Sponge Cities

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Categories: flooding, sponge cities

Gotcha!  I bet you thought this was another in the series of posts about project management stories about colorful creatures (purple bacteria, green iguanas, blue-blooded horseshoe crabs).  Indeed, that was the theme of the past few posts.  If you missed them, go back - these are colorful posts.  But no - this post is not about sea sponge colonies, but rather about  actual cities and their ability (if designed properly) to absorb excess water.

A recent article in Scientific American (December 2018) caught my eye.  It starts with some drama:


Beijing’s largest storm in more than 60 years killed 79 people, most of them drowned in their vehicles or sucked into underground drains. Damages reached nearly $2 billion.

This isn’t a unique storm. As the article says, this has happened a great many times and has a large economic and social impact, and the cause is related to climate change:

Sixty-two percent of its cities flooded between 2011 and 2014 alone, imposing $100 billion in economic losses, according to the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. The floods are partly the result of stronger storms fueled by climate change.

Further drawing my attention was the fact that the word “project” occurs more than a dozen times in this short article.  The story is about Sponge Cities – a philosophy and practice to switch from dams – and concrete in general – to natural methods to absorb or re-route excess water.  Featured in the article is a company called Turenscape, which has a fascinating history:

Turenscape was founded by Dr. Kongjian Yu in 1998 and is one of the first and largest private architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism practices in China. Dr. Yu’s pioneering research on Ecological Security Patterns and Sponge Cities has been adopted by the Chinese government as the guiding theory for national land use planning, eco-city campaigns, and urban ecological restoration. Dr. Yu’s clear vision of bringing harmony between Earth and people has been used to transforming many heavily polluted wastelands into aesthetics of sustainability.

Read more about Turenscape here and its academy here.  I think it’s also very interesting to examine the cultural aspects of change as it applies to this type of project.  Yu’s ideas were not accepted immediately.  It was even politicized:

For years while Yu was building his firm’s portfolio, many Chinese derided his farm-based ideas as backward. He says that some even called him an American spy—a nod to his doctorate from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and his opposition to those big dams. But in recent years sentiment has begun to shift. Various groups in China are building green infrastructure projects, often in partnership with Americans, Australians and Europeans.

I thought it may be interesting to focus on one of the Turenscape projects, Quzhou Luming Park:

Project Profile

1. Project Statement:  

On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, the landscape architect created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions create a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.

2. Project Narratives

Challenges and Objectives´╝Ü

The project is located on the west bank of the Shiliang River, in the West New District of Quzhou City, Zhejiang Province, with a population of 2.5 million. The city, boasting a history of over 1,800 years, is known to the world because of its strategic location on the east coast of China. During the World War II, the US Air Force used the small airport at Quzhou as a base for the Doolittle Raid (the Tokyo Raid), on 18 April, 1942.


The description of the project goes on – very well expressed.

Here’s a photo of the completed project.

The article is worth reading, and the effort to be more ‘flowing’ when it comes to drought and flood control, is worth doing.  I’ll close with this, from the article as well:


The hubris of believing that people can control water with concrete will be increasingly exposed as more of those kinds of projects fail, unable to buffer the knock-on impacts from rapid population growth, urban sprawl and climate change. Although sponge cities will likely not protect everyone from these challenges, their advocates think their resilience can temper extremes better than the concrete alternatives. Plus the multiple benefits they bring can make the lives of humans and other species healthier and happier.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: November 30, 2018 11:48 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Thanks for sharing Richard Maltzman

That is amazing! Hope to see it spread to other cities. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

Oh wow, that is creative and very interesting. Thanks for sharing Richard.

Very insightful article. Thanks for sharing and guiding for further reading.

I think we started out as bacteria ;-)

Actually, I thought it was going to be about an animated fry-cook who lives in an undersea pineapple! :)

On a more serious note, I think that this is an interesting way to work with nature and the resources provided to try to re-route water flow instead of trying to hold it back. Thank you for sharing this with us.

What a wonderful piece, I agree Glenn, one needs to work with nature as apposed to destroying all that stands in the way.

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