Canals, Houseboats, and Urban Design on the Water

My wife is a professional writer and blogger, and on her recommendation I would like to welcome any new readers. My last post really blew up and was featured on Gizmodo, several Curbed sites (although Seattle‘s was very nice, Philadelphia‘s was probably my favorite), and many others. If you’re here because of that article, hello and welcome! I blog mostly about urban design, sometimes about articles I’ve read or cities I’ve visited, but mostly about weird, loosely-constructed ideas that I take well past their logical conclusion. I hope you enjoy as I continue this trend. Now, on with the show!

Canals were built in the world’s earliest civilizations as a way to control flood waters and irrigate land. Later canals were built for overland transportation. Major cities of the mercantile age, such as Venice and Amsterdam, have entire networks of canals. Later, during the industrial age, transportation canal networks sprung up in the industrial cities of England such as Birmingham and Manchester, and in early industrial towns in the United States, such as Lowell, Massachusetts. But when it became cheaper to move goods overland via train than via canal, the latter stopped being built, and many of the existing canals in cities like New York and Boston were filled in and paved over (this is the story of just about any place called “Canal Street”). And while canals were still built for international shipping, irrigation, and, later, for rich people in Florida to be able to park their yacht in their backyard, the urban canal network was no more.

Urban Canals-01Personally, I find canals very appealing. They allow people to get closer to the water, create opportunities for alternative transportation and recreation, and also make for great urban design opportunities. This is probably why I tried to shoehorn them into urban design projects I worked on in Boston and Rio de Janeiro. The thing is, the urban canal networks were a product of their time. They were needed in order to drain land for development and to provide networks for merchants and industrialists to move their goods. But recently, I’ve been thinking: while the goods-moving ability of canals is overshadowed by modern freight delivery methods, they still work for draining water, and in the future, we’re going to have a lot more water to drain.

Sea LevelCutting canal networks would allow for some inundation while protecting prioritized areas. It would also allow more options for carbon-free travel. Imagine kayaking to work, or instead of carpooling, taking a canoe. It could provide another way to right-size overly wide streets. Imagine taking a four-lane road down to two for cars with two for boats in the middle. And maybe being closer to the water would let people create a greater connection with the water and what they have to do to care for it. For example, I love Philadelphia, but it is the dirtiest place I’ve ever lived, mostly because the citizens just don’t take care of it. A new canal system in Philly would initially require constant cleaning just to keep it unencumbered. But hopefully over time people would want to keep them clean and would want to make better use of them, and maybe we could become like Stockholm, where people have a strong connection to their water and where they keep it clean enough to swim in.

Broad St FinalHowever, a few canals versus an incoming ocean will only do so much. That’s why, in the Dutch village of Maasbommel, a group called Dura Vermeer built 50 floating houses. The houses sit on a hollow concrete foundation that floats. This allows it to rise above flood waters. The houses are attached to two mooring posts, which allow them to move vertically while staying in the same spot horizontally. Flexible conduits allow the houses to receive utilities regardless of the water level.


If you look at these things, they’re basically part on land, part on water. But there are other floating structures with mooring posts that don’t need to be on land at all:

Houseboats Ah, yes, houseboats, home to hippies and people who insist on calling it a galley when they know darn well it’s just a kitchen. But houseboats are often much more adaptive than their land-based cousins. They can rise and fall with the tides or with flood waters. Not all, but many are actually maneuverable, so you can move to a whole new location in the same house. They are often smaller and use less energy than houses on land, and when arranged along both sides of a pier they create these great, intimate little alleys on the water. Although many still exhibit the sort of self-built hippie style for which they are known, newer ones are being built that reflect contemporary architecture.

Lake UnionThe problem with houseboats today is that they are usually built around a single pier connected to the land and not to other piers. This means that to walk from one pier to the next, even if it is right behind yours, you have to walk up onto the land and then over to the next pier. In that way, they actually function like cul-de-sacs, and not like a traditional urban grid.

Cul-de-sacsBut there’s no reason that you couldn’t have connecting piers, creating a pedestrian-friendly network on the water. Take the Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union. Their several buildings and platforms are connected by piers which fully enclose buildings and water alike, with boats all along even enclosed parts of the piers.

CWB-01“That’s great, Munson,” you might be thinking, “but I was really excited about that kayaking to work thing earlier, and how would I do that if my houseboat were in one of those enclosed areas?” Well, you could design connecting piers that were raised above the water level, allowing traffic to pass underneath. But I think that a more effective way would be to have drawbridges.


This one in London is quite nice, but they could of course be simpler. A small enough bridge with a counterweight attached could simply be lifted by pedestrians rather than having machinery do the work. The bridges would be down under normal circumstances to allow pedestrian movement, and whenever a new houseboat comes in or there is a delivery boat or something, the draw bridge could briefly go up. These systems of flexible utilities, houseboats, and connecting piers could create entire floating neighborhoods. But this sort of new infrastructure development would cost a lot of money, driving up the price of this sort of a development. It might only make sense in areas with extremely high real estate costs. So where would it be worth the money?

NYCSF-01There are places in this world where land prices are so high that it becomes a major barrier to development. But who says you have to build houses on land?

And these neighborhoods don’t have to just have houses. Other land uses already exist on the water. Istanbul has restaurant boats on the Bosphorus, and the United States Navy regularly sets up offices on barges if landside space is tight. And speaking of the Navy, aircraft carriers are the perfect example of working on the sea, since they are essentially giant floating repair shops for planes.

There would be issues to address with this type of development. There’s a reason there aren’t large houseboat communities on the East Coast like there are on the West, and that is hurricanes. I’m not sure how you would protect this type of development from them, although I’d be open to suggestions. Tsunamis are another concern. Since tsunami waves grow taller once they hit shallow water, moving these neighborhoods further out to sea could address that, but at that point you would be driving up the cost of extending utilities. It would take a lot to make these places fully autonomous from land-based utilities, although if you want to get creative with solar panels and composting toilets, the sky is the limit. And, at least in the United States, you would have to get it approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, who has jurisdiction over navigable waterways. But, as opposed to the floating cities ideas that some people (mostly architects) propose, these strategies could be implemented slowly, one at a time, over a long time frame. So get out there, dig a canal, build yourself a houseboat, and laugh heartily at the rising seas.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

10 Responses to Canals, Houseboats, and Urban Design on the Water

  1. Alan Turner says:

    There is a drop of about twenty feet in Broad Street between Philadelphia’s City Hall and Washington Avenue, approximately thirty (varies) to the Delaware river. The view from a gondola in a canal that’s only six feet below street level, let alone twenty feet below street level, would be nowhere near as picturesque as in your illustration.

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  3. There’s kind of a gigantic pedestrian concourse and a 4 track subway line in the way.

    • Alan Turner says:

      Well, there you go! Much of the excavation for the canal has already been done!

  4. GI says:

    Philadelphia is NOT DIRTY. It’s just a very old city. You’re a lunatic and all your credibility has been lost after reading that PHL is dirty. You’re a lunatic. NYC is dirty and has many evil corporations. PHL is insanely clean for it’s age and it has more ethical companies and better people and the best transit.

  5. Tonisha says:

    The perspective from a gondola in a tunel that’s only six legs below road stage, let alone 20 legs below road stage, would be nowhere near as attractive as in your representation.

  6. parratonisha says:

    The perspective from a gondola in a tunel that’s only six legs below road stage, let alone 20 legs below road stage, would be nowhere near as attractive as in your representation.

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