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King Canute is not famous for his fears about climate change, but review the histories of the 12th century and the Viking despot can seem farsighted. In Historia Anglorum (c1129) Henry of Huntingdon records that, having requested his throne be carried down to the shore, Canute ordered the waves “not to flow over my land, nor presume to wet the feet and the robe of your lord”. Deaf to his command, the tide persisted, leading Canute to conclude that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and that the sea obeys eternal laws. Today, most climate scientists might possibly agree.
The Dutch have understood this for centuries; a quarter of the Netherlands is below sea level. The Royal Palace in Amsterdam, built in the mid-1600s as a monument to Dutch civic ambition, could also serve as a tribute to the architects and engineers who have long struggled against the water. Beneath the palace are 13,657 timber piles driven deep into the swamp-like soil, spreading the load and preventing the building from sinking.
As authorities around the world scramble to build so-called “resiliency” to the rising sea, Dutch architects are providing guidance. “In the Netherlands we are living in a completely artificial world,” says Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio.nl, a practice that specialises in “amphibious” architecture. “If you just drive round Holland, you don’t see it, but if you know where to look, it’s all levees. It’s like a machine and if you stopped pumping 24/7, the water would rise within weeks.”
Most agree that climate change has upset the balance of the planet. In the 2,000 years before 1900 there was little recorded change to sea levels. Since 1900, however, the oceans have risen; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that the average global sea level could rise more than a metre by 2100.
Higher seas mean Hurricane Sandy-like storm “surges” will hit coastal cities more frequently, while oceans will inundate low-lying areas from the Maldives to Miami. The OECD estimates that by 2070 $35tn worth of property in some of the world’s largest port cities will be at risk of flooding — though insurers will stop selling policies and banks will stop writing mortgages for seafront homes long before then.
The Netherlands began investing in water-resistant infrastructure in earnest after the North Sea floods in 1953, a storm that hit the coast of Zeeland, killing 1,836 people — half the population of the province. Delta Works, the country’s $6bn programme of dykes, levees and seawalls built up over four decades includes the 8km-long Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier off the Zeeland coast.
Dutch cities have also waterproofed. Rotterdam, one of the lowest-lying cities in the world, has some of the most robust flood-resistance measures, from a car park that can hold 10,000 cubic metres of rainwater to the Floating Pavilion, three transparent geodesic domes bobbing in the harbour — prototypes, perhaps, for the floating architecture of the future. The domes symbolise a change in thinking towards cities and rising seas. Rather than “fighting” the water with barriers and pumps, planners and architects are beginning to think cities should embrace the water.
Olthuis envisages large-scale floating communities and has developed a “floating foundations” technology made from foam and concrete that moves up and down on piles, providing support for much bigger structures than the individual free-floating homes already prevalent in Rotterdam.
Floating settlements might also be a solution for island nations facing the choice of taking to the water or becoming “climate refugees”. More than 80 per cent of the Maldives’ land area is less than a metre above sea level. Along with the Pacific island states of Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, the archipelago faces the immediate threat of seawater intrusion into groundwater and crop soil, and the certainty that the little land left will drown eventually. Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, has said his country has 50 years left.
Satellite data and hydrographic observations show that sea levels are not rising uniformly; in some regions they are rising several times the IPCC’s global average of 3mm a year. In 2011, architect Kunlé Adeyemi was visiting Lagos in Nigeria when it was ravaged by a storm. “Africa is one of the continents least responsible for climate change, but it is perhaps the most affected by it,” he says. Soon afterwards Adeyemi, who worked with Rem Koolhaas at OMA for almost a decade, launched the African Water Cities Project to map the challenges and opportunities.
From this, Adeyemi’s practice, NLE, built a floating school in Makoko, a labyrinthine informal settlement built on piles in the brackish water of Lagos Lagoon. Completed in 2013, more than 250 plastic barrels keep the three-storey triangular timber structure afloat, providing classrooms for 100 children.
Adeyemi’s most recent project in Nigeria is the Chicoco Radio station at Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta. Resembling a giant steel see-saw, one end of the structure lifts off the ground while the other bobs on the water’s surface like a jetty. When built this year, funding permitting, it will function both as a radio station and a cinema at the water’s edge.
Architects, Adeyemi says, have a responsibility to seek novel solutions for communities affected by the rising sea, just as policymakers need to draw up master plans. “I have no doubt that with the intelligence and the expertise in the world that we will address the [climate change] challenges we face,” he says. “The question is how.”
Jakarta is embarking on one of the world’s most ambitious sea-defence experiments, a “sea wall city” estimated to cost $40bn. Plans include a 40km-long, 25-metre-high barrier with a string of 17 artificial islands supporting smart houses, malls and office space. Due to be implemented over three decades, the “city” is to be shaped like a Garuda, the mythical birdlike creature that is Indonesia’s national symbol.
In New York, meanwhile, where average sea levels have risen 30mm a decade since 1900, the biggest threats are flooding and extreme weather. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy — which knocked out power for much of Manhattan, flooded subway tunnels and left dozens dead in the city — became a catalyst for water defence reform. “The task at hand is daunting,” New York mayor Bill de Blasio said in February last year as he launched a “comprehensive, multi-layered resiliency plan”.
New York’s Staten Island is the point of first contact for incoming waves or storm surges. During Sandy, houses in the north of the island were flooded while those on the southern shore were rocked free of their foundations. “There’s an understanding of — well, our communities are being affected and we need to do something about it,” says Lauren Elachi, a project designer at Scape Landscape Architecture in New York.
In 2014 Scape was awarded $60m in a competition initiated by Barack Obama’s Hurricane Sandy task force to build a 3km “living” breakwater off Staten Island. Due to be completed in 2019, the structure will act as a buffer against wave damage and flooding, while providing a “reef street” of habitat for species such as lobsters and oysters that once thrived in the bay but have declined with over-harvesting and pollution.
The breakwater is designed to be adaptive. Climate scientists have different ideas about how quickly the sea around New York will rise, but rocks can be added to the breakwater to raise its height. Scape tries to build “flexible systems that can adapt”, says Elachi. “A lot of this is because we are designing for uncertainty.”
Photographs: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Thomas Haupt/Corbis; Koen van Weel/Corbis; NLE; NCICD Consortium/KuiperCompagnons; AP; Scape