at 120 people.

She scouted waters around Buiksloterham, a 100-hectare, post-industrial area that had been largely abandoned after manufacturers—including Shell and the Fokker airplane factory—left the city for lower-wage countries in the second part of the 20th century. When she learned that the city was planning to develop tens of thousands of housing units in the area, she realized, We could be pioneers here.

In Buiksloterham, the 22-storey Shell tower has been rebranded as the Amsterdam Dance and Music Tower, with dance clubs, a revolving restaurant and an observation deck. The grassy Overhoeks Promenade, which served as a gallows from the 15th to 18th century, hosts the hulking, modernistic Eye Film Museum. The NDSM wharf is peppered with artist collectives, vintage shops and a luxury hotel.

Life in Schoonschip

When “Schoonschip” is made into a verb, “to do schoonschip,” it means “to cleanse.” Looking to make a different kind of community, De Blok had all residents sign a manifesto committing them to constructing, insulating and finishing their homes with eco-friendly materials such as straw, burlap and bamboo. They also informally signed up for eating together, swimming together and conducting their lives largely in common view of one another, with curtains only rarely drawn. They use a vibrant WhatsApp group to request almost any service or borrow virtually any item from neighbors, including bikes and cars. 

Putting up lights in Schoonschip

Schoonschip has created a strong sense of community. Here, residents hang decorative lights among the houses

The neighborhood feels like an extended block party mostly because many of the residents are actually De Blok’s friends, or friends of friends, including colleagues from the TV and entertainment industry. Most of them joined the project in their 20s and 30s, when they had no kids and ample time to invest in building a community. Twelve years later, those young couples have young families.

During the summer months, their children jump out of their bedroom windows directly into the water below. On clear winter nights, the neighborhood gleams with soft lighting and buzzes with the hum of chattering residents on their top-floor porches. “When it’s dark and all the lights in the houses are on, it feels like a set from a film,” De Blok says.

"On clear winter nights, the neighborhood gleams with soft lighting"

To realize Schoonschip’s sustainability goals, De Blok drew on the residents themselves. Siti Boelen, a Dutch television producer, mediated between the Schoonschip representative committee and the local municipality. Glasl, the architect, helped design the jetty that connects the houses to each other and to the land.

Eelke Kingma, a resident and renewable tech expert, joined a community task force that co-designed the neighborhood’s smart grid system. Residents collect energy from more than 500 solar panels—placed on roughly a third of the community’s roofs—and from 30 efficient heat pumps that draw from the water below. They then store it in enormous batteries below the homes and sell any surplus to each other, as well as to the national grid.

Eelke Kingma helped design Schoonschip's renewable-energy grid

Eelke Kingma helpeddesign Schoonschip's renewable-energy grid

An AI-automated program under development will use the homes’ smart meters to inform residents when they can earn the most from selling their electricity, based on the fluctuations in energy market prices. This would make Schoonschip the first residential neighborhood in the country to turn a profit from generating energy, Kingma says.

The program is being monitored in collaboration with 15 European companies, universities, and institutions, organized by the European Commission, which supports renewable energy experiments in the hopes of scaling them up across the continent.

The floating-house movement

Over the past decade, the floating-house movement has been gaining momentum in the Netherlands. The Dutch government is amending legislation to redefine floating homes as “immovable homes” rather than “boats,” to simplify the process of obtaining permits.

Amsterdam and Rotterdam are reporting a sharp uptick in requests for permits to build on the water. The trend is coinciding with a national water awareness campaign for an era in which climate change is already a fact of life. The government launched an app called Overstroom Ik?, or Will I flood?, that allows residents to check if their area is at risk of flooding. And the Room for the River program has run more than 30 projects to manage high water levels in flood-prone districts over the past 15 years.

The people behind Schoonschip and other floating neighborhoods, office buildings and event spaces across the Netherlands are increasingly being consulted for projects across the world.

Schoonschip

Floating neighbourhoods are becoming more common throughout the world

In 2013, the architectural firm Waterstudio, which designed several of the houses in Schoonschip, sent a floating, Internet-connected converted cargo container, called “City App,” to the Korail Bosti slum of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Children attended remote classes in it during the day, and adults used it to develop business projects at night. In 2019, the vessel was relocated to a slum near Alexandria, Egypt, where it remains stationed.

“We want to upgrade cities near the water,” says Koen Olthuis, a Waterstudio architect. “Now we’re at a tipping point where it’s actually happening. We’re getting requests from all over the world.”

After two decades of planning, his firm along with Dutch Docklands, which specialises in floating developments, will oversee construction on a 200-hectare lagoon off Malé, the capital of the Maldives. The city sits less than three feet above sea level, making it vulnerable to even the slightest rise. The small, simply designed complex will house 20,000 people. Pumps will draw energy from deep-sea water and the homes’ artificial coral-clad hulls will encourage marine life.

Dutch and international projects are showing that “we can cope with the challenges of sea-level rises,” Olthuis says.

In Schoonschip, De Blok hopes that one day everyone will be able to live in communities built in harmony with the natural environment. “Living on water does something to you, being aware that under your house everything is moving,” she says. “There’s some magic to it.” 

The Washington Post (December 17, 2021) Copyright © 2021 by The Washington Post

Photos by Ilvy Njiokiktjien

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