‘Sponge Cities’ to Prevent Recurrent Floods in China
In December 2013, President Xi Jinping announced that the central government would invest RMB 5.9 billion to prevent and mitigate flood risks in Chinese cities. This was to be implemented under an umbrella ‘guide’ which has come to be known as the Sponge City Program (SCP), whose name well underlies the urgent necessity to manage urban risk from a holistic, de-siloed and ecological perspective.
The idea that integrated ecological planning is a prerequisite to successful flood management is not new. In fact, it is old enough to have pervaded mainstream urban planning practices worldwide. See, for example, the Tåsinge Plads park in Copenhagen. But as it is often the case in China, the government has taken this idea to an unprecedented scale.
The program’s principles are clear. Firstly, the government recognizes flood risk as a national threat. It also adopts the view that conventional methods for urban flood management have failed and that a new approach is needed – one that “utilizes the natural system to achieve drainage, to establish natural retention, natural infiltration and natural purification – like a sponge city”, as Mickael Zhao, water expert at ARUP design firm, puts it.
As a result, the government has committed to financing up to 20% of the costs associated with flood mitigation programs in selected cities, provided it matches the program’s criteria. The program will concern 16 pilot cities at first, among which Shanghai. This would be but only a first step prior to unrolling out the program at a national scale.
Examples where best practices are taken up to this pharaonic scale are rare enough to be praised when they occur. However, as it is often the case with good ideas, unexpected difficulties are likely to emerge during the implementation process. The Sponge City Program is no exception. It faces a number of important challenges, namely governance, local skills (or lack thereof) and investment.
As of now it appears indeed unclear how this top-down initiative will translate into local realities. Adaptation to context (i.e. China’s sheer number of climatic conditions and urban forms) will remain key to its success. Furthermore, China’s emerging metropolises are characterized by fantastically complex governance structures, which complicate any attempt at coordination.
Funding constitutes another important challenge. The central government has committed to financing only up to 20% of the costs of the program. Given local governments’ budget constraints, the program cannot do without important private sector participation. However, as The Economist reports, since 2013 the private sector has shown some reluctance stepping in due to general economic downturn. For now, the challenge remains therefore acute: in 2016, flooding along the Yangtze River killed more than a hundred people.