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China's Sponge Cities

Krystal Paisley

January 27, 2016

No, it’s not where your old kitchen sponges go after retirement. Sponge cities are part of China’s innovative green infrastructure plan to combat both its catastrophic floods and severe droughts.


A quick Google search of “flooding in China,” will bring up images of floating cars on the streets in some of China’s largest cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. Despite the flooding, many cities are still considered water scarce or severely water scarce. Usually, these cities only get rain during the spring season in the form of monsoon-type events, yet the remainder of the year is dry. To solve these contrasting issues, a solution is needed to harvest the water from the heavy rainfalls for use throughout the year.


The Chinese central government pledged to provide billions of dollars in funding assistance over the next three years, in an effort to help 16 pilot cities morph into “urban sponges.” In addition to the selected pilots, other cities in China have also carried out their own experiments.

The Cause

The catastrophic and nuisance floods have two main causes. First, experts say climate change has played a role in the events by producing more rainfall during shorter periods of time. To add to this issue, rapid urbanization in the country has simply outpaced stormwater removal. In 2013, China’s drainage networks were extended to reach 288,838 miles, but it just isn’t enough to catch up.

A Headache Turns into Innovation

These ongoing issues initially left Chinese city planners scratching their heads. However, the combination of flooding and drought has created an opportunity for innovative urban design. That’s where sponge cities come into play. Sponge cities aim to develop infrastructure to collect excess rainfall and integrate flood control. This will allow cities to handle large amounts of water and also reuse rainwater during water scarcity.


As with any innovative project, the development of sponge cities presents some challenges. This project has been considered an ambitious green infrastructure plan by some, including this article by CityLab. Some of the other challenges include:

  • Scaling up such a large project
  • Providing enough support and guidance for Chinese urban planners to implement the initiatives within each sponge city
  • Collaboration between a number of entities, including engineers, landscape designers, road builders, drainage solution providers, and others
  • Massive amount of existing, dated infrastructure

ms Collaboration

To help address these challenges, China has enlisted various consultants for the sponge city initiative. ms is collaborating directly with an engineering firm based in Shenzhen, China, for this initiative. ms is an integral part of their green infrastructure team. ms is providing:

  • Green Infrastructure and LID Planning
  • Stormwater Management and BMPs
  • Green Infrastructure Modeling
  • Green Infrastructure Design and Implementation
  • Landscape design
  • Ecological Restoration
  • Water Quality Management and Modeling
  • RTC, storm alarm system, stormwater facility control and management


Follow our blog and social media for updates on the project. For more information, contact Kari Mackenbach at