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Land grab: how the world's richest nation shored up a bright future, by Tristan Rutherford

Norwegian Magazine, November 2018

Monaco is comfortably the world’s richest nation per capita. One in every three residents is a millionaire. Many are far wealthier. Inhabitants include tennis ace Novak Djokovich, who owns a vegan restaurant near the Mediterranean, and Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton, who races around the world’s shortest Grand Prix circuit each May. Both Djokovich’s restaurant and Hamilton’s apartment have something in common. They are both sited on land that was once in deep water.  


That’s because paradise has proven too alluring. The world’s wealthiest country has become its most densely populated. Some 40,000 residents, alongside a glittering array of five-star hotels and supercar parking lots, are squeezed into 2km2 of land. That’s less than a single square mile. Land prices are upwards of €40,000 per square metre. By way of example, a building plot the size of garden shed would cost €200,000. Since Monaco began printing money on the back of its tax-free status in the late 19th century, the solution has been to reclaim land from the sea. 


This time the Principality’s land reclamation project is different. “We planned the new area of Portier Cove as an eco-district”, says Jean-Luc Nguyen, Monaco’s Director of Public Works and supervisor for the current land extension. During Monaco’s last expansion in the 1960s, when Prince Rainier III (a ruler nicknamed ‘the builder prince’) added 20% to the nation’s landmass, “cars took up too much space compared to people,” says Nguyen. “Now we want it the other way around.” Indeed five decades ago, part of the seafront section of the current Formula 1 circuit also sat on the seabed. 


When the geographic expansion is completed in 2025, all private cars in the suburb will be stored in an underground parking garage. Numerous Ferraris will no doubt be among them. As if anticipating an era of driverless pods and drone deliveries, “only pedestrians and the occasional taxi or emergency service vehicle will be allowed on the surface level,” says Nguyen. Electric bike stations (because Monegasques don’t pedal, sweetie) will form Portier Cove’s only powered propulsion. Instead of a new seafront road, a pedestrian promenade will encircle the brand-new six hectares of land. 


To add to the allure, the thousand lucky residents of Portier Cove will share a sparkling new marina. Some will live in an apartment block designed by starchitect Renzo Piano. To lesson the carbon footprint, 40% of energy will be provided by photovoltaic panels. Seawater will be used for heating and cooling, while rainwater will be recovered to nourish the forested enclave. It’s a suburb of the future, but could it be created elsewhere as well?  


“The environmental aspects could be replicated almost anywhere,” says Christophe Hirsinger, director of the €2bn project on behalf of Bouygues Travaux Publics. “Even after the completion of Portier Cove, the impact will be followed for another ten years.” Under the aegis of ruling Prince Albert II (nicknamed the ‘green prince’), the project’s footprint has been mitigated at every turn. For example, seabed species have been replanted in Monaco’s Larvotto and Speluges marine reserves. Scuba divers then check for sediment pollution, and have underwater vacuums to suck away any debris. In a further show of Monegasque futurism, real-time data of sea temperature and water clarity is sent to managers’ smartphones, where video feeds of the protected areas can also be viewed. Even machine engines have been shrouded inside steel encasing to reduce sonic pollution for marine life. 


However, land reclamation projects need local solutions, says Hirsinger. In Monaco’s case, engineers have “reached their limit” while building up from a 40m-deep seabed. From here 18 watertight caisson towers form a “breakwater belt” explains the engineering chief. Through 2019 Portier Cove will be infilled by a specially selected grade of Sicilian sand. Over five million tons of it all told. By 2020 the world’s newest landmass will be 160cm high. This area may then purport to be the planet’s most futuristic suburb. It will certainly be its most expensive, as apartments will reportedly fetch €100,000 per square metre. Or around €500,000 for a walk-in wardrobe. 


Less famously than Monaco, many projects the world over were built on former seabeds. These include New York’s Battery Park, the peninsula of Mumbai, plus the airports of Nice, Nagoya, Doha, Seoul and Singapore. Like Monaco, the latter city-state couples global ambitions with a tiny landmass. By some counts Singapore is the world’s 192nd largest country, a mere three-fifths the size of New York City. And just like the Principality, a Formula 1 street circuit snakes through Singapore’s reclaimed land. Guests watching Ferraris race at speeds of 300kmh from the rooftop swimming pool of the Marina Bay Sands are viewing from what was originally, well, sand. The tiny Asian nation could claim the necessity to conquer the seabed due to burgeoning population growth. In 1960 residents numbered 2 million. By 2020 that figure will nudge 6 million. During this 60 year period the country has physically grown by 22%, mostly by a non-Monegasque method of simply pouring sand. 


Reclamation by sand, rather than Monaco-style caisson barriers, comes with its critics. Although popular (the resort island of Sentosa, where Donald Trump met Kim Jong-un, is built partly upon salvaged land), the environmental cost can be high. Since Singapore became independent in 1965, its mangrove tree coastline has been culled from 13% to 0.5%. Although this figure may derive from general urbanism rather than specific reclamation, mangroves are key to protecting against erosion while ameliorating pollution. The mass importation of aggregates from Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam has caused so much impact that sand exports have been banned by all of Singapore’s neighbours. The dredging of Cambodia’s Tatai River for sand has allegedly caused widespread destruction. 


That’s why Singapore has recently turned to Europe for a more sustainable reclamation solution. The Netherlands - whose name translates as ‘lower country’ - has been salvaging the seabed since the 14th century. Over the centuries, up to 20% of the nation has been taken from the sea. Only half the country sits higher than 1m above sea level. 


Instead of pumping sand to create new land, the Dutch have used a more low-tech method known as poldering. By building dikes around shallow seabeds, ‘polders’ of land can be drained using canals and sluices. Each polder island, of which Holland has 30,000, slowly drains and dries, eventually becoming useable land. During the 1950s and 1960s the world’s largest artificial island, Flevopolder, was drained by electric pumps until it covered 970km2. That makes it larger than fully fledged nations including Bahrain, Malta and Singapore. Some 320,000 Dutch now call Flevopolder home. 


Dutch engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV are currently leading Singapore’s largest land reclamation scheme. By 2020, some 810 hectares of land, an area four times the size on Monaco, will be added to the island of Pulau Tekong. “Traditionally sand was always used for land reclamations worldwide,” says Mark van Zanten, the company’s Senior Project Manager for Rivers and Coasts. “Recently the sand availability and costs have made the polder method an interesting alternative.” With the Dutch method, van Zanten claims, far less sand is used. “Dikes are built to protect the land from the sea, and designed according to the local circumstances, looking at the weather conditions like storms and rainfall.” For the Palau Tekong expansion, a 7m-high dike stretching 10km will be completed in 2022. Then the area will become a military base, before the land stabilises for grander architectural projects. 


Such jaw-dropping projects don’t come cheap says Jane Rickson, a Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation, and part of the lecturing team for Cranfield University's Land Reclamation Masters degree. “We cannot build on ice caps, steep mountains or active volcanoes,” says Professor Rickson. “So land reclamation from the sea, flood plains or derelict land has been suggested as a solution to a growing global population estimated to be 9 billion by 2050.” However, the costs of site surveys, environmental risk assessment and landform engineering require huge investment. “Land reclaimed from the sea also needs ever-increasing protection from rising sea levels due to climate change.” The near billion cubic metres of seabed sand sprayed to create Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah required seven million tons of rock to create a 10km breakwater to stop it washing away. 


One micronation at the greatest risk from climate change has used land reclamation for more pressing problems. Hulhumalé, which translates as ‘Island of Hope’, sits at the centre of the Maldives. It’s the world’s lowest country, where no single landmass is higher than 180cm - a shade higher than Monaco’s Portier Cove. In 2004 the 188 hectare reclamation held 1,000 residents. By 2016 another 244 hectares were added, with the population burgeoning to 40,000. Should the nation become inundated, two-thirds of the Maldives’ 430,000 population should be able to find shelter on the artificial island, which currently houses schools, parks, hospitals and mosques. Proving that land reclamation technology can protect lives, as well as enriching them.

Click here to read further travel stories from France and Monaco by Kathryn and Tristan

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