NZ Cities Urgently Need to Become ‘Spongier’ – But System Change will be Expensive

By Dr. Alex Lo, Dr. Faith Chan 20 April, 2023

Are “spongier” cities the answer to NZ's climate change woes - already had 2 deadly storms in 2023? Lo & Dr. Chan, University Lecturer & Professor, look at how and what would be needed to go spongy

Impacts from two extreme weather events that occurred in first two months of 2023 put climate change into sharp focus for NZ & their unpreparedness for what’s coming
Now a lot more talk about needing “sponge cities”, with Auckland being a prime candidate; involves integrating flood resilient-elements
But overseas experience, especially in China, suggests it will require serious financial commitment; plus, initiatives will need to be fit for locally adapted solutions & systems

This article is republished from The Conversation (under a Creative Commons license). Read the original article, “NZ cities urgently need to become ‘spongier’ – but system change will be expensive”, published on 19 February 2023 here.

Two extreme and deadly weather events within the first two months of 2023 have brought the consequences of climate change into sharp focus. Auckland’s January 27 flood is the most expensive weather event in New Zealand insurance history. Cyclone Gabrielle prompted a national state of emergency, only the third time one has been declared.

Two deadly weather events in first two months of 2023 put the consequences of climate change into sharp focus for NZ

Auckland and the upper North Island also face an increasing risk of extreme heatwaves. These floods, storms and heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense in a changing climate. Our cities, including Auckland, are poorly prepared for what is coming.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is now a lot more talk about the need for “sponge cities”, with Auckland being a prime candidate. The basic principle is to manage urban flood risks by utilising more natural drainage and flood-resilient systems and material.

The concept is well understood and undoubtedly an appropriate response to current and future conditions – but it is not cheap. Overseas experience, especially in China, suggests building and adapting a city like Auckland to be more “spongey” would require serious financial commitment.

There is now a lot more talk about needing “sponge cities”, with Auckland being a prime candidate…


…but overseas experience, especially in China, suggests it will require serious financial commitment

Mimicking nature

The sponge city requires a holistic approach that differs considerably from the way we currently build infrastructure. It involves integrating flood-resilient elements such as bio-swales, pervious pavements, underground water-storage tanks, rain gardens, wetlands and green roofs.

The sponge city requires a holistic approach that differs from current infrastructure…

…it involves integrating flood resilient-elements that can mimic natural hydrological responses

These features can mimic natural hydrological responses and absorb urban stormwater. Increased vegetation and water bodies can also lower ambient temperatures and help people cope with extreme heat.

This type of development is already underway in various places: Australia’s water-sensitive urban design schemes, for example, and the sustainable urban drainage systems and Blue-Green Cities approach in Britain.

Auckland Council has also implemented similar principles, with a good example being the Long Bay residential development, where land use and catchment management planning have been developed simultaneously. Streets are designed to form an integrated “treatment train” for stormwater, involving swales, rain gardens and a wetland at the bottom of the catchment.

In fact, Auckland was recently ranked the “spongiest” of nine global cities, mainly due to its lower urban density and lots of green areas. But this sponginess is clearly still not adequate, as demonstrated by the January floods.

“Spongy” development is already underway in places like Australia & the UK

Lessons from China

If the sponge city is our goal, we need to see what has been achieved in China, which has been running a large-scale programme for nearly ten years under a nationally coordinated policy. A total of 30 cities participated and provided financial and technical support.

China has been running a large-sale program for nearly 10 yrs under a nationally coordinated policy

The targets were to increase the area of urban land able to absorb surface water discharges by approximately 20%; to retain or reuse approximately 70% of urban stormwater by 2020; and to reuse up to 80% of stormwater by the 2030s. As well as mitigating flood risk, the programme is about the collection, purification and reuse of urban stormwater to address future climatic extremes (floods and droughts).

The concept requires more than eco-friendly measures for urban water management. A holistic urban development strategy is crucial. Planting more trees, using less impervious surface, and building more green roofs are key elements.

But China’s ultimate goal is to modernise the urban system by creating and reorganising resilient blue-green spaces (rivers, wetlands and trees), with a target of up to 80% coverage in major districts across the selected cities by the 2030s. The estimated construction area in the first 16 pilot sponge cities is more than 450 square kilometres.

Costs and returns

This all requires substantial public investment. The average cost lies between US$14 million and $21  million (about NZ$23 to $35 million) per square kilometre over the first three years of construction and operation. This may be higher in New Zealand due to price differences and inflation.

The Chinese government allocated 400 to 600 million yuan (around NZ$92–$140 million) to each pilot city for the first three years. This was just startup investment – many pilot cities struggled to finance the implementation of their original plans.

But this requires substantial investment – US$14-21mn/ sqkm

An alternative to taxpayer funding might be to encourage public-private partnerships. But private investors in China have shown little interest in financing sponge city initiatives, which are often located in high-risk areas like floodplains. It’s hard to estimate investment returns or guarantee performance in the long time-frame of climate change.

The fact that 19 of the 30 pilot cities have experienced flooding since 2014 is not an encouraging signal, either. In Zhengzhou, one of the pilot cities, nearly 300 people were killed in a catastrophic flooding event in 2021.

There are financial instruments for reducing risk, such as green bonds, green loans and insurance. But a high return is required to cover the risks and costs. Apartments and buildings with green elements are more likely to generate those returns than public parks and underground water-storage systems.

Local solutions

There are other challenges, too. Creating greener, more desirable neighbourhoods can also displace people who can’t afford the price of gentrification.

Auckland has a smaller population and lower urban density than most of the Chinese sponge cities. This means the new infrastructure and developments required would be more spread out across the city.

There are other challenges too…

…initiatives would need to be fit for locally adapted solutions & systems

And Auckland is not like Hong Kong, for example, where a huge underground stormwater storage tank (with a 60,000 cubic metre capacity) has been built. The potential for developing such large and concentrated drainage infrastructure is comparatively limited in a city like Auckland.

New Zealand’s sponge city initiatives would be of smaller scale and more diffuse – as will be the potential benefits. We will need locally adapted solutions and systems – but the lessons and examples from elsewhere can be central to that process.

Further Reading

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Dr. Alex Lo
Author: Dr. Alex Lo
Dr Alex Lo is a human geographer specializing in climate change adaptation, governance, and policy. He received his PhD in Environmental Studies from the Australian National University, and is a recipient of the World Social Science Fellowship, Endeavour Research Fellowship, Universitas 21 Fellowship. Pete Hay Prize, Li Ka Shing Prize, Dr. Stephen S.F. Hui Prizes, and Ada and Arthur Hill Prize. Dr Lo is Adjunct Professor at Guangzhou University, China, and Associate Editor of Geographical Research (Wiley), the journal of the Institute of Australian Geographers. He is currently Senior Lecturer in Climate Change at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
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Dr. Faith Chan
Author: Dr. Faith Chan
Dr Faith Chan is Assistant Professor in Geographical Sciences, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Nottingham Ningbo China, and Senior visiting research fellow in the University of Leeds. He specialises in international water management policies, particularly in sustainable flood management and planning practices, flood risk assessment practices in the UK, Europe and East Asian coastal cities, deltas and their applications in both developed and developing countries.
Read more from Dr. Faith Chan →