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As sea levels rise, a Dutch neighborhood floats up

Schoonschip, a real-life ‘Waterworld,’ is built for a climate-adaptive future. But is it a realistic solution?

By Stav Dimitropoulos

Photos by Isabel Nabuurs

Like a typical teenager, Kik De Rijke goes to school and soccer practice and does her homework. Sometimes she fishes plastic out of the water near her home, but “it’s not like I’m hugging trees all day,” she says. She really loves her neighborhood, because she knows all the children and the adults. She particularly admires her neighbors who are brave enough to swim in the Johan van Hasselt Canal in Amsterdam at 7 or 8 a.m. every winter morning. “I jump from our small floating garden into the canal, but in the summer!” she exclaims. The 13-year-old’s garden is attached to her home, which is one of the houses making up the Schoonschip neighborhood, Europe’s only sustainable floating community.

Schoonschip means “clean ship” in Dutch, a reference to the sustainable principles that guide De Rijke’s floating neighborhood. Floating homes aren’t new in The Netherlands, one-fourth of which lies below sea level. Nor are they new around the world; plenty of people live on the water by necessity, in low-tech houseboat and raft communities such as Cambodian fishing villages. But Schoonschip is the first-ever sustainable floating neighborhood built on the Dutch housing principles of collective private commissioning, in which people form groups to finance a residential area and occupy it. In the case of Schoonschip, the group was also its own builder.

This buoyant neighborhood took 10 years to come to fruition: plans for it began in 2008, and the first residents arrived in March 2019. Today it’s home to about 110 people, living on 30 houseboats in homes that range in size from 1,075 square feet (one floor of a duplex boat) to about 2,150 square feet. A large community center functions as the settlement’s central nervous system.

“We built our neighborhood bottom-up, without a project developer, and it was great fun,” says Yvonne van Sark, 51, chair of the Schoonschip community board of directors. Van Sark moved to the floating community in 2019 with her husband, two sons aged 17 and 20, and their cat. She describes living in Schoonschip as “entering a different dimension.”

In the 1995 post-apocalyptic action film Waterworld, the polar ice caps have melted, the seas have soared over 25,000 feet and submerged Earth, and human survivors agonizingly search for one remaining piece of “Dryland” while living on ramshackle floating communities known as atolls. Though we are still far, as a species, from having to grow gills to adjust to a threatening sea world, some of the ugly consequences of climate change have already surfaced. Since 1880, global sea levels have risen about 0.75 feet, with a third of that happening in just the last 25 years. By the end of the century, small-island nations and coastal regions might be left submerged by sea level rise. The planet is getting warmer, the ice sheets and glaciers are melting away, and the seawater is expanding.

“It’s an intriguing idea, that if sea levels rise, our house just floats up, isn’t it?” says David Fannon, associate professor of architecture at Northeastern University. He sees many advantages to building floating communities on the blueprint of Schoonschip to combat climate change.

The floating community is built to encourage walking along an idyllic wooden promenade instead of traveling by car.

On Schoonschip, 500 solar panels and 30 water pumps use the sun and canal water to generate energy and heating. Each house has a battery in the basement and the houses are connected to a network, so that neighbors can trade energy when one household needs electricity and another has extra to spare. The houses also have green roofs, where residents can grow their own food and sit on rooftop patios. Water is separated into pipes colored white, gray and black: white is safe for human consumption, gray is reused (for example, for showers), and black is wastewater, transported to a biorefinery to be fermented and converted into energy. “We also have vacuum toilets. It’s a bit like the toilets you have in airplanes — quite noisy, I am always telling my guests,” says van Sark with a smile.

Other climate advantages of Schoonschip are less apparent to the untrained eye. Most land-based houses have concrete foundations, Fannon notes, and cement — concrete’s key ingredient — accounts for about 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. “Reducing concrete,” he says, “reduces the overall carbon impact, and should be the goal of all sustainable buildings.” The floating community is built to encourage walking along an idyllic wooden promenade instead of traveling by car.

Also, says Fannon, land is scarce in The Netherlands, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with 1,316 people per square mile. “It is not a coincidence that The Netherlands has been literally creating new land for centuries,” says Fannon. In spite of the nation’s limited land area — 13,000 square miles, only one-third larger than the state of Maryland — The Netherlands dedicates 53 percent of its land to agriculture. “This speaks to a set of collective societal decisions about how to use available land,” says Fannon.  From this angle, when people migrate to water, land area is freed for uses the Dutch consider more socially acceptable.

Where the cost of land is high, living on water could mean less financial burden on homebuyers, though Fannon is not sure Schoonschip has succeeded in that respect. “I know that one of the goals they had in this project was to be able to make affordable, ‘portable’ houses, but it didn’t work out quite as much as they had hoped,” Fannon says. Schoonschip’s housing prices range from €300,000 to €800,000, or $364,000 to $970,000, according to Fast Company, making most of the floating homes more expensive than the average house in The Netherlands, which costs €354,000, or $429,000.

Even Schoonschip’s environmental impact, Fannon notes, might not be that big or entirely positive. The houseboats remain anchored to the city, and “we still have to address the issue that some of that land is vulnerable,” he says. Schoonschip is not independent of Amsterdam, but connected to and part of it.

“Houseboats could be part of the response to living with rising sea levels, but [they] neither obviate the collective urgency of avoiding sea level rise, nor do they reduce the vulnerability of the parts of the city that remain land,” Fannon notes. Also, claiming marine areas and transforming them into terrestrial or residential areas is not necessarily environmentally friendly; it might destroy the underwater ecosystem. “Even things like keeping rust away from the bottom of the boat requires the use of toxic paint or plastic and chemicals,” says Fannon. “So, historically, marine construction has not been very ecological, though this is changing.”

And a project like Schoonschip might be difficult to scale up, since one difficulty of erecting houses on water is building tall. “It’s pretty possible to get two or three stories on water, but it makes it hard to have the kind of density you might see in an old historic neighborhood of five- or six- or seven-story buildings,” says Fannon.

Still, to the people who live in Schoonship, the mission and lifestyle have obvious appeal — and a sustainable future. “There is a promenade on the water where we walk,” says van Sark. “It’s really cozy, and people walk by and say ‘hi,’ and children run around. In the community center, we cook, we do yoga, we have sewing hours.”

To respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the Schoonschip community recently introduced “corona dinners.” Neighbors form groups of five families, each prepares a course, and one member of each family delivers it door-to-door to the other four families. Van Sark says the ritual is keeping community bonds tight despite the alienating pandemic.

That COVID-era bond underscores what might be the most valuable thing about Schoonschip, Fannon says: its symbolism. People who don’t know what the future holds are trying to make a neighborhood that will be functional, better, and enduring. The romanticism with which many people view the Dutch water community from afar makes the conversation more appealing and gets them hooked — and, it follows, more sensitive to concerns about urban sustainability and climate change. “Schoonschip is an ecologically ambitious standard,” Fannon says. “It brings a lot of pieces together.”

At 13, Kik is well aware that the clean ship where she lives is not a utopian waterland snubbing the city’s grit, but an effort toward establishing a more sustainable urban environment. She sometimes scratches her head at the stubbornness of people who refuse to accept that climate is changing when the clues are “all around” them. She has understood it falls upon her generation to clean up the mess that adults have left them. She is not angry, but determined. “Schoonschip is a step toward that direction,” she says. “It’s not enough, obviously, but it’s a start,” she says. “We are on our way.”

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Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer based in Athens, Greece. She has written for the BBC, National Geographic, Nature, Scientific American, Science, Runner’s World, Popular Mechanics, Inverse, and The Sunday Times.



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