Turning Cities Into Sponges: How Chinese Ancient Wisdom is Taking on Climate Change

Sourced from The Guardian

How does a city cope with extreme weather? These days, urban planning that doesn’t factor in some sort of catastrophic weather event is like trying to build something in a fictional utopia. For Kongjian Yu, one of the world’s leading landscape architects, the answer to coping with extreme weather events actually lies in the past.

Yu is the founder and dean of the school of landscape architecture at Peking University, founding director of architectural firm Turenscape, and famous for being the man who reintroduced ancient Chinese water systems to modern design. In the process he has transformed some of China’s most industrialised cities into standard bearers of green architecture.

Yu’s designs aim to build resilience in cities faced with rising sea levels, droughts, floods and so-called “once in a lifetime” storms. At 53, he is best known for his “sponge cities”, which use soft material and terraces to capture water which can then be extracted for use, rather than the usual concrete and steel materials which do not absorb water. 

European methods of designing cities involve drainage pipelines which cannot cope with monsoonal rain. But the Chinese government has now adopted sponge cities as an urban planning and eco-city template.

Yu spoke in Melbourne on Tuesday at a symposium on water-conscious design held as part of Melbourne Design Week at the National Gallery of Victoria. Speaking to Guardian Australia ahead of his appearance, Yu, who is based in Beijing, explained the key benefit of sponge cities is the ability to reuse water. “The water captured by the sponge can be used for irrigation, for recharging the aquifer, for cleansing the soil and for productive use,” Yu said.

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