Floating cities in Maldives and South Korea – adapting to rising seas

When you think about it, there was a time we never thought we’d be living high up in the air, in skyscrapers. Then came the high speed elevator.

And there was a time when we never imagined building whole cities on water. Then came Oceanix, off the coast of Busan in South Korea, and the Maldives Floating City – cities which say we can’t stop rising water levels but cities can rise with them.

People are expected to start moving into the Maldives Floating City early in 2024. And by 2027, 20,000 people should be living in 5,000 houses in that city on water, says Dutch designer Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, the architectural firm behind the city.

Dutch Docklands photo.

The project is a collaboration between Dutch Docklands, a local developer, and the Maldives government. While a short-term aim is to free up more room for housing on the mainland, the floating city has been designed to offer a solution to the future threat of rising sea levels. The Maldives is made up of more than 1,100 islands, many of them only a meter or so above sea level, and some experts fear it may be the first nation to disappear under rising waters, says CBC.

Set in a warm-water lagoon 10 minutes by boat from Male, capital of the Maldives, this first-of-its-kind “island city” offers a revolutionary approach to modern sustainable living, says the developer. It will feature thousands of residences floating along a flexible, functional grid across a 200-hectare lagoon, to eventually be joined by hotels, restaurants, boutiques and a marina, and a hospital, school and government building. 

Working with Waterstudio, Dutch Docklands devised an on-the-water urban grid that can evolve with the changing needs of the nation, its inhabitants and visitors. It combines traditional Maldivian architecture and eco-friendly construction that will be able to cope with rising seas and coastal erosion. 

Dutch Docklands photo.

The “city”  is composed of hexagon-shaped segments, partially modeled on the geometry of local coral, which are connected to a ring of lush barrier islands. While the city floats up top, island barriers around the lagoon lessen the impact of lagoon waves while stabilizing structures and complexes on the surface. Sandy beaches will help stabilize and protect key structures within the lagoon, while outside, the massive coral reefs will feature hotels, restaurants and shops. 

The city will be completed in phases over the next half decade, starting this year. It will be home for Maldivians as well as foreigners because prices will be affordable, says Paul HTM van de Camp, CEO of Dutch Docklands. The city will open its first units for viewing this month. 

South Korea may have a similar city one of these days. In December, the shipping city of Busan announced it was working on a prototype for Oceanix, a joint project with UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency for urban and sustainable development. Oceanix takes a different approach, using interconnected platforms with each floating, modular piece designed for a specific use such as living space, research facilities or lodging. It envisions a community of 12,000 people with the capacity to expand to 100,000, fully sustainable with solar panels and all water treated and recycled. The BBC reported that it could be completed by 2025.

OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group.

The United Nations officially began investigating floating cities as an adaptation to climate change three years ago. “We live in a time when we cannot continue building cities the way New York or Nairobi were built,” said U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. “We must build cities knowing that they will be on the front lines of climate‑related risks — from rising sea levels to storms. Floating cities can be part of our new arsenal of tools.”

Olthuis told CBC that the decade of planning and design work for the Maldives project could be applied to similar projects in other coastal communities around the world threatened by rising sea levels.”If you look at Miami, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, they all have the same problems: lack of space, threat of sea level,” he said. “They have to make the move from fighting against the water, to living with water.”


Press release by Dutch Docklands and Government of the Maldives.

A floating city is being built in the Maldives. It comprises a web of residences, shops, and schools that will one day be home to 20,000 people. Insider, Jun. 22, 2022

The Maldives are building a floating city to address rising sea levels and population. CBC As It Happens, Jun. 22, 2022

Here’s what the world’s first floating city in Busan, South Korea, could look like. CNBC, Apr. 26, 2022

Sustainable Floating Cities Can Offer Solutions to Climate Change Threats Facing Urban Areas, Deputy Secretary-General Tells First High-Level Meeting. UN, Apr. 3, 2019