Resiliency was, of course, a top priority for the plan, something BIG is well equipped to address, having proposed the “Big U,” a durable master plan for New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as well as a floating city concept unveiled in 2019 that addresses sea level rise. The future island cluster is relatively sheltered from tsunamis, thanks to a surrounding cove, but the effects of climate change are a real risk; rising oceans are expected to inundate coastal cities by 2050 if left unchecked, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. So the designers incorporated a generous band of coastline that can be raised over time (in lieu of seawalls or barriers). “Our approach to all resiliency issues is not about punishing ourselves but by getting a win-win where we create a more desirable public realm,” says Siegel. The design team took into consideration habitats, too, and created sloped, shallow areas so that ecosystems and resident wildlife would be allowed to migrate.
The goal of a carbon-free future also permeates the archipelago’s design. The master plan calls for the city to be net-positive, meaning that the islands will generate more electricity than they use via solar panels and other renewable energy sources. The buildings themselves will rely on low-carbon materials such as bamboo, Malaysian wood species, and green concrete made from recycled materials. Even the landmasses and street grids themselves are designed with passive principles in mind, oriented toward the prevailing winds to naturally cool each district.
BiodiverCity’s goals may be ambitious, but the Penang state government, which has partnered with a local developer, is eagerly moving the project ahead; land reclamation is expected to begin for the first island next year. One of the biggest challenges will be devising a sustainable method to build the landmasses themselves. Traditional types of land reclamation, such as dredging and redepositing sand, are inherently invasive processes. In the coming phases of the project, the design team hopes to minimize the archipelago’s footprint and will be exploring other methods, such as elevating structures on stilts, or even floating some portions. Other hurdles—as with any development—could be political. Though the project is being run through the state of Penang, Malaysia’s federal government has been left grappling with the fallout from an ongoing scandal, a sweeping money-laundering scheme that hit former prime minister Najib Razak with a 12-year prison sentence this summer.
Despite the challenges, the project will mark a radical proof-of-concept for sustainable development. And as the world continues to battle COVID-19—and consider a future where pandemics are the norm— concepts pioneered in urban environments like the BiodiverCity (walkability and quality open space chief among them) could provide a way forward. What’s more, Siegel points out, with remote work becoming increasingly prevalent, people can begin to choose how and where they want to live. “For me, [the best feature of the project] is to have a city that is infused with water. Think about what a special place Venice is, or Amsterdam is, and how few cities are like that in the world,” says Siegel. “We’re really looking to create something like that here.”