Floating Future: A Sustainable City Project in South Korea is a Model of Affordable Climate Adaptation

Submitted by Stefan Huebner | published 3rd Feb 2023 | last updated 19th Apr 2023
Floating city: Triton City model created by R Buckminster Fuller’s team

A proposal for US urban waterfronts Triton City model created by R Buckminster Fuller’s team (Credit: Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library)


Floating Future: A Sustainable City Project in South Korea is a Model of Affordable Climate Adaptation
Summary: A landmark sustainable floating city pilot project in the South Korean port of Busan is likely to be a herald for effective climate adaptation, offering a commercially viable model for other cities and regions at risk of flooding from rising sea levels and other potential coastline disasters, writes historian Stefan Huebner of the Asian Research Institute at National University of Singapore. 

Lessons Learnt

Shortened version:
Recently, on 14th February, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly emphasized the need for adaptation to climate change-induced sea level rise to the UN Security Council. Other UN institutions are equally concerned about adaptation. For example, since 2019, the UN hosted two high-level roundtables on “sustainable floating cities.” Currently, UN-Habitat is heavily involved in the Busan “sustainable floating city project” for 12,000 residents to be installed at the South Korean city’s waterfront. This project by ocean technology company Oceanix and collaborators serves as a pilot for urban coastal adaption to sea level rise, flooding, coastal erosion, and land subsidence. In the following I briefly address the questions why the UN-supported project happens now and why it happens in South Korean coastal city Busan.
As I will show in the book project on the history of ocean industrialization and urbanization since the early 20th century that I am currently finishing and already discussed in other publications, UN and governmental support for the Busan project heralds the rise of techno-optimist environmentalist thought. Such techno-optimism is a significant shift from the technophobe environmentalist opposition to earlier floating settlement designs. US designer R. Buckminster Fuller’s technically feasible proposal, called Triton City, dates back to the 1960s, the debate about building structures in Tokyo Bay, and public housing in the United States. During the 1970s, an international group around Japanese architect Kikutake Kiyonori engaged in a “floating city project” in Hawai’i and built Aquapolis, a floating platform or “city” that hosted Japan’s exhibition at the International Ocean Exposition in Okinawa, Japan, in 1975.
To understand the strong differences in political support for the Busan project and Fuller’s proposal from the late 1960s, it is useful to distinguish between dark green environmentalism and bright green environmentalism. Dark green environmentalism is usually characterized by a distrust in technology, which includes nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams but can also stretch to offshore and terrestrial wind turbines, fish farms, and water desalination plants. In contrast, bright green environmentalism embraces technology and innovation as the central solutions to environmental degradation. As I showed elsewhere, during the 1960s and 1970s, Fuller’s bright green floating settlement ideas strongly clashed, for example, with the dark green ideas, aesthetic understandings, environmental concerns, and worries about the construction of floating structures beyond regulatory reach of coastal states expressed by public intellectual Lewis Mumford, US senator Gaylord A. Nelson, a co-founder of Earth Day, and Liz Carpenter, press secretary to US President Lyndon B Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird. Multiple forms of legislation later extended regulatory control far offshore through Exclusive Economic Zones, prevented platform installations without governmental permit within them, and protected wetlands against urbanization. During the early twenty-first century, growing concerns about climate change and environmental degradation nevertheless meant that instead techno-optimist environmentalist ideas turned mainstream. A manifestation of bright green environmentalism, the Busan project exemplifies techno-optimism in its application of ecological autonomy (or self-sufficiency) through carbon neutrality, freshwater autonomy and zero-waste systems. As my co-panelists and I recently discussed in a roundtable, the growth of ocean industrialization in the new century also intensified discussions about floating settlements.
The South Korean city Busan is located at the country’s southern coastline, a region that has historically suffered greatly from flooding and is considered especially vulnerable to the impact of rising sea levels. Busan’s metropolitan area is also the center of its maritime and offshore industries. Another important reason for Busan is the overall decline in construction costs. As I recently showed, my current estimates reckon that the Busan project will come in at about half the cost of Triton City per square meter. The Busan project’s low ecological footprint also allows for carbon emission trading to offset part of the construction costs, illustrating how bright green ideas created a genuinely different economic framework and pricing system compared to Fuller’s time. South Korea is the second largest carbon emission trading market in the world (after the European Union). Altogether, the conditions in Busan are far more supportive for the project to cross the metaphorical “Valley of Death” between prototype developments and successful commercialization than had been the case for the projects during the 1960s and 1970s.
Stefan Huebner


Summary of an open access article on the "sustainable floating city" project in Busan, South Korea, and on previous projects.