Sponges, Urban Forests and Air Corridors: How Nature Can Cool Cities

As China battles the twin challenges of rapid city growth and extreme weather, it is adopting a new tactic: turning its cities into giant sponges.

Thirty pilot cities in the country are trying to trap and hold more water to deal with such problems as flooding, drought, extreme heat and pollution.

The effort, launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping, relies on a range of innovations, such as green roofs on buildings and more urban wetlands. It is already being hailed as a bold step to solve some of the environmental problems plaguing the world's most populous country.

"It's a timely reminder that dealing with urban climate challenges requires a holistic approach," said Sunandan Tiwari, a sustainable urban development expert at ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), a global network of 1,500 cities, towns and regions.

People and water

Like many other large urban areas, Chinese cities are grappling with both rapid urbanization — more than half of the country's population lives in urban areas — and extreme weather, such as severe floods, water shortages and heat waves.

Both problems can leave more people at risk,but the sponge city effort, launched in 2015, aims to reduce the threats.

The pilot cities have been charged with finding ways to absorb, store, filter and purify rainwater, retain it within their boundaries, and release it for reuse when needed instead of channeling it away through sewers and tunnels.

The cities, including Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai, receive funds and practical help to redesign their urban areas in a water-sensitive way, with the aim of turning 80 percent of China's urban areas into sponges by 2030.

Flood control and water conservation, among other issues, are at the heart of the ambitious push.

But sponge cities have another benefit that looks set to become a major plus as urban areas in China and around the world get hotter: They can reduce the impact of heat waves, which are more pronounced in built-up areas, where concrete and asphalt trap heat.

Trees and other plants absorb water and then release it through evaporation. That creates a cooling effect, in the same way that sweat evaporating from skin cools people.

"Cooling is largely seen as a co-benefit of sponge cities. But with record temperatures in China and many parts of the world, it is becoming a key element in planning for climate-resilient cities," said Boping Chen, China director at the Hamburg-based World Future Council, a think tank.

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