Can Artificial Islands Solve Overcrowding?

Some say yes, others say the increasingly popular projects are too expensive and harmful to the environment

The United Arab Emirates successfully built a palm tree-shaped artificial island called Palm Jumeirah off the coast of Dubai. (Nikada/iStock)
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Hong Kong is one of the densest cities on Earth. The metropolis, which consists of more than 200 islands, is bounded by the ocean and by the border with mainland China. There are 7.3 million people and nowhere to go but up.

But what if we could just make more islands? That’s exactly what a think tank recently proposed, claiming an artificial island could house up to 1.1 million more people. The so-called “East Lantau Metropolis” would be built with land reclaimed from the sea. The 2,200-hectare island would be largely dedicated to affordable housing, with the rest set aside for commercial and recreational uses. Planners say it could be built in 14 years.

“It is clear that there are no good short-term measures that will holistically address Hong Kong’s land problem,” says the proposal, from the Our Hong Kong Foundation. “…[O]nly the option of large-scale reclamation can create the foundations to bring a new vision to Hong Kong’s development.”

Artificial islands have been built or proposed around the world in recent decades to solve a number of woes, from overcrowding to “sinking” caused by climate change. The Pacific island nation of Kiribati, gravely threatened by rising sea levels, has looked at building new, artificial islands to save their country. They’ve consulted with the United Arab Emirates, which successfully built a palm tree-shaped artificial island off the coast of Dubai, and has more planned (though building has been on hold since the financial crisis). The island nation of the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, has two recently built artificial islands, one for overflow of the country’s exploding population, and one for a landfill. Malaysia’s Forest City aims to hold 700,000 residents on four artificial islands by the mid-2040s. Seoul’s Songdo, built in the early 2000s as a utopian smart city on 600 hectares reclaimed from the Yellow Sea, has room for 300,000 people, but has turned out to be more of a ghost town, with just 70,000 residents.

The idea of artificial islands is not new. Such islands have been around for thousands of years, though they were more typically built by cutting off promontories of land with canals (for example Dejima, the Dutch trading post built in the 1630s in Nagasaki Bay) or by creating floating islands with reeds or other materials, like those of the Uru people of Lake Titicaca.

But it’s only recently that the idea of artificial islands as a solution for overpopulation has become an idea realistic enough to be entertained by politicians and urban planners.

In Hong Kong, the idea comes from desperation. The city’s housing market is notoriously tight. It features the second most expensive real estate in the world (after Monaco), with US$1 million buying just 236 square feet. More than 200,000 residents live in subdivided apartments, often with little more than a bed, a hot plate and a toilet. The worst of these apartments are referred to as “cage homes” or “coffin homes,” with personal space consisting of a bunk bed slot surrounded by chicken wire. Shortage of space permeates every aspect of life, from the lack of home cooking due to tiny kitchens to delaying marriage.

But not everyone thinks artificial islands are a good solution. Environmental groups say the building of the East Lantau Metropolis would harm marine life and the end result would be vulnerable to climate change-induced flooding. As they point out, just last month Typhoon Jebi caused devastating flooding at the airport of Osaka, Japan, built on reclaimed land.

“Twenty-five or 30 years from now, a typhoon the magnitude of Jebi may come every year,” said Roy Tam Hoi-pong, founder of the group Green Sense, speaking to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “You can build the artificial island higher, but then it would cost much more. It is not worth it.”

Existing artificial islands have been shown to take a toll on their environments. The construction of the Dubai palm island destroyed turtle nesting sites and the area’s only coral reef. Artificial islands being built by China in the South China Sea to enforce dubious sovereignty claims have damaged reefs as well. Local fisherpeople claim the construction of Malaysia’s Forest City has already decimated their catch. Hong Kong environmentalists say the East Lantau Metropolis would hurt the area’s endangered Chinese white dolphin; the Our Hong Kong Foundation says the project shouldn’t affect the dolphins as it’s not in their direct habitat.

Katherine Dafforn, an environmental scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia who has studied artificial islands, says infilling always has environmental consequences.

“You’re replacing an entire bit of marine habitat with an island, so you’re just losing animals no matter what you do,” she says.

There are things builders can do to mitigate environmental and marine impacts, Dafforn says, including using silt curtains – underwater barriers used to control sediments stirred up by construction – and controlling noise pollution that can harm sea life, especially sonar-using animals like dolphins.

Others say the artificial island is not logistically feasible, at least not in the time frame and for the price suggested in the proposal.

“The timeline estimated [assumes] the project goes full-speed ahead without any external factors affecting it,” said Hung Wing-tat, a member of Hong Kong’s Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, speaking to the South China Morning Post. “We all know it’s not the construction that takes time, but opposition to such a project, especially if it involves sensitive issues.”

Hong Kong does have plenty of experience reclaiming land. Much of the city’s current shoreline used to be part of Victoria Harbour, which has been steadily shrinking since the mid-1800s. The Hong Kong International Airport was built on 1,248 hectares of reclaimed land in the 1990s, and a currently under-construction third runway will bring the total to 1,900 hectares. But the East Lantau Metropolis would be the most ambitious reclamation to date.

If the plan doesn’t work out, perhaps there’s another solution: go underground. A new proposal would have the government blasting caves out of the city’s mountains to make space for public utilities, storage, even columbaria (facilities for holding the ashes of the dead), leaving more aboveground area for housing. But whether over sea or underground, something’s got to give.

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