Delft, The Netherlands, 10 Sep 2021

Floating service blocks: improving quality of life in slums near water

Improving life in slums located near water using floating blocks that provide services such as clean water, sanitation, power generation and laundry facilities to slum residents is the focus of a PhD thesis defended by Koen Olthuis this week.

Life in so-called wet slums can be even more difficult than life in slums in drier areas. Recurrent floods not only destroy living quarters and leave mud and debris behind, but also deter investments in services that would improve the quality of life. To break this negative spiral, services sought by residents could be provided on leased floating platforms, dubbed City Apps, Olthuis argues in his dissertation titled City Apps. Improving Wetslum Liveability with Floating Services, submitted to IHE Delft and Delft University of Technology.

The service platforms are designed to immediately improve residents’ lives by providing services they request. Once the services are no longer needed, the blocks can be moved elsewhere.

The wide diversity between and within slums means that measures to improve quality of life need to be tailored to each situation. This makes listening to the locals a key factor – slum residents have clear ideas on what they need, Olthuis said. His thesis includes concepts for 10 different City Apps, all of which centre on needs identified in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Olthuis’ research shows that slum residents also are capable and willing to pay for the services they want. He envisions a future in which the Apps would pay for themselves and even accrue profits for their owners, which could include local entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations or philanthropists, over the long term.   

“Slum residents want this. Investors are ready – the money is there. We have requests from entrepreneurs. We have the technology. What is lacking is the framework from authorities to enable these services to be provided in this way,” he said.

Authorities’ hesitation often stems from their wish that slums should be temporary. Reality shows otherwise, and Olthuis’ recommends that authorities accept slums’ permanent nature so that they can be upgraded to improve their residents’ quality of life.

A prototype floating City App in Alexandria, Egypt, serves as a temporary training and education centre in areas that had been severely flooded, and a land-based City App that provides seafarers with communication services is based in a port in Lagos, Nigeria. These uses show that City Apps work, Olthus said: they are ready to be used to improve lives for residents in wet slums around the world.

IHE Delft Professor of Flood Resilience of Urban Systems, Chris Zevenbergen, Olthuis’ promotor, agreed:

“This research shows how to realize ideas around floating amphibious architecture to improve the quality of life for millions of people in wet slums around the world,” he said.  

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