Flash floods are sudden, violent floods that occur within a short time of heavy rainfall, often within hours or even minutes. They can rapidly fill streets, basements, and entire floors of buildings with water. Flash floods occur due to several factors, including heavy rain, rapid snowmelt, or the collapse of a man-made structure like a dam, overwhelming the drainage capacity in an area. In urban environments, impervious surfaces like concrete prevent water from naturally soaking into the ground, exacerbating the volume and speed of runoff.

What causes flash floods (1)

These floods are particularly dangerous in cities due to the dense population and infrastructure. The rapid rise of water can lead to significant loss of life and damage to property, infrastructure, and the environment. Roads can become impassable, hindering emergency services, and the economic impact can be severe, disrupting businesses and leading to costly repairs and insurance claims.

As urban areas grapple with the growing threat of flash floods, the concept of sponge cities emerges as a critical solution in urban planning. This approach, which originated in China, seeks to enhance urban resilience by enabling cities to absorb and release water like a sponge, thus mitigating flood risks. Unlike conventional ‘gray infrastructure’ such as dams and levees, sponge cities use ‘green’ and ‘blue-green’ infrastructure. They incorporate parks, permeable surfaces, and wetlands to replicate natural water cycles, reducing the impact of flooding exacerbated by dense urban development.

Haikou Meishe River – before and after shots of the ‘sponge city’ hotspot. (2)

Not only does this strategy aim to manage surface-water flooding and reduce peak run-off, but it also purifies urban runoff and promotes water conservation. The environmental, community health and economic benefits are vast, offering a holistic improvement to urban living.

Urban sponge body schematic. (3)

Several cities worldwide have successfully implemented sponge city designs to mitigate the effects of flash floods. Some examples include:

  1. Beijing, China: Beijing was one of the first cities to adopt the sponge city concept, with a goal of turning 80% of the city into a sponge city by 2030. (4)
  2. Shanghai, China: Shanghai has implemented sponge city designs in several districts, including the Lingang New Area, which features a 1.5-kilometer-long greenway that can absorb up to 70% of rainfall. (5)
  3. Berlin, Germany: Berlin has implemented sponge city designs in several neighborhoods, including the Rummelsburger Bucht, which features a green roof and a rain garden to absorb and filter rainwater. (6)
  4. Los Angeles, USA: Los Angeles has implemented sponge city designs in several neighborhoods, including the Sun Valley Watershed, which features a green street and a bioswale to capture and filter stormwater. (7)

These projects showcase how integrating nature-based solutions can lead to more adaptable, resilient, and sustainable urban spaces, contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As the frequency and severity of urban floods increase, sponge cities represent a proactive and sustainable investment in urban infrastructure. With an estimated cost of around US$1 trillion for China alone, the scale of this initiative is substantial, reflecting the urgency and importance of addressing the water-related challenges cities face in the 21st century.


(1) What causes flash floods?

(2) What are sponge cities and could they solve China’s water crisis?

(3) What are Sponge Cities?

(4) Exploring the Development of the Sponge City Program (SCP): The Case of Gui’an New District, Southwest China


(6) Sponge Cities: What is it all about?

(7) Sponde Cities