With the world’s population expected to tip nine billion by 2050, countries are facing a looming crisis: where to put everyone. One solution being adopted is in the sea – well, on land reclaimed from the oceans. Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Dubai are investing billions in land reclamation, building airports, resorts, homes and business centres where once there was water. While this method of extending territories is nothing new – the residents of what is now the Netherlands have been doing it for over 2,000 years – the ferocity and pace with which land-reclamation projects are being undertaken by developers and governments are unprecedented.
Political and environmental controversy, however, continues to dog many of these developments. How rising sea levels caused by global warming will affect buildings on reclaimed land is still relatively unknown. And if schemes run into construction difficulties, they can be costly and time-consuming to fix.
Land reclamation may be a risky way to build nations, but it’s also highly profitable. Countries in the Middle East have been releasing the untapped currency of their waters with mixed-use property developments, perhaps most famously The Palm project in Dubai.
Qatar, meanwhile, is building its largest real-estate venture to date, The Pearl-Qatar. This €1.7bn man-made island 20km north of Doha is being developed by the United Development Company. It will create over 30km of new coastline and house 40,000 residents when it’s completed in 2011.
Part One: Singapore grows up (and out) — There’s a map in one of the exhibition galleries in Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) headquarters that shows the island’s contours at various points in its recent history. The accompanying caption invites visitors to “notice how the coastline and waterfront have changed over the years”. It’s a masterly understatement that downplays the extent of Singapore’s methodical land-reclamation programme.
The first land was reclaimed in the 1880s – 60 years after Sir Stamford Raffles annexed Singapore for Great Britain – when the leafy hills around the island’s southern regions were literally dug up and dumped into the sea to create today’s Shenton Way central business district. But serious large-scale reclamation work only began after 1959, the year Singapore attained full self-government (independence came in 1965). At the time, the island-state measured 581 sq km. By 1989, it had grown to 626 sq km.
In 2002, it reached 685 sq km. Today, it is approaching 700 sq km. This translates into a growth of 20 per cent, or as the URA likes to put it, the equivalent of 16,000 football fields.
The various projects to date have been impressive both in scale and ambition. Indeed, much of the changing coastline is the result of extremely farsighted planning. Some areas of land, such as the slender peninsula around Marina Bay where Sands casino and resort, designed by the architecture firm Moshe Safdie & Associates, is currently being built, were prepared at least a decade ago.
Gene Dyer, the project director at Moshe Safdie overseeing the Sands development, says: “When land costs are as high as they are in Singapore, land reclamation is one of the few viable options. One of the challenges for this industry is to refine our existing techniques for reclaiming and creating stable land.”
Jurong Island, the hub of Singapore’s chemical industry, is actually an amalgamation of seven smaller islands; while the entire downtown area east of Telok Ayer Street and Beach Road – crowded with skyscrapers, five-star hotels and glossy malls – sits on reclaimed land. Much of the reclamation has been carried out under the auspices of assorted state agencies: Changi airport and the Marine Parade quarter on the eastern coast, for instance, were built by the Housing Development Board, and the Tuas industrial zone by Jurong Town Corporation.
The best-known project is Marina Bay – the masterplan is a collaborative effort between the URA and the offices of IM Pei and Kenzo Tange – where, in addition to the massive Sands casino, a gleaming metropolis is in the works. This includes sprawling gardens, a new financial centre and a set of glass-clad twin towers, the Sail @ Marina Bay.
But beneath the building boom, the topic of land reclamation remains a politically sensitive subject. Over the years, neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia have lobbed charges of environmental damage and sea-lane encroachments. It’s an issue that Singapore is keen to downplay, sticking to its official stance that there is nothing eco-unfriendly or illegal about the growth of its land size.
Lim Eng Hwee, the URA’s assistant chief planner and director for physical planning, is at pains to point out that Singapore is a small country and, with limited space, plans its land use carefully. “The areas planned for reclamation are located within our own territorial waters and reclamation is carried out in accordance with international law. Mitigating measures are put in place to minimise potential environmental impact.”
The official line may come across as rote PR spin, but if one needed proof of Singapore’s good faith, the authorities will happily point to Pulau Semakau. This tiny island a few kilometres to the south also happens to be the world’s first eco-friendly landfill island. Here the quarantined bays – designed to store the island’s rubbish till 2040 – have been covered with mangrove swamps and reefs that attract rare birds. Nature walks and bird-watching trips are regular features.
Part Two: the Dutch dig it — Land-reclamation developments involve a puzzle of engineers, environmental scientists, consultants, architects, construction firms and dredging companies. The Dutch are widely regarded as world leaders – about a quarter of the Netherlands is reclaimed land.
Delft Hydraulics is a leading independent research and technological institute advising governments and developers on land reclamation. Located in the picturesque region of Delft, its offices are surrounded by flat fields and glassy pools of water. Tony Minns, the group’s manager of environmental hydrodynamics, says Dutch consultants and dredging companies are now promoting a new approach to land reclamation.
This concept, dubbed “building with nature”, integrates environmental benefits into large-scale reclamation developments. Minns says that this approach – which accommodates nature rather than running roughshod over it – is not “just about building for building sake”, but about “improving the environment”, so that the “shape of land reclamation is based on a knowledge of what nature needs in order to be improved, rather than what human beings need”, he says. This can mean introducing new eco-systems to make it more attractive for particular species of plants, animals and fish to establish themselves. Some may argue that nature needs no improving.
Rotterdam is extending its port according to this new building-with-nature philosophy. Maasvlakte 2 will be built on land reclaimed from the North Sea. The masterplan includes a marine reserve 10 times the size of the reclaimed land that will be positioned to the south of the port. Rotterdam’s port is Europe’s largest logistical and industrial centre and covers 100 sq km. The bleak landscape is punctuated with skeletal cranes, tall chimneys and multi-coloured containers stacked like Lego. By 2014, it’s predicted there will be no space left here; the extension will provide an additional 20 hectares.
Royal Haskoning is a multi-disciplinary consulting firm headquartered in Nijmegen, in the south east of the Netherlands. Founded in 1881, Haskoning has offices in 26 countries and a staff of 3,600. Its engineers and architects design and advise on land-reclamation schemes. Haskoning has worked on such projects in Dubai, Bangladesh, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Oman, the Philippines, Trinidad and Nigeria. It undertook extensive environmental studies to assess the impact of Maasvlakte 2.
Ronald Stive is the director of maritime specialists at Haskoning’s Rotterdam and Dubai offices. He says: “Civil engineers can make everything. It’s not an issue any more – if you want to build in the sea or shallow water, everything is possible. It’s never a question of can we do it. It’s a question of how are we going to do it, and how fast.”
Looking ahead, he thinks Spain, Italy and eastern European countries could all undertake land-reclamation schemes in the future. “There’s pressure on the coast all around the world. People want to extend to the sea as the coasts get busier,” he says. Stive thinks the future lies in floating building projects. “It’s a hot issue. Why? Because dredging [for land reclamation] has an environmental impact; dredging takes time.” Floating developments are considered to be a cheaper, more efficient and more environmentally friendly alternative.
Waterstudio is a small Rotterdam architecture practice founded by Rolf Peters and Koen Olthuis, which specialises in designing floating buildings. Projects on the drawing board include a floating hotel in Singapore and a floating residential development in New York.
Olthuis also believes the focus is moving towards floating developments. “You can change how people look at the city,” he says, and create a “dynamic city development, where you can spread out over a larger area and open the centre of the city up, growing from the inside rather than by height.”
Three more projects to watch out for
The Dutch government is looking into the feasibility of building an island in the shape of a tulip off the coast of Randstad. Inspired by The Palm development in Dubai, it will provide coastal protection and extra land for housing. If it goes ahead, it will be the country’s most ambitious land-reclamation scheme to date.
Isla Luna de Valencia
The coastal city of Valencia is considering building a reclaimed island 1km off its popular Malvarrosa beach. It will feature 30 per cent social housing and Spanish property firm Grupo Redis 6 is leading the project, which is still at the planning stage.
Red Sea Gateway Terminal
Saudi Arabia is boosting its industrial and logistical credentials with a new €300m container terminal at Jeddah Islamic Port. Due to be operational in 2009, the work includes the construction of a quay wall, land reclamation and the dredging of a new approach channel. The design and engineering is by UK consultancy firm, Halcrow International.