Islands are romantic — ideal for lovers, pirates, and vacationers. Surrounded by lapping waves, they’ve extracted themselves from the sprawling tedium of mainland geography. There are currently 18,000 on the planet, but the future will deliver thousands more in ideal locales. Will volcanic lava and coral growth provide us with this dreamy real estate? No. Tomorrow’s islands are going to be built by human engineers.
Man-made islands have existed for millennia, ever since Celts built “crannogs” (small dwellings on stilts) in the lakes and rivers of Scotland and Ireland. The Uros tribe of Lake Titicaca have been weaving flimsy, floating isles of totora reeds for at least 800 years. Bigger islands require dredging and draining skills that were first developed by Frisians of the Low Countries. Today, most artificial isles are built by heaping rubble on top of submerged sandbars and the four largest contractors remain Dutch and Belgian (Van Oord, Royal Boskalis Westminter, Jan De Nul Group, and DEME).
Below I’ve listed a smattering of isle-building enterprises, positioned in four general categories:
Luxury Living: In 1908, Balboa Island in Southern California was an empty mudflat. Today, it’s the USA’s most densely inhabited area — 3,000 people on .2 square miles — with two bedroom homes selling for $3 million. Miami’s fake isles — Hibiscus, Palm, Star and the Venetians — require similar sums, with Fisher Island, three miles offshore, demanding even larger prices from its celebrity dwellers. International projects are also prolific. Bill Gates wants to park his yacht on Zoran Island (near Phuket, Thailand). Eden Island (Seychelles), Pearl-Qater, and Sovereign Bay (near Gibraltar) are additional harbors for billionaires. The 2008 financial crises halted Dubai’s intended immense archipelagos called The World and The Universe. They were to be composed of hundreds of islands — but the IJburb neighborhood on 7 artificial islands east of Amsterdam is continuing construction; it will eventually have 45,000 residents.
Project Runway: What can a densely crowded seaport do when it needs a new airport? Build an island! That’s what numerous Japanese metropolises have done, starting with Kansai International (Osaka, completed 1991), followed by Kobe Airport, New Kitakyushu Airport (Fukuoka) and Chibu Centrair International. Hong Kong International followed suit in 1998 by leveling two isles and adding an additional 6,000 square kilometers via land reclamation. Today it’s the world’s second busiest airport.
Urban Entertainment: In 1965, Ile Notre-Dame was built in the St. Lawrence River for Montreal’s Expo ’67. Today the popular acreage boasts beaches, gardens, parks, a harbor with watercraft rental, a casino, and facilities for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and cycling. Danube Island in Vienna (13 miles long — completed in 1988) serves a similar function with its festival grounds, nightclubs, restaurants, and there… the beach is nudist. Tokyo has “Dream Island”, constructed out of trash in the 1960’s. It now has a sports stadium, museum, harbors, gyms and athletic fields. Sentosa Island in Singapore hosts five million tourists annually at its beaches, golf courses, theme parks, and its rainforest with monkeys and monitor lizards. Flakfortet and Middelgrundfortet are two man-made isles that once served as forts between Copenhagen and Malmos. In Seoul, South Korea, three “floating” islands — Vista, Viva, and Terra — will soon be anchored, with concrete blocks, in the Han River. The $84 million project created 9,995 square meters of territory.
Pirate Lairs: “REM Island” — a platform built in Cork, Ireland, was towed across the English Channel in 1964 and anchored six miles off the Dutch coast to serve briefly as a pirate radio broadcasting station. Longer-lived is the “Principality of Sealand” — established in 1967 by pirate radio broadcaster Paddy Roy Bates on a military platform in the North Sea six miles from Suffolk, UK. Today, Sealand has a flag, a coat-of-arms, and is categorized as a “micronation.”
These samples represent just a fraction in each category.
I foresee a future speckled with artificial islands, constructed wherever they serve a purpose. “Floating” technology is also just getting started. The 71% of the globe that’s oceanic could eventually be peppered with villages bobbing peaceably, like puffins, in the welcoming sea.