‘Sponge City: a sponge or a soap bubble?’ Assessment of the implementation of the Sponge City programme in Jinan, China

Zhe Zhan, Graduate, Master of Science in Water, Sanitation and Health Engineering.

*This post is about research conducted as part of a Master of Science in Water, Sanitation and Health Engineering final project, supervised by Dr Christian Beretta and Professor Barbara Evans.*

In order to mitigate increasingly frequent urban floods and water scarcity, the Chinese government proposed the Sponge City programme in 2014. The principles of a “Sponge City” approach, as the name suggests, are that a city that is able to absorb water when it rains, and can release water during drought. Essentially, the city is to be equipped with artificial infrastructure, including green roofs and permeable ground surfaces, designed to interact with existing natural landforms, such as wetlands and lakes. This is similar to “water sensitive urban design” (WSUD) and “sustainable urban drainage system (SUDS) approaches in Australia and the UK, respectively. Thirty cities were chosen as pilot cities to conduct the Sponge City programme. Two years into the programme, 19 of the 30 cities still suffer from significant floods.

Permeable pavement in Jinan (Zhe Zhan)

There is little agreement on why these sponges “failed”; some people argue that the technologies used are not optimal, while others claim that the time provided for assessing the effectiveness of the Sponge City is not enough, as it normally needs at least 5 to 10 years to make the benefits visible.  Focus tends to have been on the “hardware” component, thinking about how the various technologies function, with few analyses of the “software” part, including stakeholder inclusivity, governance, and institutional coherence, all of which can also significantly affect the implementation and effectiveness of Sponge Cities.

As the Chinese Sponge City programme is quite new, there is little in the existing literature examining the software part of its implementation. With this in mind, I visited Jinan, one of the 30 pilot cities, with the aim of complementing the available secondary data. I interviewed three people involved in the Sponge City programme, two of whom are from private companies hired by the local government to participate in the Sponge City programme, and the other a lecturer from the local university majoring in City Planning and Project Engineering. Three major themes emerged from my interviews in combination with my analysis of secondary data:

“The local government asks us to proceed some unrealizable mission in a very tight construction period.”

Being selected as the pilot city was an honoured thing to the local government, and then the local government started to set its “ambitious” goal to show their steadfast support to the central government. Firstly, the local government set to improving the runoff control rate from the initial 75% to 80%, without considering its feasibility in old urban areas. Secondly, the local government kept asking for faster completion rates, which resulted in omission of the field investigation, even though the contractor should have completed it during the planning stage. Finally, the contractor chose that instead of negotiating to propose a more reasonable construction plan, they tried to design every measure they could to meet the runoff control rate predetermined by the local government, regardless of whether if it is feasible in reality. For example, on the design drawings handed to the audit department, there may be a big reservoir designed to collect the penetrated water, but it will not work in practice, as some unrecorded old pipes exist among the venue. Despite this, the design drawings were still approved! This means that not only the contractor, but also the audit department, chose to cater to the local government’s wishes, against their professional judgement.

A poorly managed rainwater garden (Zhe Zhan)

“The public people are unwilling to cooperate with us and they ask for extras sometimes.”

Another big obstruction met during the implementation has been from the public. In most cases, it has proven very difficult to get community-leaders involved. As the construction may cause temporary traffic congestion and noise, few people show their willingness to cooperate with the contractor. Even if they agree to let the contractor into the community, they usually ask for more benefits, such as paving of roads and the refurbishment of old car parks.

The most likely cause of this phenomenon is low public inclusivity. There is no right for the people to be heard; even though they are one of the main stakeholders, the government ignores the public. In the policies and regulations developed for the programme, the only part referring to the public is “advertising the advantages of the Sponge City programme to the public”, meaning that the public only plays a role of passive listener – there is no right for the people to be heard, no mechanism set up for receiving the suggestions and complaints from the public, and no institution established for the public to consult with. Consequently, it could have been anticipated that the public would be unwilling to cooperate entirely with the contractor.

“We participate in this programme not because we are confident but because we want to get more political benefits.”

The local government in Jinan organized a bidding activity to choose the ideal contractors, and as expected, many contractors expressed their wiliness to participate. However, through the interview with an employee of the contractor that won the bidding, it became apparent that the incentives of the contractor deviates from the original intention of the bidding. Contractors chose to participate because they want to create a good impression on the local government, by showing their support  by taking part in the Sponge City programme, so that they may enjoy more political benefits in the future. That may result in poor implementation indeed; as the contractors have already achieved their goals, it was suggested that little effort may go into truly implementing the programme.

In summary, there are many factors among the “soft” part of the implementation of the Sponge City programme that may have negative impacts on the programme’s efficacy. The extremely low public inclusivity leads to bad cooperation between the public and the contractor, while the unbalanced relationship between the government and the contractor may be causing sub-optimal implementation.