Crowded Cities Short on Housing Are Looking to Turn Water Into Land

Hong Kong and Copenhagen are building artificial islands for new communities. But too many projects ignore environmental costs.

Major reclamation works in progress in Victoria Harbour
Major reclamation works in progress in Victoria Harbour for future transport and office developments in Central District in Hong Kong in July 2008. Iain Masterton/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Buy land, the old adage goes: They’re not making it anymore.

It’s never been true (Boston and New Orleans were built on water), and it’s never been less true than right now. Fast-growing cities in the Gulf and Southeast Asia are turning water into real estate at a spectacular pace and scale. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is backing a plan to throw $64 billion into the construction of four artificial islands. A few thousand miles away, in Copenhagen, the Danish government has announced plans to build two massive new groups of islands with room for thousands of new jobs and residents.

That such projects are viable reflects a few truths about the world today: Energy and labor are cheap, land is expensive, and location matters more than ever. Oh, and hardly anyone gives a damn about the environment—especially not the precarious, all-but-invisible marine ecosystems that once flourished near big cities.

Natalie Lung at Bloomberg has a great piece about the Lantau Tomorrow Vision, the latest in Hong Kong’s efforts to enhance its archipelago. Backed by Beijing, Lam is calling for more than 4,000 acres (about five Central Parks) of artificial land. In one of the world’s densest cities, that land is projected to make room for 1.1 million new residents.

Hong Kong has a history of pulling real estate out of the muck. Nearly all of its current waterfront was once tidal land, and Hong Kong International Airport was built on open ocean. As far back as the 19th century, the British government was encouraging big land-reclamation projects, giving private owners the incentive to develop muddy waterfront. Some 25 square miles of Hong Kong were once water.

The scale of reclamation has picked up rapidly since the 1970s, when Rotterdam caught the world’s attention by building Europe’s largest port on reclaimed land. According to research conducted in 2010, China converted more than 50,000 square miles of water to land in the late 20th century, for agriculture, aquaculture, industrial development, and urban growth. In the process, it changed the shape of the national map, destroyed half the country’s coastal wetlands, and generally decimated habitats where reclamation had occurred.

In Hong Kong, Lung writes, local activists and residents see the plan as part of Beijing’s efforts to tighten its control over the former British concession. Government officials view the reclamation as one more feature, along with a $19-billion, 19-mile bridge-and-tunnel crossing that will better knit Hong Kong into mainland China.

In Denmark, the government announced on Monday a new business district called Holmene, an expansion of an area that was reclaimed from the Baltic Sea in the 1960s, about six miles southwest of Copenhagen. At the north end of the harbor strait, the city is planning a new residential district on reclaimed land, with room for 35,000 inhabitants.

What’s different from Hong Kong is that the Danish government is touting these projects as works of ecological maintenance, green spaces that will restore habitats and protect inland residents from storm surge. The southern project, Holmene, will add more than 10 new miles of coastline, in addition to generating 12,000 new jobs, the government says.

Both Denmark and China have quite a bit of empty land—just not where they want it to be. (In places like Singapore with no free space, the pressure to build on water is considerably greater.) As big cities economically eclipse their smaller counterparts, urban land values in the world’s premier metropolises have climbed to unforeseen heights. Traditionally, governments and tycoons could open up new areas for development with distance-quashing transportation technologies—like in early 20th-century Los Angeles, where a giant grid of streetcars once stretched hundreds of miles.

These days, most places, it’s much, much cheaper to terraform the ocean. René Kolman, the secretary general of the International Association of Dredging Companies, argues that even after paying for shore protection, soil treatment, and site work, few reclamation projects cost more than $100 per square foot. In January 2018, a residential site in Hong Kong’s Kowloon area sold for $3,639 per square foot. Hong Kong’s new islands, at $64 billion for 4,200 acres, would come out to $350 per square foot of new land.

In other cities, the contrast is a little less extreme. Still, it raises the question: Why not just fill in vast tracts of open water, as futurist engineers once proposed for New York City’s East River and the entire North Sea?

The uncounted value here is the environmental damage that this marine work wrecks on natural environments, from Marco Island, Florida, to Hong Kong. That $19-billion bridge—the world’s longest ocean crossing—makes it easy to get from Hong Kong Island to Macau, but it’s also thought to have sent the Chinese white dolphin population plummeting by 80 percent in the last decade.

The Lantau project is something of an exception. Beijing is rethinking the wisdom of reclaimed land, prompted by decades of environmental blight. Research conducted in part by the Chinese State Oceanic Administration has arrived at an ecologically motivated “reclamation maximum” for Tongan Bay in Xiamen—5.6 square kilometers, slightly over 5 percent of the surface area of the bay, which is less than half of what the local government has planned to take. Earlier this year, the Chinese government stepped in to ban land-reclamation projects that hadn’t come directly from the capital.

Elsewhere, however, reclamation proceeds apace. Around Penang in Malaysia, one of the world’s blockbuster reclamation projects, fisheries are disappearing or moving out to sea. A project at Batam, in Indonesia, devastated local mangroves, coral, and fish. The coral doesn’t vote; the mangroves don’t march in the streets. Those who depend on them—mostly poor, uneducated fishermen—find new professions. The real estate, however, is very much in demand.