A landmark sustainable floating city pilot project in the South Korean port of Busan is likely to be a herald for effective climate adaptation, offering a commercially viable model for other cities and regions at risk of flooding from rising sea levels and other potential coastline disasters, writes historian Stefan Huebner of the Asian Research Institute at National University of Singapore.
Building on water: Construction of Oceanix Busan is expected to start at the end of 2023 and will take five years (Credit: OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group)
The South Korean city Busan is located at the country’s southern coastline, a region that has historically suffered greatly from flooding and is considered especially vulnerable to the impact of rising sea levels. Between 2010 and 2020, South Korea’s five municipalities with the highest annual flood property damage were all located in Busan’s metropolitan area along the coastline, making it the country’s most flood-prone space. Busan’s metropolitan area is also the center of its maritime industry with substantial technical skill in building floating platforms. Since April 2019, the United Nations has hosted two roundtables on “sustainable floating cities” as urban adaptation tools for addressing storm surges, sea level rise and climate change. In 2021, Busan was chosen as the site for a floating city pilot.
The proposed project design was a collaboration among the New York-based ocean technology and sustainable design company Oceanix, the Danish architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group, Korean conglomerate Samsung’s engineering subsidy Samoo, and others, supported by UN-Habitat and the Busan city government. The public-private partnership represents both the techno-optimist environmentalism shaping the project and the goal of market-based commercialization of this urban adaptation tool that is supposed to be a model for other Asian and coastal cities.
The Busan sustainable floating city project will most likely prove to be a global precedent for affordable urban climate-change adaptation. UN and governmental support for the initiative heralds the rise of techno-optimist environmentalist thought, which is a significant shift from the technophobe environmentalist opposition to earlier floating settlement designs such as that proposed by American architect R Buckminster Fuller in the late 1960s. The Busan project’s price tag will be roughly half Fuller’s technically feasible design, even before carbon-emission trading gets included into cost calculations.
Fuller’s proposal, called Triton City, dates back to the 1950s and 1960s and the debate about building structures in Tokyo Bay to reduce congestion in the Japanese capital and increase the city’s resilience to earthquakes. In 1967-68, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considered the design for public housing after shipping container use reduced the space urban ports needed.
Coastal adaptation is urgent. Globally, about 896 million people – about 11 percent of humanity – live in low-lying cities and settlements that are at risk from shoreline disasters. This number is expected to increase to one billion by 2050. The properties of just 26 million people are protected against a 100-year flood, whereas those of 68 million are not. The vast majority, about 63 million, of those who are unprotected live in Asia, while many Dutch also face substantial risk. Within the next 35 years, the number of people whose properties will need protection is going to increase to about 85 million (not including population changes), here again most of them living in China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Netherlands. In Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, ground subsidence through ground water extraction exacerbates the problem and means that parts of the city are sinking much faster than sea levels are rising.
An even more far-reaching threat is of floods causing the breakdown of critical infrastructure such as water systems, electrical grids and transportation networks including subways. This means that many other people residing or working in low-lying cities and settlements along continental coastlines and on islands are at risk. Especially in the cases of low-lying islands, disasters could give rise to climate refugees, if dying coral reefs cannot protect them. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), without adaptation, flood risks most likely will increase by two to three orders of magnitude, reaching catastrophic levels by the end of the century.
In this context, the sustainable floating city project should not be seen as a solution to all problems of coastal urbanization. No floating structure will save subways from flooding during a storm surge. Rather, the Busan project defines a high-tech version of millennia-old adaptation practices by advancing urbanization or industrial development to aquatic surfaces instead of trying to remove and control water flows, therefore providing an alternative to seawalls, dams and related tools of “terrestrialization”. Depending on the location, such a construction or installation as an adaptation practice may result in a retreat of terrestrial settlement and a restructuring of regional economic systems – for example, shifting from agriculture to mariculture (marine organism farming).
To understand the strong differences in political support for the Busan project and Fuller’s proposal from the late 1960s, it is useful to distinguish between dark green environmentalism and bright green environmentalism. Dark green environmentalism is usually characterized by a distrust in technology. Rejection of nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams are prominent examples. But technophobia can also stretch to less controversial solutions such as offshore and terrestrial wind turbines, fish farms, and water desalination plants.
In contrast, bright green environmentalism embraces technology and innovation as the central solutions to environmental degradation. While dark green environmentalists usually are Malthusians who support austerity and limits to be enforced nationally and globally through government-driven reforms, bright green environmentalists advocate for consumer choice to enable individuals to purchase tools to reduce their ecological footprint. Many adherents of dark green environmentalism see themselves on the left side of the political spectrum and are critical of capitalism, its obsession with economic growth, and the commodification of nature.
Meanwhile, bright green environmentalists often see themselves as pragmatists and support economic growth since low-income countries will not have their industrial development denied by people in the West. Rather, economic security is seen as foundational for developing post-materialist values such as environmental concern. Bright green environmentalists also pragmatically support free markets, but unlike most neo-liberals they insist that pricing must include eco-capitalist evaluations of the value of ecosystem services and the costs of pollution, meaning carbon dioxide pricing and emissions trading.
Part of the intellectual origins of bright green environmentalism go back to Fuller and his techno-optimist, commercial, and partially ecologically autonomous design ideas. During the second half of the 20th century, his ideas and those of his adherents nevertheless remained marginalized by technophobe dark green environmentalism on the one hand and mainstream developmentalist thought unconcerned with ecological footprints on the other.
During the 1960s and 1970s, global concerns about scientifically measurable environmental degradation supported the growth of both forms of environmentalism. In the 1970s, almost every state established an environmental ministry or agency, while intergovernmental organizations such as the UN also showed heightened concern, launching the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972.
During this rise of environmental concern in the United States, Fuller’s bright green ideas strongly clashed with those of the dark green persuasion. As I detail in a book on ocean industrialization and urbanization that I am currently finishing, during a presentation to HUD in the spring of 1968, Fuller clashed with Liz Carpenter, press secretary to US President Lyndon B Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird. Carpenter heavily criticized the high population density and shape (a truncated tetrahedron) of the design. She also regarded aquatic spaces as something of a pristine wilderness that should be conserved. Afterwards, HUD delayed issuing a press release concerning Fuller’s design for more than five months and did not provide additional support.
Fuller also clashed with US senator Gaylord A Nelson, a co-founder of Earth Day, who after the disastrous Santa Barbara oil spill in early 1969 was among those concerned about pollution and the uncontrolled and unregulated industrialization and urbanization of the ocean. In 1970, Fuller had a run-in with public intellectual Lewis Mumford, a historian of technology and urbanization, who stirred technophobia because of what he warned were the technocratic and anti-democratic tendencies of the US “military-industrial complex” to control and rationalize US society. Mumford saw Fuller’s Tokyo Bay proposal in this context.
The Busan pilot project, by contrast, is regarded by the government authorities as a techno-optimist solution to multiple environmental problems, including several kinds of pollution. During the early twenty-first century, growing concerns about climate change and environmental degradation meant that instead of technophobia, techno-optimist environmentalist ideas turned mainstream. No longer marginalized, they have gained substantial global influence in international organizations and national governments. Dark green environmentalism may have sunk Fuller’s floating city design, but today high-population-density multi-floor buildings that concentrate environmental footprints rather than have a horizontal urban sprawl have become a key element in the more ascendant bright green environmentalist approach.
A manifestation of bright green environmentalism, the Busan project exemplifies techno-optimism in its application of ecological autonomy (or self-sufficiency) through carbon neutrality, freshwater autonomy and zero-waste systems. It represents market-based commercialization of affordable urban adaptation tools that could be adopted by other cities including those in the Global South or low-income countries. It is also a project predicated on economic development instead of degrowth, trading off the likely-to-be-limited environmental impact on the ocean – noise pollution, light pollution at nighttime, heat releases into the water column below it, and shade-casting during part of the day – for a larger ecological footprint reduction and resilience to floods.
One of the co-founders of Oceanix is Marc Collins Chen, an engineer, entrepreneur, and former French Polynesian minister of tourism – a Fuller fan who recommends reading the architect’s 1969 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Chen co-founded the non-profit ocean technology company together with Itai Madamombe of Tanzania, who earlier worked as UN senior advisor for innovative partnerships under then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon. In 2018, Ban, a South Korean, had been one of the co-founders of the Global Commission on Adaptation that created the Global Center on Adaptation in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Its sustainable floating office is an example of how floating structures have turned into techno-optimist urban adaptation tools. In 2022, the influential IPCC indicated its support of large floating structures as a viable experimental option for climate adaptation.
The Busan project may turn into a global icon of a new urban aesthetic of adaptive, affordable, floating architecture. How expensive is this prototype compared to Fuller’s? I estimate that the Busan project will come in at about half the cost of Triton City per square meter. This reckons to US$150 million to US$200 million for 1.6 hectares of platform space. In 1968, the US Navy expected a cost of about US$386 million (accounting for inflation) for the same amount of space. Even though the Busan design is significantly less dense with people (3,000 inhabitants per module), it has lower construction costs per person than Fuller’s people-packed design (5,000 inhabitants per module). The Busan project’s low ecological footprint also allows for carbon emission trading to offset part of the costs, illustrating how eco-capitalism has created a genuinely different economic framework and pricing system compared to what was the case in Fuller’s time.
South Korea is the second largest carbon emission trading market in the world (after the European Union) due to the government’s climate change goals and its aim to reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels. This is another reason why the floating city pilot is taking place in Busan. The actual housing costs of the project, which depend on apartment sizes and the size of buildings, among other factors, will provide answers to the equally relevant question of how expensive this first version of a floating, eco-capitalist urban aesthetic will be compared to average housing costs in the city. How the aquatic space on which it will be floating would be valued will be a key factor in reckoning overall costs. Savings from avoiding flood damage risk would also need to be considered.
With every iteration, prototype costs would be expected to come down. As with Fuller’s design, the modular, mobile units can be mass produced offsite and relocated to other locations to maximize their lifespan. Considering these factors and the support of today’s bright green environmentalism, the Busan pilot is more likely to progress from pilot to successful commercialization than was ever the case for Fuller’s Triton City. This could be a major global breakthrough in climate adaptation.
Huebner, Stefan. (August 12, 2021) “Earth’s Amphibious Transformation: Urbanizing Asia’s Seas”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Huebner, Stefan. (July 15, 2021) “Earth’s Amphibious Transformation: Tange Kenzō, Buckminster Fuller, and Marine Urbanization in Global Environmental Thought (1950s-present)“, Modern Asian Studies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Thomas, Julia Adeney. (January 10, 2019) “Why the ‘Anthropocene’ is Not ‘Climate Change’ and Why It Matters”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore