This myth has been adapted from Erica Gies book Water Constantly Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge, on hand for preorder at

For years, Beijing panorama architect Yu Kongjian became ridiculed by his fellow electorate as a backward thinker. Some even called him an American secret agent—a nod to his doctorate from Harvard’s Graduate College of Contrivance and his opposition to dams, those symbols of energy and development in as a lot as the moment China.

Yu’s transgression: he told working with water, in do of seeking to manipulate it.

Yu is at the forefront of a circulate that objectives to restore the ebb and circulation of water to metropolis environments. His panorama architecture company Turenscape, which he cofounded in 1998, creates versatile areas for water to opened up and seep underground, both to prevent flooding and to be kept for later employ. His vision is to heal the pure hydrology that we’ve disrupted by tightly confining rivers with levees, putting structures or parking loads where water desires to linger, or erecting dams that like, to varying degrees, dried up 333 rivers in the Yangtze declare. “These grey infrastructures are in actuality killers of the pure blueprint, which we now must depend upon for our sustainable future,” Yu has said. By seeking to resolve one scenario at a time—flooding here, water scarcity there—the 20th-century formula to water management has undermined itself. “Drainage is separated from the water provide; flood management is separated from drought resistance,” he wrote in 2016 for a paper he presented at a Harvard symposium. 

Yanweizhou Park in Jinhua City


Because the 1700s, we’ve stuffed or drained as vital as 87% of the enviornment’s wetlands, which would in every other case be flexibly spicy and releasing water. It’s a key reason metropolis flooding is rising worldwide: as populations grow and cities expand, builders pave floodplains and farmland, fell forests, and channelize rivers, leaving stormwater that as soon as filtered into the ground with nowhere to whisk. The land declare lost to cities has doubled worldwide since 1992. When a metropolis increases the declare of roads, sidewalks, or parking loads by 1%, stormwater runoff boosts annual flood magnitude in shut by waterways by 3.3%.   

In dense cities, most productive spherical 20% of rain in actuality infiltrates the soil. As an different, drains and pipes elevate it away—lunacy, Yu thinks, in locations with water shortages.

Within the early 2000s, Yu and a analysis team created a map of Beijing showing where land became at high threat for flooding, which he called the “ecological security sample.” His advice became that this land will like to stay undeveloped, and desires to be feeble instead to absorb stormwater.

Authorities officials uncared for him. But then, in July 2012, catastrophe struck. Beijing’s largest storm in bigger than 60 years chucked down as vital as 18 inches of rain in locations, flooding roads three toes deep and filling underpasses. Yu barely made it house from work. “I became fortunate,” he says. “I saw many americans abandon their autos.” Nearly 80 americans died, most of them drowned in their autos, electrocuted, or overwhelmed beneath collapsed structures. The afflict stretched across 5,400 sq. miles and cost almost $2 billion.

Shanghai Houtan Park


“The 2012 flood gave us the lesson that the ecological security sample is a life-and-demise scenario.” Yu says.

Climate exchange has worsened these threats. With every 1 °C accomplish bigger, the atmosphere holds 7% extra water vapor. So when clouds burst into rain, it pours. Within the period in-between, dry areas acquire drier as the warmer air evaporates extra water out of soil and plants.

Now we’re starting up to search out the affect on the water cycle. Summer season and fall 2021 introduced deadly flooding to Contemporary York, Contemporary Jersey, Tennessee, Alabama, Germany, Belgium, India, Thailand, and the Philippines. On the same time drought, nick screw ups, and forest fires plagued the American West, Syria, Guatemala, Greece, and Siberia. Global economic losses from flooding rose from $500 million yearly, on life like, in the 1980s to $76 billion in 2020. By formula of drought, bigger than 2 billion americans across the enviornment already are residing with severe or high water insecurity. Researchers predict that as the climate continues to heat, two-thirds of the enviornment inhabitants—bigger than 5.25 billion americans—will ride step by step worse and extra frequent drought conditions.

These present disasters like introduced house to many americans the truth of what climate scientists had been announcing for years: climate exchange is water exchange.

Decrease than a 365 days after the 2012 storm, President Xi Jinping announced a nationwide program dubbed “sponge cities” (because a sponge absorbs water after which releases it slowly). The basis of giving water declare became thus elevated from fringe belief to national mission. In 2015 the central government started demonstration projects in 16 cities, and it added 14 extra in 2016. Every project covered at the very least five sq. miles, though some were bigger, with the aim of preserving 70% of the present annual rainfall on do by 2020.

In November of that 365 days, the declare-managed broadcaster China Central Television reported completion of the 30 pilot projects. It said they were combating and mitigating metropolis disasters, rising environmental advantages to waterways, and decreasing water air pollution. CCTV extra reported that between 2016 and 2020, the sponge metropolis belief had been implemented in 90 provincial-level cities and incorporated in the grasp plans for 538 cities. A peculiar purpose objectives for 100 cities with bigger than 1 million americans to fulfill the 70% rainwater have target by 2030.

Two views of Tongnan Dafo Temple Wetland Park in Chongqing City. Below, a construction inspired by the Dafo Temple. At trusty, an aerial search of the park. In 2020, Chongqing faced a 100 365 days storm, however the panorama protected shut by farms from flooding.

“It is, pointless to claim, profitable myth,” says Chris Zevenbergen, an knowledgeable in metropolis flood-threat management at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands and a visiting professor at China’s Southeast College. Chinese government reviews are most tasty viewed with skepticism, but Zevenbergen says he’s cautiously optimistic that the rosy overview could be borne out.

Sponge cities are a part of a worldwide circulate that goes by various names: green infrastructure in Europe, low-affect pattern in the US, water-provocative metropolis form in Australia, pure infrastructure in Peru, nature-primarily primarily based solutions in Canada. Unlike industrial management, all over which americans confine water with levees, channels, and asphalt and trip it off the land as fleet as you can imagine, these more contemporary approaches thought to restore water’s pure tendency to linger in locations relish wetlands and floodplains. 

Yu is anxious that China could well be applying a cookie-cutter formula to sponge cities: “Every patient wants a various solution.”

Thanks to that current thread, I’ve advance to have faith them collectively as the “Gradual Water” circulate. As in the Gradual Meals circulate, solutions are tailored to local ecology, climate, and americans. The most dauntless Gradual Water projects involve conserving or restoring wetlands, river floodplains, and mountain forests, concurrently safeguarding carbon storage and keeping homes for threatened plants and animals. But there are also minute metropolis projects, shoehorned between structures or in slender corridors alongside streets.

In April 2018, on a day with a “very high” air air pollution ranking, I visited Yu at Turenscape’s headquarters in Beijing. A slim, intense man with shrewd eyes and trusty somewhat of grey at the temples, he suggested me that his ardour for repairing humans’ relationship with water comes from his childhood at some stage in the Mao years, spent on an agricultural commune in Zhejiang province southwest of Shanghai. The youngest of five children, he spent his days gazing Chinese “peasant recordsdata” for managing water, ways that had been practiced for hundreds of years. To manage with scarcity, farmers maintained minute ponds and berms to abet rainfall infiltrate the ground, storing it for a dry day. The seasonal creek next to his village swelled and retreated with the seasons. “For me, flood is a time of enjoyment since the fish advance to the self-discipline, the fish advance to the pond,” he said. But as the nation urbanized, the Chinese abandoned that recordsdata and followed the Western direction. Now, he believes, they like to reclaim that ethos: “We desire to operate chums with flooding.” 

Sanya Mangrove Park


Yu has built Turenscape into an empire, with 600 employees in three workplaces. The company has bigger than 640 projects carried out or underway in 250 Chinese cities and 10 other countries. Turenscape also publishes a magazine called Panorama Structure Frontiers, in both Chinese and English, and supports grasp’s and PhD candidates and postdocs who’re researching hydrology or ecology, or measuring the efficacy of carried out projects.

The founder and dean of the School of Structure and Panorama at Peking College, Yu has also taught periodically at Harvard. He lectures customarily at the Ministry of Housing and City-Rural Pattern, and his 2003 book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Contrivance forward for the Chinese City is in its 13th printing. He’s been asked to consult with in other countries: Mexico, to illustrate, is hoping he can abet resolve Mexico City’s water problems, that are equivalent to Beijing’s.

When planning a project, designers first must figure out what water did old to americans built a metropolis. In a colossal white room at Turenscape’s workplaces, younger girls and males americans take a seat at desks separated by a jungle of plants, focused intently on that put a question to. They devise items of how water behaves at some stage in the built ambiance, factoring in every do’s particular ecology, geology, hydrology, and custom—a accomplish of computational geography. The concepts permits Yu and other Gradual Water practitioners to mannequin how reshaping the land and on hand declare in various ways affects how water flows and slows.

When planning a project, designers construct items of how water behaves at some stage in the built ambiance, factoring in every do’s particular ecology, geology, hydrology, and custom—a accomplish of computational geography.


Yu is now one thing of a hero to younger panorama architects. Accompanying us to various web sites became Geng Ran, an employee who exudes intense excitement to be working for him. For the length of the day, we were without end trotting after Yu as he rushed forward. “He’s constantly relish this,” said Geng, laughing. 

Whereas Yu retains his farmer’s values, he is a man of contemporary China. He offered and renovated a building in surely one of Beijing’s few most life like historic hutong neighborhoods, turning it actual into a non-public club for fellow Harvard grads, Beijing politicians, and other energy brokers. This whisk is in step with his modus operandi, per Niall Kirkwood, a professor of panorama architecture and technology at Harvard’s Graduate College of Contrivance who has known Yu for an excellent deal of years. Kirkwood says Yu is a political animal, and that this—alongside with his vision and ambition—accounts for his success. 

I obtained a risk to search spherical Yu in his pure habitat that night. He escorted me and Geng into the club thru a declare of engraved metal doors and across the courtyard, where the archaic stone floor had been changed with thick glass. Internal he ushered us downstairs to an enormous table beneath that clear floor. As we sat in ornate, carved chairs sipping intellectual-green cucumber juice, I checked out the moon above. Finance ministers were also visiting the club that night, so Yu circled between our tables. Forward of we left, he gave me a memento: a heavy tome titled Designed Ecologies: The Panorama Structure of Kongjian Yu. After dinner, his driver chauffeured us in a imprint-unusual Mercedes minivan to my hotel, where Yu obtained out to maneuver house—his everyday constitutional.

A week later I visited surely one of Turenscape’s projects in development: Yongxing River Park, located in Daxing, a miles-flung exurb of Beijing. “Forward of” satellite tv for pc pictures from three years earlier showed a  river straightened and confined by steep concrete partitions. “Now” pictures were chock-a-block with structures spherical a extra beneficiant, meandering direction for water. 

The project became almost entire after I saw it. About two and a half miles long and perchance two metropolis blocks wide, the park follows the river. Workers removed concrete alongside the river channel and excavated soil to widen the riverbed. That grime became then molded actual into a colossal berm working down the center, increasing two channels. The river flows on one facet; the different channel has huge holes of varying depths that act as filtration swimming pools. For the length of the dry season, the filtration facet is stuffed with partly cleaned effluent from a sewage treatment plant. Wetland plants in the swimming pools trim it extra, and the tiring straggle permits some water to filter underground. For the length of the monsoon season, that channel is reserved for floodwaters, and the effluent is treated industrially.

Beijing Yongxing River Greenway


Geng and I walked a slim concrete direction atop the central berm. Diverse Turenscape’s designs characteristic walkways corresponding to this, hovering above wetlands, so americans can enter the panorama 365 days-spherical and fancy adjustments from season to season. The broader riverbanks, newly freed from concrete, are dotted with hundreds of minute sedges planted in closely declare rows to assist the earth, relish a pointillist-­rendered panorama. We handed younger willows, a native streamside plant that can survive flooding. In other locations, reeds, dwarf lilyturf, and other native plants stabilize the soil. Turenscape largely makes employ of native plants in its designs because they thrive on the water, climate, and nutrients on hand. 

In summer season 2020, at some stage in heavy summer season rains, Yu sent me pictures of Yongxing River Park. The trees and grasses had grown up considerably since I’d visited. The channel contained somewhat just a few water but became nowhere shut to overtopping. Turenscape doesn’t yet like recordsdata on Yongxing’s flood capability, infiltration price, or water-cleansing products and providers, but Yu called its management of that 365 days’s monsoon a “gargantuan performance.”

It is seemingly to be inspiring for americans to conceive of developing declare for water in a populated declare, on the different hand it’s you can imagine. Making the most of declare in increasing exurbs relish Daxing is one formula. Yet every other is to forestall building atop protective wetlands and coastal habitats—absorption capability that is repeatedly squandered. 

Assorted alternatives to operate declare for water and nick future losses are chanced on even in metropolis centers, where structures are torn down extra often than americans have. Disasters is seemingly to be a catalyst, corresponding to when governments employ emergency funds to need and have away flooded structures and convert the declare to an absorbent park. Cleaned-up faded industrial web sites can provide up somewhat just a few declare too—customarily trusty alongside rivers. Assorted ways to accommodate water in compact cities consist of bioswales (ditches lined with water-loving plants), infiltration ponds, rain gardens, and seepage wells. The do human declare is nonnegotiable, designers every so often employ aspects corresponding to permeable pavement and green roofs that can absorb water.

The Floating Gardens at Yongning River Park, old to (inset) and after


Yu has converted his house, a duplex he shares with his sister, actual into a residing laboratory for just a few of those ways. Within the hallway are pictures of his family again on the farm, Yu and his Harvard mentor, Yu with two Chinese presidents. Between the apartments, he built a residing wall of porous limestone. Water captured from the roof dribbles down its face, from which maidenhair ferns and philodendrons sprout. The green wall cools the two homes sufficient to operate air-conditioning pointless, though he concedes that it gets somewhat heat in summer season. Vegetation on decks off the bedrooms are watered with roof-caught rain, kept in tanks beneath the raised plant beds. “We salvage 52 cubic meters of stormwater [annually], and I grow 32 kilograms of greens,” Yu says proudly. His efforts also nick runoff from his building’s roof and decrease his non-public water usage from metropolis sources.

Though Xi’s sponge cities initiative is per concepts that assume his like concepts, Yu fears that in some cases, China could well be doing it infamous. The nation has every so often feeble cookie-cutter solutions for other programs, Yu says, but for sponge cities to attain success, every project desires to be do-­particular. As Yu puts it, “Every patient wants a various solution.”

Monsoon rains across China had been heavy the most life like couple of summers, worrying no longer most productive fashioned water infrastructure, corresponding to dams—lots of of which like failed or advance shut to it—but additionally the fledgling sponge cities. In summer season 2021, one pilot project metropolis with a inhabitants of spherical 7 million, Zhengzhou, suffered necessary flooding when bigger than eight inches of rain fell in one hour and practically 300 americans died, leading some to do a put a question to as to if sponge cities were working. 

Zevenbergen notes that designs could well like to be tweaked to better match local wants. However the bigger facet could well be that the interventions simply aren’t dauntless sufficient. Spicy 70% of rainfall across five sq. miles of a metropolis that spans 2,900 sq. miles obtained’t prevent flooding. Gradual Water projects work most tasty after they are going to absorb water across the plump panorama, so planners must think beyond the metropolis footprint. A metropolis is a component of an even bigger watershed. Restoring declare for water upstream in pure river floodplains can lower the water ranges downstream. 

On this, too, Yu is inspiring at work. He’s increasing a panorama grasp idea for all of China. At his do of job, he showed me a series of maps that doc China’s elevation, watersheds, flood paths, biodiversity, desertification, ecological security, soil erosion, and cultural heritage. As urbanization spreads, as estuaries and deltas silt up, as water starts to whisk in every other case across landscapes and cityscapes, he identifies the spots where his projects will like the supreme affect.

“That is a philosophy for taking care of the continental panorama,” Yu says. “It’s time to expand the size.”

Erica Gies is a journalist primarily primarily based in Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco.

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