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Sponge City

Exploring high-tech ways to manage uninvited water on World Water Day:

Focusing in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, researchers (Meng et al., 2018) explore a program to improve the city’s resilience to pluvial flooding in a context of rapid urbanization and climate change. Using a ‘Sponge City’ metaphor, the program, which uses a smart city philosophy, combines Guangzhou’s ambitions to improve its resilience to flood risk, with a pursuit of a more sustainable way to build an attractive and liveable urban environment. Guangzhou identifies as a smart city, it uses sophisticated technology to improve weather forecasts, traffic congestion, healthcare services, and resilience to environmental issues. The city collects real-time information on traffic flows and visualizes it, allowing officials to use graphic analysis to manage traffic supported by the Tianhe-2 Supercomputer, also known as “the ‘Milky Way 2’, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers”. A computer system which has massive processing capabilities that powers citizen services (Chia, 2018). And yet the city is also an example of how urban expansion exacerbates vulnerability to flooding in the context of the changing climate.

Similar to the Low Impact Developments (LIDs) in the United States or Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SuDs) and the Blue-Green Cities (BGCs) approaches in the United Kingdom, the Sponge City program has been developed to adapt its technology to help address the city’s vulnerability to flooding. The program encourages horizontal cooperation between spatial planning and other professions, traces and models innovation in the local spatial planning system and promotes common ‘sponge’ practices such as “bio-swales, rain gardens, pervious pavements, artificial ponds and green roofs” to reduce the peak discharges and to absorb urban stormwater through “soil infiltration, stormwater retention, storage, purification, recharge groundwater and improving the water quality of the runoff”(Chan, 2018) (Mesut et al., 2018). Chan explains that this idea of a sponge infrastructure delivers “multiple benefits to the general public by creating more recreational space improving the amenity value and the living well-being of a district” (Chan, 2018). “Designers will concede to the wisdom of nature to ensure water is absorbed when there’s an excess: instead of water-resistant concrete, permeable materials and green spaces will be used to soak up rainfall, and rivers and streams will be interconnected so that water can flow away from flooded areas”(Leach, 2016). The program acknowledges that flooding causes more economic, social, and humanitarian damage than any other natural disaster (Global Resilient Partnership) and the Chinese government aims to develop the sponge city concept nationally.

Smart Communities in Japan

(Granier and Kudo, 2016) explore the idea of “Smart Communities” in Japan as a response to the reported lack of research into the practices of citizens in smart cities. Smart communities were explored to “enabled the Japanese to extensively integrate new, innovative technologies into their daily lives” (Beltran, 2017). Experts from Japan’s influential Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has defined a smart community as being “a community of a certain scale in which various consumers participate and which has created a new social system” (METI, 2014). This social system is based on the networks created through the fusion of energy and digital technology, designed to reduce consumption and secure energy supply in a country vulnerable to the threat of natural disasters (METI, 2014).

Smart communities, according to Granier and Kudo, highlight the importance of ICT as a powerful aspect of public involvement in smart city projects of resilience (Gil-Garcia et al., 2016; Granier and Kudo, 2016; Marres, 2015). An intuitive that amplifies the importance of community and citizens participation and takes a more positive position with regards the, “seemingly crucial and relentlessly claimed citizens’ “engagement” or “participation” in smart cities and the relative weakness of both actual practices” (Granier and Kudo, 2016, p.68). Smart communities have developed with an objective, “not to involve citizens in city governance, but rather to make them participate in the co-production of public services” (Granier and Kudo, 2016, p.61), allowing ICTs used by municipalities and electric utilities to steer project participants and to change behaviour. In other words, making not only the city’s infrastructure“smart”, but also its industry, commerce, business, and householders too (Granier and Kudo, 2016).

Granier and Kudo maintain that many smart city authorities struggle with public participation, with their input subject of various criticisms about its relevance and its efficacy. They explain that “[t]he lack of willingness and competence of ordinary citizens to contribute to policymaking is often highlighted, especially when it comes to technical issues”(Granier and Kudo, 2016, p.65), they go on to suggest that participatory mechanisms often aim at suppressing dissent and are tools of manipulation. In this respect, participation is considered as a ‘policy instrument’ aimed at ensuring the acceptance of a measure or a project, without any ambition to consider citizens input. As Chourabi et al. surmise, “addressing the topic of people and communities as part of smart cities is critical, and traditionally has been neglected” (Chourabi et al., 2012,p.2287-89).

However, the concept of a smart community in Japan acknowledges the community and the city as a whole, setting up a system of cooperation between the industry, government and residents (Gao et al., 2016) an alternative ‘triple helix’ to that of De Lange and DeWaal explained earlier in the paper. Forbes agrees and explains that “[i]n some countries, a smart city is all about improving industry or transportation, In Japan, it’s about how to solve specific social issues and improve quality of life for the citizens” (Forbes, 2019).

The Chesterfield Heights Project, Norfolk, USA

The city of Norfolk is increasingly subject to the impact of high sea levels and regular flooding that occurs after heavy rains, particularly between September and December. Areas in the city suffer from inadequate water drainage systems, outdated, and poorly situated the century-old stormwater outlets to the sea are submerged even at low tides (Kramer, 2016). A Norfolk resident explains that:

“You have a thunderstorm and suddenly everybody in Norfolk is modifying how they get from point A to point B because they know certain streets, they won’t be able to drive on,” (Ann Phillips) (Kramer, 2016, p.22)

The Chesterfield Heights Project[1] was developed by a team of academics from architecture and engineer departments at Old Dominion University (ODU) and Hampton University in collaboration with NGO, local and government agencies. The multifaceted project focused on a rundown neighbourhood of 500 homes called Chesterfield Heights and developed its resilience to flooding by using smart city technology such as ‘StormSense’ (an IoT-enabled inundation forecasting research initiative), a network of ultrasonic and radar remote water level sensors to help establish the “regional resilience monitoring network”(Loftis et al., 2018, p.56). The project team ultimately proposed a unique network of cisterns built underneath the roads and house basements, the sealed cisterns with one-way check valves would collect the flood water and would allow it slowly to seep back into the soil. The project later received $115 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s National Disaster Resilience to implement the plan that will be completed in 2023(Andrews, 2020).

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Sennett argues that smart city technologies have helped cities like Rio de Janeiro in their quest to become more climate change resilient. The city has had a torrid history of devastating flash floods, which has resulted in the exacerbation of social ills such as widespread poverty and violent crime (Sennett, 2012). In their attempts to combat the social problems and the challenges related to climate change, such as flooding, the citizens have adopted technology that large corporations like IBM and Cisco offer cities to mitigating risk and improving resilience. Sennett cites Rio de Janeiro case as a positive example of co-collaboration, highlighting the city’s use of data-based applications for, ‘forecasting’ natural disasters scenarios, coordinating responses to infrastructure crises, and organising police responses on crime. He uses Rio as a contrast to a smart city’s civil shortfalls as the report the troubles related to smart cities like Masdar in Abu Dhabi and Songdo in South Korea. Thus, promoting an important lesson that offers an alternative approach to addressing risk and resilience from a smart city viewpoint, one which is co-ordination rather than top-down orientated which is apparent in Masdar and Songdo. (Sennett, 2012

[1] For further information please refer to :

Top Image by Calin Eng - Connecting image unknown

Text written by Frazer Macdonald Hay


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