Shenzhen as China’s Pioneer “Sponge City”: Dialogue with The Nature Conservancy

  • Published: 12 December 2018
  • Author: Gloria Luo

Climate proofing cities against rising sea levels and flooding is becoming increasingly important as climate change worsens. Achieving this would require proactive sustainable water management and pioneering urban design for flood resilience. In China, a striking number – about 98% of all cities – are exposed to frequent flooding due to various reasons such as urbanization‐induced wetland loss and outdated drainage system designs. With the increasing demand for freshwater supply as a result of rapid urbanization, issues like deterioration of water quality and freshwater shortage will only exacerbate the vulnerability of these cities.

In response to this complex and pervasive water challenge, China launched the “Sponge City” program at the end of 2014 that aims to design and construct city infrastructure that can absorb and capture rainwater for reuse.

Unpacking the concept of “Sponge City”

The idea behind the “Sponge City” approach is to revitalize urban landscape and enable cities to mimic natural water cycle. This is done by replacing hard, impermeable surfaces with permeable, spongy materials and features like green roofs, rain gardens and wetlands to capture and retain rainwater for future use. The concept is similar to other stormwater management approaches such as the low impact development adopted in the United States and the water sensitive urban design in Australia. Its benefits include:

  • reducing environmental impacts of urban development and construction projects
  • transforming cities for resilience and adaptation to environmental changes and natural disaster
  • improving urban liveability
  • reducing economic losses of flooding

These benefits can further attract investment opportunities in infrastructure development and new technologies.

Setting ambitious targets for water resilience

China’s State Council has set an ambitious national target to transform urban areas of Chinese cities to absorb, retain, and reuse 70% of the rainwater. The target has been set in such a way that 20% of the urban areas would need to achieve this by 2020 and for 80% of urban areas or above to achieve this by 2030. Today, 30 pilot cities have been selected by the Ministry of Housing and Rural-Urban Development to join the program. Each pilot city can receive designated subsidies from the central government from about USD 57 million to USD 86 million per year for three consecutive years. The amount of investments required to meet the target is expected to be USD 302 billion by 2020 and USD 1 trillion by 2030. Investment gaps can be supplemented with funding raised from provincial governments, local governments, financial institutions or public-private-partnership.

Progress to date: spotlight on Shenzhen

Four years have passed since the program was launched and a number of studies have been conducted to evaluate its effectiveness and to identify challenges that might hinder further progress. To gain first-hand insights into the program implementation, we interviewed The Nature Conservancy (“TNC”), who has been partnering with the Paradise Foundation and the Sponge City Office of the Shenzhen municipal government since December 2016 to establish and promote Shenzhen as China’s pioneer sponge city. According to the China Low-Carbon and Green Index for Cities, Shenzhen leads the way in sustainable urban development among 115 Chinese cities.

Here is a quick summary of what we discussed:

  • The importance of civic participation

CSR Asia: In your efforts related to the partnership with the Shenzhen government, can you briefly describe your role and major contributions? Have you observed a trend in adopting cross-sector collaboration for other pilot cities in China when implementing the “Sponge City” program?

TNC: One of our priority areas as a civil society organization is to build healthy cities, which aligns with the objective of the “Sponge City” program to promote green infrastructure. In this partnership, TNC provides technical expertise from years of experience in urban conservation in Shenzhen. Our role is to enhance community engagement for program implementation on the ground. So far, Shenzhen is the only pilot city in China that has partnered with CSOs like us to form a cross-sector partnership.

  • Increased awareness as foundation of action and impact

CSR Asia: TNC has been involved in the implementation of six voluntary demonstration sites in Shenzhen, including the partnership with Tencent to transform its new headquarters into a green, intelligent and user-friendly building. In view of the progress to date, what are the major challenges hindering further progress in your work?

TNC: Shenzhen has sets an ambitious goal to transform 20% of urban areas by 2020 and 80% by 2030 to meet “Sponge City” infrastructure requirements. The scale and complexity present a challenge to the government who couldn’t manage the transformation alone. At the same time, the “Sponge City” concept is indeed a very nascent idea to businesses and communities, the majority of whom still view the program merely as municipal engineering projects. Very often, the public is not fully aware of the benefits of green infrastructure to people’s health, community livelihood and the economy, why they should be involved, and how to contribute.

By carrying out demonstration projects like the ‘Urban Mountains’ project in Gangxia, we create opportunities for people to experience the improvements on urban micro environments and to understand what a resilient city is. This increase of awareness can then be further translated into local collective action for greater impact.

  • Green infrastructure engenders a sustainable mindset

CSR Asia: Shenzhen has recently been selected as one of the three sustainable development zones in China and aims to be a global model city for innovation and sustainable development by 2035. With the city’s impressive efforts like electrifying its entire bus fleet, how does the “Sponge City” program fit into, or is influenced by, the context of the city’s strategic vision?

TNC: The direct impact of the “Sponge City” program falls upon greening Shenzhen’s physical infrastructure, which can be captured by more visible and measurable outcomes like controlling stormwater runoff. What has been less emphasized, however, is that the program also has an impact on developing the “soft side” of cities. By increasing the amount of green and open space that were lost to urbanization, the program echoes the worldwide trends we are witnessing today that encourage human-centered designs, social interactions, and the cultivation of sustainable lifestyles. The dual-goal of the program thus contributes to Shenzhen’s sustainable vision by realizing water management objectives while at the same time bringing nature back into cities and everyday life.

  • Key takeaways for moving forward

CSR Asia: What are the three lessons learned that you think are the key to successful implementation of sponge city projects and can be applied to other cities and contexts in China?

TNC: 1. Advocacy: to adopt a strategic communication plan for stakeholder engagement to enhance public awareness; 2. Collaboration: to provide more room for collaboration with CSOs to supplement government’s efforts; 3. Governance: to link third-party opinions (from partners such as project engineers and CSOs) to performance of the government when conducting self-assessment at the municipal level, which is a model of good governance the Shenzhen government is adopting.

If you are interested in learning more about TNC’s conservation efforts in Shenzhen, or would like to be part of this exciting partnership to promote Shenzhen as China’s pioneer sponge city, please contact: Mr. Xin YU (Fish), Shenzhen Conservation Director at The Nature Conservancy at [email protected].