Floating City for Haiti: Does it Hold Water?
The "Harvest City," a vision for post-earthquake Haiti. Photo via Huffington Post.

The "Harvest City," a vision for post-earthquake Haiti. Photo via Huffington Post.

Floating cities may seem like science fiction, but for some architects and planners, the concept is a real consideration for sustainable urban design, especially  for coastal city-dwellers who face rising sea levels and climatic disasters that demand alternatives to existing infrastructure.

Take, for example, this new concept for Haiti, which is still struggling to re-build after the devastating earthquake that ravaged Port-au-Prince and other settlements last year.  The “Harvest City,” as it is called, was recently profiled in Inhabitat as a “key player in Haiti’s recovery.” Developed by Boston-based architect E. Kevin Schopfer and Tangram 3DS, the city is a collection of man-made “islands,” or floating modules, spanning two miles, that would be secured to the bottom of the ocean by a cable designed to withstand hurricanes and typhoons. (Although, what happens when, God forbid, a tsunami hits?) Each island would be divided into four zones connected by a canal system. The city would be dedicated mostly to farming, with one-third of the economy involved in “light industry.” Schopfer says he also hopes that Harvest City will be established as a “charter city,”  which would serve “as an example of a new and advanced economic model specifically developed for struggling nations.”

Inhabitat says Harvest City “would be a place for Haitians to live and start their lives again.” But what about their current quality of life? Does the prospect of a futuristic development assume that Haitians aren’t “living” to the fullest now? Why wait to renew their health and happiness?

This imagined floating city would be tethered to the ocean floor by cable. Photo via Inhabitat.

This imagined floating city would be tethered to the ocean floor by cable. Photo via Inhabitat.

WATER-LOGGED

These types of floating developments pose multiple dilemmas. We’ve already written about the risks of built-from-scratch cities, such as in the case of Valle San Pedro, Mexico or Masdar City of the United Arab Emirates. Some concerns relate to the lack of accessibility (are these cities built for the rich at the expense of the poor?), increasing sprawl (why build farther out when we could instead focus on dense development in existing urban cores?) and burgeoning car culture (or, for floating cities, boat culture.) China, too, has many examples of failed “eco-cities,” often because of corruption or a lack of sustained investment. And while we acknowledge the potential for innovation in charter cities—i.e. new cities with a new system of rules and regulations on uninhabited land (or in this case, water)—we also know that there are risks. For example, “Cities are economically vibrant because of their interconnectedness,” our blogger Noah Kazis wrote, but what happens to a place like Harvest City that’s, literally, floating on its own?

Of course, Harvest City, as a concept, does not exist in isolation. There are tons of other examples, like this prototype of a city on the sea off the coast of San Francisco, the Freedom Ship boat-turned-metropolis, floating facilities for convention centers and golf courses, and The Lilypad, “a floating ecopolis for climatic refugees.” The list goes on and on.

Floating cities have also appeared naturally, over time, in response to urban growth, or as a testament to progress. Here’s a photo collection of some of the most impressive examples, from the “boat city” of floating restaurants and homes in Hong Kong to the now-deserted floating city of “Oily Rocks” in Azerbaijan, which originally grew out of a need to serve the region’s oil industry. Other examples range from the outlandish, like the pristine Palm Islands of Dubai, to the unfortunate, like the trashy Thilafushi Garbage Island of the Maldives.

BASIC NEEDS

In Haiti, the thought of creating a watery utopia seems ludicrous, given the more immediate needs at hand. Thankfully, the United Nations and its partners this week launched a 20-year, $200 million environmental recovery program in southwest Haiti that aims to benefit more than 200,000 people through “reforestation, erosion control, fisheries management, mangrove rehabilitation and small business and tourism development, as well as improved access to water and sanitation, health and education.” (You’ll notice that nowhere does this mention floating modular communities…)

As far as mobility goes, there are some other more basic solutions that could be implemented more immediately.

As long ago as 1993, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) wrote about its successful program, Mobility Haiti, that used donated bicycles, spare parts and shop tools to provide direct health care services to more than 400 remote villages. Some of the innovative designs that became of the donated materials included the “Haitian Hauler,” a human-powered ambulance that involved a stretcher on a chassis with one wheel under the patient, and the “Trailing Edge,” a bicycle trailer that could be converted into a hand cart to transport medical supplies. ITDP’s then Vice-President Matteo Martignoni also designed a way to convert a bicycle pump into an emergency surgical suction pump, particularly useful in the event of power outages. “Despite difficult conditions and with limited resources, it had been possible to improve both the quantity and quality of health care based on the introduction of intermediate forms of transport,” ITDP wrote in the second issue of its Sustainable Transport magazine. What’s more, ITDP helped set up a training center at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, known as The Laboratwa Esperance, that taught local people how to assemble, repair, design and build non-motorized vehicles—a model of sustainable economic development.

Wired Magazine recently created an online social network and discussion forum, “Haiti Rewired,” to generate ideas for technology and infrastructure solutions for Haiti. One user also stresses the importance of non-motorized transport. “Bicycles can increase mobility and the delivery of goods to the market,” Ben Depp says. “Many of Haiti’s cities and agricultural production areas are flat and lots of people already use bicycles for transporting goods and themselves and carrying children to school. NGO’s could be distributing bicycles especially to those being relocated to camps far outside of Port Au Prince.  Second-hand bicycles already here can be easily converted to carry heavy loads such as sacks of rice, cold drinks, water….” He includes a link to a website that shows bicycles in Haiti converted into cargo bikes, demonstrating an effective use of the vehicle for multiple purposes.

These types of low-tech, high-impact solutions are crucial, given the difficult conditions of Haiti’s roads and the obvious need to improve mobility, especially for public health reasons.

There are also some interesting technologies that could be used to at least collect data and illuminate areas where there is the most need, to complement some of the on-the-ground transportation options. For example, Ushahidi, an open-source project that allows users to crowdsource crisis information via mobile applications, created a Haiti map visualizing reports on things like medical emergencies, contaminated water,  riots, landslides, and road blockages. This type of reporting could also be collected for transportation incidents, so that relief organizations and governments dedicated to sustainable urban development could better identify where to allocate their resources. To advance that type of mission, another organization, called CrisisCommons, convened a group of volunteers in Washington, D.C. “to assist in Haiti’s relief efforts by providing data, information, maps and technical assistance to NGOs, relief agencies and the public.” Here are some other examples of how online mapping helps relief efforts.

What do you think? What are the best ways for Haiti to re-build, using sustainable transport solutions?

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