Faced with increased urban flooding, China is seeking to create “sponge cities” that can absorb water.
China’s rapid urbanisation has been accompanied by increased rates of urban flooding. The number of Chinese cities affected by floods has more than doubled since 2008. While water management was integrated into traditional Chinese urban development, the last 40 years have seen a “hard engineering” approach, with massive building of dams and other concrete-based means of water containment.
Kongjian Yu, the Dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture now says “We have poured more than enough concrete. It’s time to invest in a new type of green infrastructure.” The government agrees. In September a plan was announced to create 16 model “sponge cities”, which will take an ecological approach to water managment.
However, planners have raised at least two concerns about the welcome shift in emphasis. The first is that “sponge city” has become just a buzz-word used to embellish development proposals, without real understanding of how to deliver an integrated solution, other than a few “green” adornments on business as usual schemes. Secondly, the sheer scale of China, with its massive climatic variations means that local solutions are essential, but the planning system is very centralised. Furthermore, land development remains the prime source of income for many local governments, and so the lure of concrete remains strong.