Blue Urbanism

The city and the ocean.

Florida State University researchers sample water near the Deepwater Horizon spill in June 2010. [Photo by Dr. Oscar Garcia via Flickr]

On April 20, 2010 — one year ago this week — the Deepwater Horizon, a massive drilling rig operated by BP off the southeast coast of Louisiana, exploded, opening a sea-floor gusher that began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster that unfolded — some five million barrels of oil would be spilled in the three months before the well was capped — was a gut-wrenching reminder of how profoundly American dependence on fossil fuels affects our marine environments. Yet a mere six months later, after only modest regulatory reforms, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar lifted the moratorium on deep-water drilling; the event had already begun to recede from public consciousness. And so we wasted — along with much else — the chance to have a larger, more searching conversation about the impact of our actions and choices on the health of the ocean.

If we are to tilt toward a sustainable world, we’ve got to show more than fleeting concern for marine habitats. In the words of oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle: “The world is blue.” Oceans cover most of the earth’s surface — 130,000 square miles — at an average depth of 2.5 miles, forming its largest life zone and serving as the primary regulator of planetary chemistry. They are an important source of protein for the world’s almost seven billion people. Our environmental health and indeed our survival — our systems of food production, energy, transportation, temperature regulation, oxygen production, carbon sequestration and more —are dependent upon the earth’s waters. 1

As planners and designers, we need to take up the mantle of blue urbanism. Just as green urbanism challenges us to rethink sustainability at the city scale, blue urbanism asks us to re-imagine ourselves as citizens of a blue planet. How can we become better stewards of the world’s oceans?

In October 2010, the Census of Marine Life released the results of a ten-year study of marine biodiversity, which significantly increased estimates of the quantity of ocean life. Genetic analysts believe there are at least one million distinct marine species and perhaps tens or hundreds of millions of microbe species. 2 Less than five percent of the sea has been explored and only one-quarter of its species discovered, but already we know that marine environments are more biologically diverse than terrestrial environments at the phylum level. 3 But as we begin to appreciate this biodiversity, we need also to recognize that it is in peril. We are rapidly approaching unprecedented tipping points that, if unheeded, will lead inexorably to systemic failure. Hypoxic dead zones surround river mouths and coastal areas, industrial fishing technologies are rapidly depleting fish populations and degrading habitats, and massive amounts of plastic waste and chemical toxins are polluting marine ecosystems from mangroves to intertidal zones to the deep sea. Carbon emissions are changing the basic chemistry of the planet, raising ocean temperatures and altering acidity levels, which in turn are endangering coral reefs and other marine life. The human reach is so great that it threatens even the vast and remote deep pelagic zone, the area of the open ocean extending from three hundred feet below the surface to just above the ocean floor. 4

Top: Detail from the interactive map “The Footprints of the Census,” by the Census of Marine Life. Bottom: Ocean and watershed impacts of urban activity along the U.S. Atlantic Coast. [Map from Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland, The Urban Whale]

City Planning and Marine Sprawl

Until recently, cities have mostly evaded responsibility for the failure of ocean systems because it is difficult to visualize or quantify the offshore effects of urban life. Our city maps stop at the water’s edge, even though the activities that support urban systems extend many miles beyond. In The Urban Whale, Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland of the New England Aquarium have produced a fascinating map of terrestrial watersheds and offshore waters on the U.S. Atlantic Coast, showing areas of urban activity, including high boat traffic, shipping, fishing and dredging. Mechanical noise from ships near port cities has produced “acoustic smog” so thick that the chance of two North Atlantic right whales hearing each other is 10 percent of what it was a century ago. 5 This kind of marine sprawl rarely gets the attention within our profession that terrestrial sprawl does.

Blue urbanism — an emerging set of ideas and perspectives — would mean that cities would seriously evaluate and carefully regulate their effects on marine environments; and city planners are potentially on the front lines of this new movement. Cities have jurisdiction over near-shore habitats and can extend zones of planning and management to offshore areas. Coastal states such as Oregon and Hawaii have already begun this process. So have some regional entities. Last year the Cape Cod Commission created an Ocean Management Planning District in order to extend its regional planning powers to include a half million acres of open ocean; currently its agenda includes evaluating the scale, location and efficacy of offshore wind turbines.

Blue cities can modify port operations and shipping practices to reduce environmental impacts. In the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, the maritime industry and port cities have formed a partnership to tackle problems including aquatic invasive species; greenhouse gas, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide and particulate matter emissions from ships and trucks; residues from loading and unloading solid bulk cargoes; oil and oily water discharges; and noise, dust, odor and light pollution. Members who make voluntary progress on specified criteria receive Green Marine certification, as the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority did in 2009. Regional efforts like this can reverberate throughout the global shipping industry.

Blue cities can also use political influence to support stronger international regulations. In 2009 the International Maritime Organization shifted and narrowed north-south shipping channels near Boston Harbor to reduce collisions with endangered North Atlantic right whales. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has recently imposed mandatory speed reductions for boats over a certain size in “seasonal management areas” encompassing feeding and calving waters. Industry representatives and some port authorities have objected to these protective steps, raising concerns about potential economic impacts. Blue cities and their port authorities need to show strong support for such measures to help overcome industry opposition.

Mouth of the Los Angeles River, Long Beach, California. [Photo by Bill McDonald, Algalita Foundation, via Flickr]

Local Actions and Global Systems

Blue urbanism would hold cities responsible for the solid and chemical wastes they produce. In the Gulf of Mexico, the dead zone caused by the agricultural runoff and urban waste drained by the Mississippi River system now covers 8,500 square miles and counting. In the North Pacific Gyre, an immense cauldron popularly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains an estimated 100 millions tons of plastic waste and chemical sludge, much of it produced by cities. Blue cities can take the lead in mitigating waste streams and supporting efforts to clean up existing waste. San Francisco, for example, has banned plastic shopping bags at large supermarkets and chain drugstores and has dramatically reduced the use of chemical pesticides in managing parks and city property. But more can be done; we might envision Pacific cities like Los Angeles and Tokyo working together to develop technologies for recovering ocean garbage and converting it into fuel for energy production. In fact, similar partnerships have already been formed in the private sphere. At the September 2010 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, the California non-profit organization Project Kaisei announced a partnership with the New Jersey corporation Covanta Energy to test a new catalytic technology for converting Pacific Ocean garbage into a mineral form of diesel fuel. 6 Blue cities could be important partners in recovery projects by committing to power their buses and municipal vehicles with alternative fuels generated from ocean waste.

Blue urbanism would also hold cities responsible for promoting ethical and sustainable fishing practices. The world’s rapidly growing and increasingly urbanized population will put severe pressure on fisheries, many of which are already depleted. Cities can shift fish consumption patterns through sustainable seafood education efforts, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, and by supporting sustainably managed fisheries such as the Marine Stewardship Council and Community-Supported Fisheries, or CSFs, modeled after the idea of Community-Supported Agriculture.

Left: Feeding the fish at Sweet Water Organics urban aquaponic farm, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. [Photo by JoliSmash] Right: Harvesting sprouts at Sweet Water Organics. [Photo by Bill Sell]

Blue cities can also support the development of alternative fish production systems that do not rely on wild fish populations that are collapsing. In Milwaukee, an old warehouse has been converted into a demonstration project of urban aquaponics, which combines aquaculture (fish production) with hydroponics (growing plants and vegetables in a mineral nutrient solution). Inspired by the ideas of urban agriculturalist Will Allen, Sweet Water Organics has built a “simulated wetland” in which fish waste fertilizes plants and the plants filter the water. The company is farming large numbers of tilapia and perch, the latter native to the Great Lakes and, before the fishery crashed, once a staple on Milwaukee menus.

Cities are reservoirs of economic and social capital, and blue cities can direct resources toward ocean health, leveraging assets at every level, from the chamber of commerce to the tourism board to the public library. And nearly every American city has at least one sister city. Why shouldn’t blue cities adopt a marine habitat — a particular seamount, hydrothermal vent or underwater rift valley — populated with whales, sea turtles or marine invertebrates? Schoolchildren could learn about the habitat, neighborhood clubs could organize cultural exchanges, and corporate donors could support research and intervention efforts.

Blue cities can also develop their own marine research capabilities, providing tax incentives and direct investments to support an infrastructure of marine labs and ancillary research facilities, complementing federal efforts, just as cities invest today in conventional municipal infrastructures and research industries. Most important, blue cities should consider the health of ocean and marine environments explicitly in their municipal planning. Every city, urban county, and regional planning body should have an ocean conservation policy with clearly stated policy goals and a legal and political framework for achieving them.

Designing for Ocean Awareness

Can the average resident of an American coastal city — say, Boston — distinguish a North Atlantic right whale from a sperm whale or humpback whale? Not likely. Even highly educated, political involved citizens in America’s bluest cities know little about charismatic endangered fauna in local waters, to say nothing of bacterial microbes living in the pelagic zone. This is the main challenge facing blue urbanism: How do we generate support for habitats so physically and emotionally distant from the urban populations whose consumption patterns, resource use practices and policy decisions will determine their fate?

Top: Detail from “Ocean Life: Diversity, Distribution, Abundance,” by the Census of Marine Life and National Geographic. Bottom: “Leatherback Turtle Tagging Map,” by the Tagging of Pacific Predators.

One promising model is the Oceanario, in Lisbon, Portugal, one of some 140 public aquaria in Europe with an educational mission. The Oceanario reaches about one million visitors annually with its message of “One Ocean,” and the directors have focused their efforts on urban environmental awareness. Exhibits include information about lifestyle changes which visitors can make to reduce impact on the seas, and the aquarium works with schools throughout Portugal to help teachers talk to children about subjects such as overfishing. They’ve even created an ocean mascot recognized by children across the country, Vasco, whose house at the aquarium is a model of sustainable living. “If you ask any Portuguese about the ocean now, it is the beach,” says director João Falcato. Even in a country that has historically depended deeply on oceans for prosperity, the shared sense of larger relevance has been lost. “That’s what we need to bring back,” he says. Virtually every nation faces this challenge of revitalizing an emotional connection between urbanites and oceans. Institutions like the Oceanario are trying to install a “blue ethic” that encourages personal conservation and enables shifts in public policies and incentives.

Educators and designers could be more creative in disseminating maps and visual aids that depict the close relationship between cities and oceans. One of the best is the spectacular global map from the Census of Marine Life that flips the perceptual field to emphasize oceans. Terrestrial areas are black, or “empty,” while oceans are alive in blue, with underwater topography, habitats and migration patterns richly displayed. Other maps are being made possible by new technologies that enable researchers to track marine animal movements that were previously invisible. The Tagging of Pacific Predators project has tracked migration and movement patterns of 21 species, producing interesting maps of whale, shark, tuna and sea bird patterns. Overlaying information from multiple species on the same map helps negate myths about the emptiness of sea environments.

Blue cities can also design public spaces and buildings that strengthen visual and spatial connections between the ocean and the city, such as the Oslo Opera House, designed by Snøhetta, which features a dramatic four-acre granite roof sloping into the city’s fjord. Visitors can walk on the roof, which creates a marvelous plaza at the water’s edge. Singapore and Perth, Australia, have built elaborate urban forest canopy walks. Why haven’t more cities designed analogous parks in aquatic and marine settings — creating, for example, underwater piers as public spaces? Cities can also use technology to connect urbanites to marine environments, following the lead of Albany, Australia, which has installed an underwater webcam on its offshore reef. In critical whale migration areas, buoys could relay whale sounds back to the city.

Top: Snøhetta, New Norwegian Opera and Ballet, Oslo, Norway. [Photo by Eystein Mack Alnaes] Middle: New Norwegian Opera and Ballet [Photo by Michael Spiller]. Bottom Left: Vincent Callebaut Architectures, Lilypad: A Floating Ecopolis for Climate Refugees. Bottom Right: WHIM, Recycled City.

The future of blue urbanism may include floating cities or other forms of permanent or semi-permanent habitation of the ocean environments, either on the surface or underwater. Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut has proposed a self-contained city in the shape of a lilypad, and the Dutch firm WHIM has designed a floating city — “Recycled City” — of half a million residents that would be created from recycled plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch. These ideas recall the Metabolist Movement of the ’60s and the work of architects such as Kenzo Tange, who imagined the extension and expansion of modern cities in vertical and submarine spaces — think of Tange’s 1960 plan for Tokyo Harbor. 7 To be sure, these ideas can seem idealistic, even utopian; yet they might inform and inspired more conventional work, as we seek ways to sustainably occupy the seascape of our wet planet. Even today humans live on ships and marine platforms of various kinds, which helps foster a close connection to oceans (although not always a blue urbanist worldview).

More than half of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties adjacent to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes. 8 But city planners might also consider what blue urbanism could mean in inland places — in cities whose waste drains into river systems connected to the ocean and whose cars run on gasoline produced by offshore oil. How could places like Wichita or Boise, Phoenix or Dallas, play a part in blue urbanist thinking? Different strategies might be warranted for interior cities, and perhaps it will be more difficult to nurture the emotional commitments necessary, but in the end urban and ocean must be conjoined wherever the two spheres exist.

Significant questions remain about the viability of blue urbanism as a useful frame of reference for cities. I offer it here not as a fully resolved worldview but as a provocation for further discussion and testing. Cities have tremendous political agency, which will grow along with their rising populations. Blue urbanism asks us to imagine a world in which urban citizens — challenged, educated and informed — use their political power on behalf of marine conservation. Our survival on this blue planet might depend on our capacity to understand the powerful ways in which cities connect to oceans.

Editors' Note

Since its appearance on Places, “Blue Urbanism” has been expanded into a book recently published by Island Press.

  1. Sylvia A. Earle, The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Oceans Are One, Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2009.
  2. Jesse H. Ausubel, Darlene Trew Crist, and Paul E. Waggoner, eds., 2010: Highlights of a Decade of Discovery, Washington, DC: Census of Marine Life, 2010.
  3. Nancy Knowlton has catalogued many of the 6,000 new species discovered by the Census: sea dragons that disguise themselves as seaweed, green bomber worms that escape from predators by releasing a glowing fluid from their necks, orange roughies that live up to 125 years in seamount habitats, and icefish that utilize a kind of antifreeze in their blood to survive in chilly arctic waters, among others. See Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life, Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2010.
  4. See Bruce H. Robison, “Conservation of Deep Pelagic Biodiversity,” Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 4, 2009, pp. 847-858.
  5. Susan E. Parks and Christopher Clark, “Acoustic Communication: Social Sounds and the Potential Impacts of Noise,” in Scott D. Kraus and Rosalind M. Rolland, eds. The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whailes at the Crossroads, Harvard University Press, 2007, pp. 310-332.
  6. Covanta Energy and Project Kaisei, “Covanta Energy and Project Kaisei Announce Joint Commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative,” Fairfield, New Jersey, September 21, 2010.
  7. For an excellent review of these ideas, see Zhongjie Lin, Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan, London: Routledge, 2009.
  8. Kristen M. Crossett, Thomas J. Culliton, Peter C. Wiley, and Timothy R. Goodspeed, Population Trends Along the Coastal United States: 1980-2008, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, September 2004.
Timothy Beatley, “Blue Urbanism,” Places Journal, April 2011. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Georgia

    04.18.2011 at 20:45

    I find this to be a compelling argument. I would also consider starting terrestrially with stormwater runoff, creeks, rivers; waters, in some places, that are nearby, visible, accessible.

  • Rolling Stone

    04.20.2011 at 12:54

    Call it what you want, but urban water management has already come a long way in the last few decades - maybe more than the author is aware. In the 70's stormwater management consisted of dry pond flood control. In the 80's, flood control and wet pond water quality control. In the 90's, flood control, water quality control, and erosion potential control. In the present, flood control, water quality control, erosion potential, natural channel design, wetland reclamation, water balance and groundwater protection, rain harvesting, green roofs, etc etc in the interest of low impact development. The bar always goes up, never down. New development is bluer and greener than ever.

    One specific comment. The Oslo Opera House looks ridiculous. There is nothong blue or green about this other than the algae bloom it might help to create. The shoreline is completed nuked, void of naturalization and looking like a giant solar reflector. This is an unfortunate inclusion in the article and I would question why the author thinks this a good example when it appears to be the polar opposite.

  • Kevin Smola

    04.20.2011 at 15:10

    What of outlying factors such as pharmaceuticals and caffeine not being filtered through water treatment plants, passing on to marine life, back to our dinner tables? How can that be solved?