Floating Wonderland

The LILYPAD is an amazing floating structure. A city for 50,000 people, capable of producing its own energy, water and food. It doesn't exist, but images of Franco-Belgian design firm Vincent Callebaut's eye-catching idea have been bubbling up on sustainability cites around the web for over a month now. You gotta love it.

More than a city, it was designed as a haven for climate refugees. It's our high-tech Noah's Arc: both a ship and a mountain.

Likely? Probably not: we already have a hard time supplying refugee camps with canvas tents or clean water. Titanium exo-skeletons with wind-powered desalination plants are probably a bit of a stretch.

Still, as a symbol it captures most of the key principles of environmental sustainability: it's designed to work with its environment, sources sustainable power through a decentralized local system, produces much of its own food, uses outputs - “waste” - as inputs back into the system as a whole and...it looks great floating above air-brushed dolphins!

It's how you do bio-regionalism -- after your region has been washed away in a tide of salt water.

It's also a nice reminder of something even the most engaged North American cities have been overlooking: the need to adapt. Floating a chunk of your population off the coast somewhere probably isn't the most logical solution. But making land use and infrastructure planning decisions that take changes in climate into account is a necessity that can't wait. 

Around the globe cities are struggling to meet an infrastructure deficit caused by aging infrastructure and rapid urbanization. If it's unlikely that we will cut carbon fast enough to stave off climate change, then we'd better build infrastructure that can cope with a more volatile climate (and stop putting houses in flood plains!). 

As an emblem there is a lot going on in this little piece of eye-candy. But it's also true that the longer we wait for these high-tech wonders to save us, the more likely it is that we are going to need to be saved. The main barriers to most of the principles embodied in the LILYPAD aren't science or cost but politics, poorly designed policies, out-dated decision-making frameworks and... the belief that we need to wait for better technology before we can make major changes.


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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