Over the last couple months winter storms have lashed the Massachusetts coastline, leading to flooding in Boston and other low-lying towns. As the Globe reported, the storm surges have prompted Boston officials to recast the city's plans for dealing with rising sea levels. In that process, they might do well to look at similar planning taking place in a city with far more imminent water worries: Lagos, Nigeria.
On Monday the Harvard Gazette ran a story about Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi, who spoke at Harvard on March 7 about his ambition to create floating cities. Adeyemi's initiative is called the "African Water Cities Project," and as the Gazette explained, it "envisions a future in which modular coastal dwellings are built on platforms stacked with flotation devices."
That may sound like science fiction, but in fact it's already happening in Lagos, which sits flush with the Gulf of Guinea atop swampy terrain, and is among the world cities most threatened by climate change. Adeyemi's modular, floating city is inspired by makeshift dwellings used in a swampy slum neighborhood called Makoko, on the outskirts of Lagos. In Makoko, "Everything happens on water," Adeyemi told the Gazette: Residents row to market and travel by gondola between each other's houses, which are built on stilts. Adeyimi's design formalizes the bootstrap innovations found in Makoko. His prototype structure, which was dedicated earlier this year, is the Makoko Floating School, a three-story, 720 square foot building built from wood and bamboo that floats atop recycled barrels.
There are innumerable reasons why a floating city might not work. Perhaps the most deep-seated among them was expressed in the Gazette article by H.W.J. Ovink, an official in the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment in the Netherlands, another country preoccupied with rising sea levels. “We tried this in the Netherlands,” Ovink said of floating houses. “I hate to disappoint you. We have a culture of living with water, but it doesn’t mean we want to live on water."
Which, of course, is all well and good as long as there's still a choice.
Image of the Makoko Floating School courtesy of NLÉ.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.