London is one of the world's greatest cities, but also one of its most crowded. Despite a landscape of shoulder-to-shoulder buildings, one of the newest development projects in the English capital will neither require demolishing any old structures nor contribute to suburban sprawl.

The historic Royal Docks, on the banks of the Thames, will soon be home to Europe's largest floating village. That's right: An entire city neighborhood will be built on the water.

Outspoken London Mayor Boris Johnson, a champion of the project, held a competition to choose a company to design and build the village. The winning firm, Carillion Igloo Genesis, will develop a 15-acre site next to Royal Victoria Dock. The docklands have already seen much development, with housing, event spaces and tourist attractions like the Emirates Air Line (a cable car across the Thames) built in an attempt to reinvigorate what had become an unused part of the city.

London floating neighborhood

The Emirates Air Line rises from near the future site of the floating neighborhood. (Artist's rendering: Carillion Igloo Genesis)

The floating village itself will include 50 luxury homes. Carillion has said that buyers will have input on the design of their residence, so no two houses will look exactly alike. Offices, shops, restaurants and a multipurpose event venue will be part of the development. Carillion's plan also mentions possible future expansions, including a floating ice rink and a swimming pool. All the buildings in the village will be connected by a network of overwater walkways.

Although certainly a creative use of space, because it contains luxury homes, the project has brought complaints from people concerned about high real estate prices. Before it can move forward, the village needs approval from the local government council. The mayor of Newham, the docks’ borough, has said the floating homes need to be made more affordable before the project goes ahead.  

On the other hand, a larger housing development is being built on the banks of the river, and other apartment and office complexes have been constructed in the area as part of the overall effort to reinvigorate it.

The docks have not been a shipping hub since the end of World War II. Today, most cargo goes to more modern facilities downriver. Johnson and the floating village's other supporters say the development will bring people, jobs and investment to a part of the city that needs a kick-start.

Despite the buzz surrounding this particular project, it is not the first of its kind. In places like Thailand, Cambodia and India, people have been living in floating villages for centuries. Hong Kong's famous Aberdeen floating village is home to several thousand people, who reside mostly on traditional Chinese junks.

IJburg, Amsterdam

IJburg, built in an Amsterdam lake, includes floating residences. (Photo: zoetnet/flickr)

The more modern IJburg development in Amsterdam provided inspiration for London's project. Built on artificial islands in IJ Lake, IJburg features residential areas, office buildings, shops and restaurants. This project is actually much more ambitious than London’s. As many as 45,000 people will live and work in the development when it’s completed.

A much smaller project is being finished in Pori, Finland. Sixteen floating homes on the shoreline are aiming for LEED certification with solar thermal panels, heat-recovery systems and waste shredders.     

Back in London, the development of other parts of the docklands is moving forward. A Chinese firm has made plans to build a business park near Royal Albert Dock. This company and others seek to take advantage of a special zoning status that means tax breaks and incentives for developers.

Although the success of these projects remains to be seen, one thing is certain: In the coming years, London's Royal Docks will look much different than they do today.

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