Spurred by Rising Seas, Dubai's Floating Ambition Dubai will try just about anything; the bolder and more outlandish, the better. So two Dutch architects have opened a business there specializing in homes, offices and hotels that float. They hope their floating architecture will help coastal cities around the world survive climate change.
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Spurred by Rising Seas, Dubai's Floating Ambition

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Spurred by Rising Seas, Dubai's Floating Ambition

Spurred by Rising Seas, Dubai's Floating Ambition

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Two entrepreneurs think they have an answer to a future in which sea levels are rising. They're applying that answer to a rich and gaudy city that they are helping to build on the waters of the Persian Gulf. And when we say on the waters of the Persian Gulf, that's exactly what we mean. The Dutch entrepreneurs are part of the climate change generation. A generation we're featuring in this final month of Climate Connections, our series with National Geographic. Here's NPR's Joe Palca.

JOE PALCA: Dubai is one of the seven United Arab Emirates, an oil rich Gulf nation, and it's a place that seems willing to rewrite the rules. Paul van de Camp moved here from Holland because of a kind of anything is possible spirit. He points out the window of his SUV.

Mr. PAUL VAN DE CAMP (Entrepreneur): It's the biggest indoor ski slope in the world, in the middle of the desert.

PALCA: Van de Camp isn't interested in skiing, but he's opened an office here in Dubai to try to sell an equally bold concept, building on water.

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They say we use only 10 percent of our capacity for thought, and we know we use only 30% of Earth's capacity for life. Well, it's time for all that to change.

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PALCA: Building a house that floats or even a village that floats is an idea he first had in his native Holland, where land to build on is scarce and water is plentiful. The notion gained momentum when he realized that rising sea levels from climate change made new ideas crucial, but now it's an idea that's about to become a reality in Dubai

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The possibilities are truly breathtaking, but also very, very real.

PALCA: Van de Camp runs a company called Dutch Docklands that specializes in building houses, restaurants, even a prison that floats on water. Dubai has plenty of dessert but it also has miles of coastline along the Gulf. Dubai has built loads of artificial islands offshore, but they've run out of sand. Van de Camp has provided them with a new option, floating islands. He's just gotten the green light to begin building a string of islands, each in the shape of an Arabic letter. And if you look at the islands from an airplane or an orbiting satellite, they'll spell out something written by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of Dubai.

Mr. VAN DE CAMP: He writes wonderful poems and he has written a proverb. One of the sentences, not everyone who rides a horse is a jockey.

PALCA: You won't be surprised to learn that the Sheikh is very interested in horse racing.

Mr. VAN DE CAMP: The first words, this is to a jockey, consists of five islands.

PALCA: The floating islands will have hotels, restaurants…

Mr. VAN DE CAMP: …with a helipad, with a marina.

PALCA: So who's going to live here?

Mr. VAN DE CAMP: A lot of people.

PALCA: This project may sound like the intersection of a wild imagination with an excess of money, but van de Camp and his partner, Koen Olthuis, hope it's something more. They want it to catalyze a change in people's expectations about where it's possible to live. And since global warming will bring a rise in sea level, they say a change in thinking is essential.

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PALCA: The roots of this change start in Holland where Olthuis got his degree in architecture. He says even though Holland borders on the North Sea and is a wash in rivers, canals and lakes, everything they taught in architecture school was about designs for dry land.

Mr. KOEN OLTHUIS (Entrepreneur): And we could do some beautiful façades and we could do some more adjustments to normal concepts, but we're not allowed to come up with new concepts. We had all these ideas in our heads and this water was so open, there was not a single concept more than a houseboat.

PALCA: So in partnership with van de Camp and with potentially interested clients in Dubai, Olthuis unshackled his mind from convention. Anything you can build on land, you can build in the water. He's designed floating cruise ship terminals, floating hotels, a floating mosque, even a floating beach. Yes, a floating beach.

Mr. OLTHUIS: And by developing a floating beach, really, really white beaches with palm trees on top of it, made of foam and concrete, layers of white sand on top of it, and they - you know, you walk into the water and it feels exactly like a normal beach, but this whole island will go up and down with the fluctuation of the water.

PALCA: And that ability to rise up and down with the water makes floating architecture a potential solution to sea water rise that will come with climate change. The floating beach design is essentially the same as the floating island Dutch Docklands is building for the shaken Dubai. These are foam and concrete platforms that you can build on top of.

Mr. OLTHUIS: Each island is also stable. You have some damping and some mooring systems underneath it so if you're living on such an island, it feels exactly the same as a normal house. Only one or two days a year when there's a big storm, it can happen that you feel a little bit of shaking, but 97 percent of the time, it's absolutely the same stability as a normal house.

PALCA: But no basements of course. Flexible pipes bring in water and electricity and carry away waste. Olthuis see Dubai as a test bed. One day, he hopes cities will turn to floating architecture as a way to survive the kind of world that climate change is bringing.

Mr. OLTHUIS: New York, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, all places in which it is very hard to get a piece of land to build, and you have this opportunity to build on the water. So if you can buy or rent water and build a floating house or floating very little bit, that's the possibly to make expansion to your city.

PALCA: Olthuis says the strict border between land and water will dissolve in the coming years. That's his vision anyhow.

Dubai is a long way from New York and Tokyo, so why are Olthuis and van de Camp starting here? As we eat lunch next to the pool at a hotel near his house, van de Camp tells me he wanted to build on the water in Holland, but he got frustrated.

Mr. VAN DE CAMP: It takes you at least eight years and they're always coming problems and problems and problems and are all - you get communities who say we don't want it here, we just don't want it, so to obtain a license in the Netherlands, it's almost impossible.

PALCA: But here, in the land of indoor ski slopes…

Mr. VAN DE CAMP: Here it's different. They like it. And they can, for instance, say, start tomorrow. Because if the sheik gives you a license, that's a license.

PALCA: Van de Camp says he's got several projects he's hoping to build here, including those floating hotels Olthuis dreamed up. If these deals go through, he'll make a boatload of money, and that will be nice, of course. But he says he and Olthuis are committed to building floating architecture for a much grander purpose, solving global problems. They hope to use the money they make here to undertake projects of a more humanitarian nature. They've already designed a floating platform that people in Bangladesh could use to save livestock when floodwaters rise. But for the moment, they're tied to Dubai, with its wealth and its ambitions. Van de Camp says maybe, that's not such a bad thing.

Mr. VAN DE CAMP: I think the states, we always said that - and we call it the American Dream and then we said to each other, I mean, you mustn't call it the American Dream anymore. We want to call it the Middle East or the Dubai Dream, because it really happens here.

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So just think of all that idle water in your community and start putting it to work because where there is nothing, anything is possible.

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PALCA: It's called dreaming big, but that's what innovators tend to do.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can see the floating buildings, even a prison designed by Paul van de Camp's company in a video report at NPR.org/climateconnections. The latest global warming stories from National Geographic magazine are right there too.

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