In an op-ed published in SF Gate earlier this month, former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos proposed a novel solution to the city’s critical homelessness issue: create a floating homeless shelter aboard the USS Peleliu, a small aircraft carrier. Citing its 5,000-person capacity, sleeping quarters, kitchen and medical facility, Agnos proposes quite a convincing form of adaptive reuse of the ship: “If docked at the Port of San Francisco, the Peleliu, mothballed at Pearl Harbor, or a ship like it with similar facilities, could temporarily house most, if not all, of San Francisco’s homeless living in tents on the streets while permanent housing is built.” The former mayor, who has remained active in local politics since his stint in office between 1988 and 1992, explains that it isn’t a far-fetched solution – “This is exactly what we did in San Francisco to temporarily house homeless folks after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.”

USS Peleliu floating housing homeless

The USS Peleliu was used as a floating shelter in the wake of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

Leveraging bodies of water for new infrastructure is an urban trend gaining speed in several industries. Of course, hydropower has been around for some time now, and houseboats occupy rivers and lakes on every continent, but the last decade has shown more innovative uses for urban water – a topographical feature largely overlooked until recently. Take, for example, legendary artist Christo’s triumphant return to public art this year – the Floating Piers took advantage of Italy’s Lake Iseo to allow visitors to walk on water over 100,000 square feet of yellow fabric. The installation was in place for just 16 days, but managed to draw in 1.2 million visitors. Similarly, the main attraction at this year’s European Biennial of Contemporary Art in Zurich is a floating public square. While these examples might not provide ‘solutions’ per se, they are making it increasingly apparent that it is not only possible to build, work, live and play on water, but the world’s seas, lakes and rivers can also offer enriching urban experiences.

Floating infrastructure as a solution to crises, as Agnos suggests, is gaining traction with a handful of success stories from various cities across the world. In Dortmund, Germany, two cruise ships docked Emscher River are temporarily housing refugees. A group of businessmen in New Zealand made headlines in June 2016 for their proposal to buy a cruise ship to house Auckland’s homeless population. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA chartered three similar cruise ships to provide shelter for victims of the natural disaster in Texas and Alabama. Makoko, just outside Lagos, is an informal yet thriving neighborhood, built on stilts and navigated by canoe. While it’s had its share of structural problems and controversies (such as the Venice Biennale award-winning Makoko Floating School which collapsed mere months after its building), the Nigerian water-top suburb has shown impressive resilience and continues to be the best housing option for tens of thousands of the city’s most disadvantaged.

makoko floating city

Makoko, Nigeria, in an informal floating city, home to up to 100,000 Nigerians.

Meanwhile, progressive architects, artists and designers the world over are increasingly looking to buoyant alternatives to traditional bricks and mortar as climate change and rising sea levels threaten land, and dense cities suffer from housing shortages. British architect Carl Turner, for example, developed the design for a pre-fabricated floating house in 2015, and made the plans available for free online via an open-source architecture website. In Copenhagen, housing startup Urban Rigger has just completed its first set of the modular floating dorms in a city facing a growing number of students and a dwindling number of low-cost units. The $600-a-month dormitories were designed by Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels who, speaking to Fast Company, seems to share Art Agnos’ vision for water: “Most major postindustrial cities in the world are experiencing some sort of a transformation and decline of their port industries. You’re seeing cities all over the world where you actually have increasingly available port areas that can be transformed and could be the home for alternate forms of urbanization.”

swale floating food forest new york city

Swale Floating Food Forest lets New Yorkers climb aboard and pick fresh produce.

Other innovators are looking to water to solve the increasingly critical issue of access to fresh food, faced by many cities – even the most economically advanced. Earlier this year, we spoke to the founders of Swale Floating Food Forest – an urban farm built on a barge that’s sailing around New York City. “By creating a floating food forest, we create a different set of rules.  On the water, collaboration isn’t optional; to thrive, we have to work together. At its heart, Swale is a call to action. It asks us to reconsider our food systems, to confirm our belief in food as a human right, and to pave pathways to create public food in public space,” the project’s initiators explain. On the other side of the proverbial pond, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Netherlands – with its long history of utilizing bodies of water for transport and housing in equal measure – is soon to become home to the world’s first floating dairy farm. Construction of the sustainable farm, which even grows the feed needed for the cows on board, is slated to start in November 2016.

“Would this “game changer” have challenges such as costs … availability … logistics … federal cooperation for a pilot program here? Certainly,” concedes Art Agnos, but his optimism is being increasingly shared by urban innovators across the world.

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