How to achieve Regenerative Cities: 6th Future of Cities Forum in Tianjin, China

What is a Regenerative City and how do we turn this vision into a reality? At our 6th Future of Cities Forum in Tianjin, China, leading experts from around the world explored key policy solutions and best practices to make cities more Regenerative from a water management perspective. The event was organized in partnership with UN Habitat and the Beijing Jiaotong University as an official sub-forum of the 7th Binhai Tianjin International Eco-City Forum & Expo and took place from 21-22 October 2016. Over 20 national media reported on this year’s Future of Cities Forum including Xinhua News, SinaFinance and China News and thus reached around 5 million readers.
Read more

Six priorities for Sponge Cities

International and Chinese experts got together in Beijing to discuss Sponge Cities in China and its relevant policy recommendations. But what can we actually learn from the discussion? Here are 6 key priorities that emerged.

The second session of the World Future Council Future of Cities Salons series was held in Beijing on 26th April 2016. The event titled China-Germany Dialogue on the Sponge City: Resilient and Regenerative allowed Chinese and international experts to come together and discuss the concept of the Sponge City in front of several members of the local press. The concept of the Sponge City has gained particular attention in China as an attempt to define an effective model to tackle, among other issues, the increase in inner city floods experienced by many cities in China. Extreme weather events, such as more intensive rainstorms, are actually expected to become increasingly frequent as a direct effect of climate change. Hence the urgency to find effective ways to deal with this growing risk.

Essentially, the Sponge city is designed to act pretty much like a sponge in the sense that during rainstorms it allows surfaces throughout the city to absorb as much water as possible. Currently cities are mostly impermeable systems that divert water into sewage drainages which often channel untreated water directly into local rivers (especially during high intensity rainstorms as only part of the water can be handled by the wastewater treatment infrastructure).  By regenerating and expanding its own freshwater eco-systems (rivers, lakes, urban wetlands, gardens, parks etc.) the Sponge city allows storm water to be absorbed by the soil, which also naturally purifies it and stores it as groundwater. This reduces the burden on urban sewage systems, and during extreme weather events, improves the capacity of the city to absorb water and as such decreases the risk of flooding.

Six Priorities for the creation of Sponge Cities

While the urgency to transform our cities into Sponge cities is increasingly clearer, key policy guidelines to facilitate and encourage the creation of Sponge cities remain to be defined. Below are the 6 key recommendations that emerged during the discussions.

  1. Adopt an integrated, whole-system thinking approach

During the discussion, all experts emphasized that sponge cities are not only about recycling rainwater, improving water management or simply preventing floods. As Professor Che Wu from the Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture of Beijing University pointed out, “The sponge city must achieve the goal of protecting water environment, water ecology, water resources and water security at the same time”. On the same line of thought, Mr. Li Hailong, Deputy Director of Eco-city Planning & Building Center of Chinese Society for Urban Studies, concluded that

“sponge city is about approaching the issues of natural protection, restoration and design of cities from the water regeneration perspective and from a macro-understanding of sponge cities”.

In essence, it is not about isolated solutions but about finding integrated, cross-sectoral solutions grounded on the understanding of the city as a whole, organic, integrated system embedded in its natural environment and its water ecosystem.

  1. Establish locally based laws and regulations

As pointed out by Professor Che, the construction of sponge cities is facing multiple challenges in China. The first major challenge is legislation. Without sound laws and regulations, the water issue cannot be solved effectively.  Professor Che is very much interested in learning more from other countries on this matter especially from the relevant legislations in Germany and the EU. Currently many new developments in Germany are not allowed to discharge sewage free of charge.  The question is whether this kind of charge-based model need the support of laws and who should be in charge of setting these regulations and charges (the city, the region or the national government?) In Germany, these kinds of regulation are mandated by local municipal governments and not by federal authorities.  These local legislations are formulated according to local conditions, therefore may vary considerably depending on the city. According to specific locally-based problems, every city will calculate the cost on the disposal of wastewater. Adopting local taxation based on sound local regulation is therefore warranted.

  1. Promote coordinated cooperation between city departments

Another key element essential for the effective implementation of sponge cities is coordination between different departments. Both Professor Che Wu and Mr. Li Hailong pointed out that the construction of a sponge city project in China needs the coordination of different departments, including the department of Water Resources, Environmental Protection and several other city departments. Furthermore during the construction phase, various types of data (such as weather data, geological data, etc.) also need to be gathered from different departments and need good coordination and communication across teams. Still, strongly separated departments pose a significant barrier to the effective and smooth functioning of this needed integrated, cross-silo approach.

  1. Find Innovative ways to raise financial resources at the city level

Funding and financing problems are an inevitable part of city planning and construction. Mr. Li Hailong analyzed in depth China´s plans to develop sponge city through Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP). However, such model can only bring limited benefits and can only attract a few companies, which unavoidably causes funding difficulty. All of the speakers highlighted that China should adopt a model which takes into consideration the different local conditions, and cannot view PPP as the only funding way. Different cities should select different economic strategies concerning their varied natural conditions and economic situations.

  1. Tailor the design to local conditions and regional potential

A careful assessment of local conditions and potential should form the base of any sponge city intervention. It is essential to carefully assess specific problems in the city and solve these by leveraging the local potential and regional resources. Standard conceptual recommendations for the development of sponge cities are applicable more or less to any climate and soil, hwoever the selection of specific interventions should be based on local conditions. Professor Che Wu compared sponge city projects in different areas of China and concluded that “China implemented many similar projects over the past 20 years following the same concept but using different implementation strategies in different projects. An implementation strategy might prove very successful with certain types of building and soil conditions, but cannot be transferred in a standardized way to another context, as it might not prove as successful as local conditions change”.

  1. Improve international dialogue and exchange of best practices: “foreign stones may serve to polish domestic jade”

Many best practices are available from where we can learn. An open dialogue and exchange of solutions across cities worldwide will be essential to accelerate the transition and the spreading of most effective solutions. The challenges discussed in the salon can only be tackled within an environment of continuous learning based on sharing of experiences and tested solutions.  Only through such sharing and active learning effort we can promote effective development of sponge cities in China.


Filippo Boselli, Policy Officer, Climate, Energy and CIties, World Future Council, Germany

Zhou Ying, Communication and Operations Officer, World Future Council, China

Cities must be Regenerative. But what kind of Regeneration are we actually talking about?

It is not just about the regeneration of natural resources but it is also not just about what is commonly reffered as urban regeneration. As the term regenerative appears more and more within the international discourse on cities, clarity over its actual meaning is paramount.

The term ‘regenerative´ is becoming increasingly popular in the discussion around sustainable urban development and especially relevant now as it gets frequently mentioned within the UN discourse leading up to Habitat III. For example, the term has recently been re-adopted in the official document of the UN World Urban Campaign as one of the 10 final Principles of The City We Need 2.0.  The 6th principle explicitly states that “The City We Need is Regenerative and resilient”. The terms is also mentioned several times throughout this document as well as in other UN preparatory documents towards Habitat III such as the final Policy Paper 8 Urban Ecology and Resilience.

But what does Regenerative actually mean?

While the ultimate aim of a regenerative city is to be able to regenerate the natural resources that it absorbs, it is important to highlight that the concept is in fact much broader and comprehensive. It is therefore important to clarify the types of Regeneration that we would  see in the Regenerative City. In summary, we can say that the concept embraces 4 key types of regenerations, all extremely important for the effective implementation of the Regenerative City.

4 Fundamental Regenerations

  1. Regeneration of Resources (from Linear to Circular Flows)

Regenerative urban development seeks to mimic the circular metabolic systems found in nature. This will require a switch in paradigm away from the old linear metabolism (which allows cities to operate within an isolated segment of the resource cycle) to a new circular metabolism. This will mean closing the urban resource cycle by finding value in outputs that are conventionally regarded as waste and using them as resource inputs in local and regional production systems. For example, all the energy the city consumes needs to be able to be naturally regenerated by natural processes. For this reason, renewable energy is considered the only viable energy sources for regenerative cities, as it is continuously available and does not involve the consumption of a finite stock such as fossil fuels. Similarly all the material goods the city needs are not discarded into landfills but are kept in the resource loops by being upcycled, recycled, reused or by becoming a useful input in another processes such as energy production processes.

  1. Regeneration of Natural Capital and Urban Ecosystems (From Consuming to “Prosuming”)

The Regenerative city is not only conceived as a consuming entity, but actively contributes to the production of the resources it needs and to the restoration of the natural capital and ecosystems from which it depends. For example, food supplies are complemented through urban agriculture (including vertical agriculture), energy through solar rooftops, geothermal and bio-waste, and water through storm water collection at the block level and by allowing urban aquifers to be replenished through water percolation across the extensive green and permeable areas in and around the city. This enhanced ecosystem service infrastructure within the urban area improves the city’s self-sufficiency as well as its resilience. For example, increasingly relying on urban agriculture and on food from the immediate hinterland improves self-sufficiency while extensive greener areas provide benefits in terms of pollution mitigation, CO2 sequestration, water retention, natural filtering for cleaner urban aquifers, flood resilience etc. Similarly, relying on renewable energy sources from within the city or from the immediate surroundings increases the city’s resilience to energy prices fluctuation and dependency on imports. In addition, the regeneration of the productive capacity of the city and its ecosystems will lead to a renewed, enhanced relationship between cities and their hinterland and between urban and rural areas.

  1. Regeneration of Urban Spaces (from Sprawled to Dense)

Rather than sprawling and expanding on virgin land, regenerative urban development is about creating denser cities by redeveloping and regenerating the existing urban fabric and existing neighbourhoods (instead of simply developing new sites from scratch). Increasing density has in fact huge benefits in terms of efficient use of energy, resources, infrastructures and transport. At the same time, the focus of urban regeneration projects should be on making cities more people-centred, increasingly functional for the community, more accessible and inclusive and at the same time able to positively enhance the natural systems of the city and of the surrounding areas. Retrofitting and renovation projects are prioritized while at the same time historical and cultural heritage is also conserved and revalued. Enhancement of urban ecosystems is prioritized and it is achieved by making sure the city is rich of green areas and vegetation that, for example, help to block shortwave radiation, cool the ambient and create more comfortable urban microclimates. The latter can be highly beneficial, particularly given the risks of increase in temperature due to global warming. Improving urban ecology, promoting bioremediation of degraded areas and flora regeneration are also essential and have benefits beyond the environmental ones as they also increase the liveability and aesthetic value of the city.

  1. Regeneration of Communities (from Passive to Active Engagement)

Local communities and local businesses are themselves regenerated,revitalized and strengthened by becoming the actual leaders and drivers of all the regeneration projects taking place in the city. Citizens are constantly engaged and are encouraged to take part in the decision-making processes and community-based activities within the city. The informal sector, local youth and marginalized groups are also involved. For this purpose, it is crucial to establish a policy framework that promotes greater citizen participation, facilitates the processes of collaboration among stakeholders and of coordination across levels of governance and actively supports innovation and formation of new activities, locally based projects, start-ups and community initiatives. All of these processes contribute to the creation of a more dynamic, lively, people-centred and inclusive urban reality.

By Filippo Boselli, Policy Officer – Climate, Energy and Cities.

Cities, don’t just minimise energy use. Challenge it!

Between 1900 and 2000, global population increased 4 times, but resource demand increased 16 times.

Even worse, last year, the collective resource consumption by humanity overshot the earth’s ability to regenerate in August already. This means that we used all the resources the planet produces in 12 months in the first 8 months, and for the rest of the year we were literally in debt to nature. And cities, with a modus operandi fuelling and fuelled by fossil resources like coal, oil and gas, are largely responsible for it, accounting today for 70% of GHG emissions.

But often too, cities feel more severely the risks of the climate change they themselves create. Even in a place like New York City, one of the most advanced and wealthiest cities in the world, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy shut down the city, caused power outages and blocked roads and transport for days. It is clear that we need to revert this path marked by unsustainable development, which is growing disaster risks and whose main crystallisation is taking place in cities.

So how do we get back on track? And what’s the role of cities?

We can’t just do less damage; we have to repair the damage and ensure that cities operate in a system in which they do not only consume resources, but they also contribute to producing and restoring the resources they consume. In this system, materials and goods from the region are prioritised by cities. Waste is re-defined as a by-product that can always be recycled or reused in another processes. Water is also recycled or treated before discharged into natural water bodies. Organic waste is treated and used as soil fertilizer. And energy comes from local renewable energy sources. In a nutshell, we leave behind the city organised around petrol to give way to the Regenerative City.

Fortunately, there are encouraging signs on that front, as I could witness at the Smart City Expo Puebla, celebrated in Mexico from February 16-18, in which the World Future Council participated. Interventions made by mayors and experts working at the local level revealed that cities are aware of the profound and urgent shift they need to make in the way they produce and use energy. And, as managers of energy infrastructures and services, they are uniquely positioned to do it.

This strategic approach has led cities to innovate with new kinds of recycling programs. For example, the city of Buenos Aires has seen a 50% reduction in waste sent to landfills compared with 2012 and it has committed to reducing it further by 83% by 2017. And something that would be unthinkable decades ago, cities are starting to give priority to green areas over highways, as clearly exemplified by the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul, which for more than three decades buried beneath a four-lane, elevated freeway built as part of an industrialisation and modernisation process. The building sector, too, is subject to new policies in this direction, as it was highlighted during the conference. For example, NYCis undertaking a 10-year plan to improve the energy efficiency of NYC’s one million buildings to reduce building-based emissions 30% by 2025. Mexico City is developing norms for building energy performance to double the energy efficiency rate of buildings by 2030. And Portland is working with residents, businesses and community partners to advance ecoroofs in the city as a means to save energy consumption, reduce pollution and decrease stormwater volume.

Most important, cities are starting to realise something fundamental: they need to go beyond minimising energy use to actually challenge it. Energy efficiency is not only about simply reducing energy demand to offer the same service, but about a fundamental change in the structure, nature and role of the energy system. And nothing epitomises best this than Vancouver orFrankfurt, which are taking strong action on energy efficiency as a core component of their strategy to go 100% RE by 2050.

Thus, Vancouver intends to reduce city-wide building energy demand by about one-third over 2014 levels by 2050, and meet the rest of the energy demand through renewable electricity. Similar in the transport sector, where the goal is to shape the transport system in a way that most of the journeys will be made on foot or by bike, and the remaining trips by transit will be made using electric vehicles of various types. All together, these two sectors accounted for over 90% of the city’s emissions in 2014. In the case of Frankfurt, energy efficiency measures have led to a 37 per cent reduction in electricity consumption by private households by 2015. As with Vancouver, the rest of the energy consumption and production demand will be met through local and regional renewable sources.

This does not only make sense in terms of climate and environmental protection, but also in terms of economic development. By focusing on regenerative urban development, the city of Vancouver has created more than 3.000 new green local jobs in the last 5 years. And the city’s brand is currently valued at US$31bn when measured by investment, reputation and performance as “green, clean and sustainable”. In Frankfurt, energy efficiency measures have already helped the city to save €100m in energy costs, a number that is projected to rise. And its 100% RE strategy is gradually bringing down its current energy import costs from €2bn a year to zero.

Locally determined contributions of cities like these ones show us that challenging the traditional energy system upon which cities have been built is actually possible, and indeed beneficial from a social, environmental and economic point of view. Just imagine what world would be possible if we start replicating these successful champions and make the transition to regenerative cities on our own terms, in ways that maximise the benefits to us today and to future generations. Surely a very different kind of city story to tell.

By Irene García, Project and Event Manager – Climate, Energy and Cities.

Sponge Cities: What is it all about?

The 34 hectares urban storm water park in the city of Harbin in northern China is an example of successful Sponge City intervention. The storm water park provides multiple ecosystems services: it collects, cleanses and stores storm water and lets it infiltrate it into the aquifers. At the same time it protects and recovers the native natural habitats and provides an aesthetically appealing public space for recreational use.


Sponge City. Yet another term on the growing list next to regenerative, sustainable, green, eco, resilient, low-impact, future proofing, zero-carbon, and the list goes on.

Strange as it may sound, this term has actually gained a huge amount of support, especially in China. In fact, the Chinese government has already chosen 16 pilot cities and allocated to each of them between 400 and 600 million yuan for the implementation of innovative water management strategies that would gradually transform these cities into “Sponge Cities”.

What are the key issues the Sponge City wants to solve?

Before explaining in more detail what a Sponge City actually is, it is important to appreciate the main issues that the Sponge City intends to tackle. These are mainly four:

  • Less water available in urban and peri-urban areas. First of all, a key question we need to answer to explain this issue is: Where do we get the water that comes out of our taps? Many times it is actually coming from aquifers underneath our feet. As it rain, water is absorbed by the ground and naturally filtered by the soil. We can then extract this water by drilling wells into the ground and pumping water out of it. The water is then collected and treated before is distributed across the city and can reach every tap in each of our houses and offices. The problem is that extensive urbanization and urban sprawling led to the formation of thousands of square kilometres of impermeable areas made up of impervious roads, pavements, roofs and parking lots that do not allow water to be absorbed into the ground but that simply collect the rainwater through the urban drainage infrastructure and channel it into rivers, lakes or into the sea. This traditional type of design led to the creation of cities which are increasingly impermeable and have an increasingly greater impact on the natural water cycle. In practise this means that since less rain water is allowed to filter through the urban soil, less water is available to be extracted from aquifers in urban and peri-urban areas.
  • Polluted water discharged into rivers or the sea. Another key issues is related to the fact that rain water and wastewater (namely water from our sinks and toilets) is collected by one single drainage system. This drainage system (imagine one big pipe) collects all the rain water (when it rains) and the wastewater from our houses and directs it to a wastewater treatment plant where it gets treated before it is discharged again into rivers or the sea. When it rains, many times the wastewater treatment plant cannot accommodate all the water that the drainage systems carries. Therefore much of the rain water mixed with the wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers. The more impermeable the city is, the more water will be mixed with wastewater and will not be able to be treated but discharged directly into rivers.  This increases the level of pollution of local water bodies.
  • Degradation of urban ecosystems and green areas due to sprawling. This led to a considerable loss of urban biodiversity, a drop in available green areas for natural ground filtration of storm water, a decrease in CO2 capture by plants, fewer spaces for natural cooling through urban green microclimates and generally less liveable, healthy, comfortable and attractive public spaces.
  • Increase in the intensity and frequency of urban flooding particularly considering predicted increase in extreme weather events due to climate change. As the absorbing capacity of the urban surface is decreased, storm flooding risk is increased. Flooding leads to increased groundwater pollution and has considerable impact in terms of damage to properties and health related issues.

What is a Sponge City?

The Sponge City indicates a particular type of city that does not act like an impermeable system not allowing any water to filter through the ground, but, more like a sponge, actually absorbs the rain water, which is then naturally filtered by the soil and allowed to reach into the urban aquifers. This allows for the extraction of water from the ground through urban or peri-urban wells. This water can be easily treated and used for the city water supply.

What does a Sponge City need in practise? 

A sponge cities needs to be abundant with spaces that allow water to seep through them. Instead of only impermeable concrete and asphalt, the city needs more:

  • Contiguous open green spaces, interconnected waterways, channels and ponds across neighbourhoods that can naturally detain and filter water as well as foster urban ecosystems, boost bio-diversity and create cultural and recreational opportunities.
  • Green roofs that can retain rainwater and naturally filters it before it is recycled or released into the ground.
  • Porous design interventions across the city, including construction of bio-swales and bio-retention systems to detain run-off and allow for groundwater infiltration; porous roads and pavements that can safely accommodate car and pedestrian traffic while allowing water to be absorbed, permeate and recharge groundwater; drainage systems that allow trickling of water into the ground or that direct storm water run-off into green spaces for natural absorption
  • Water savings and recycling, including extending water recycling particularly of grey water at the building block level, incentivizing consumers to save water through increased tariffs for increase in consumption, raising awareness campaigns, and improved smart monitoring systems to identify leakages and inefficient use of water.

What are the benefits of a Sponge City? 

There is wide range of benefits associated with the implementation of sponge cities. These include:

  • More clean water for the city. Replenished groundwater and thus greater accessibility to water resources for cities. This also entails greater water self-sufficiency which allows cities to increasingly rely on water sources from within their boundaries
  • Cleaner groundwater due to the increase volume of naturally filtered storm water. This means lower environmental and health costs due to considerable decrease in water pollution
  • Reduction in flood risk as the city offers more permeable spaces for the natural retention and percolation of water. This leads to better resilience and in particular greater ability to deal with higher flood risks resulting from climate change
  • Lower burdens on drainage systems, water treatment plant, artificial channels and natural streams. This also entails lower costs for drainage and treatment infrastructure
  • Greener, healthier, more enjoyable urban spaces. Greener urban spaces improve quality of life, create more pleasant landscape aesthetics and recreational areas that are enjoyable and attract people. This also means increase in land value due to aesthetically more pleasing, cleaner and healthier open spaces close to private properties
  • Enriched biodiversity around green open spaces, wetlands, urban gardens and green rooftops

Future of Cities Forum 2015


Thank you to all speakers and participants that contributed to make the Future of Cities Forum 2015 a great success!

We are extremely confident that new thrilling opportunities will be coming up as a result of this year Future of Cities Forum and we look forward to engage further with everyone who took part in the Forum.

About this year Forum

This year, the 5th Future of Cities Forum was held on September 14th and 15th 2015 in Beijing and in Tianjin. On the first day, 14th of September, the Future of Cities Forum was held in Beijing as an official sub-forum of the11th Forum on Environment and Development. On the second day, 15th of September, the Forum moved to Tianjin and will be held as an official subforum of the 6th China International Eco-city Forum & Expo.

The Future of Cities Forum in Beijing was organized in partnership with UNEP China,the United Nations Theme Group on Climate Change and Environment (UNTGCCE), ACEF (All China Environment Federation), China Urban Research Center of Beijing Jiaotong University, CITYNET and the Policy Research Center for Environment and Economy (PRCEE) of the China Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

Day 1

The first day of the Forum focused on the UN Sustainable Development goals for cities and how these and other international initiatives can help and guide cities drive sustainable development forward. An open roundtable discussion between Chinese and international participants offered a unique opportunity to openly debate issues that are common across borders, in particular the lack of cooperation across city departments and lack of coordination across governance levels and across multiple stakeholders groups.

This first day of the Forum was held as an official sub-forum of the 11th Forum on Environment and Development organized in partnership with the United Nations Theme Group on Climate Change and Environment (UNTGCCE), with the All-China Environment Federation (ACEF) and with the China Urban Research Center of Beijing Jiaotong University. During the first day we had the chance to sign an official partnership with the China Urban Research Center of the Beijing Jiaotong University. This is an exciting opportunity for the WFC China to partner with a highly respected academic institution and moving forward with the critical task to bridge the gap between research and policy making. The MoU signing was witnessed, among others, by Mr. Yuqing Wang, former Vice Minister for Environmental Protection of China and Mr. Jong Soo Yonn, Head of the United Nations Office for Sustainable Development. Ole Scheeren, architect extremely known particularly in China for being the designer of the iconic CCTV tower in Beijing, was among our keynote speakers.

Day 2

During the second day, the forum moved to Tianjin where we offered a platform to share experiences on sustainable development of cities from China and from around the world. This second day was held as an official sub-forum of the 6th China International Tianjin Eco-city Forum & Expo, and supported by the Policy Research Center for Environment and Economy (PRCEE) of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). The Tianjin Eco-City Forum is one of the largest (almost one thousand participants from all over China) and most prestigious government supported forum in China. We are extremely proud to hear that following the event our partners from Tianjin were extremely happy about working with us and confirmed their commitment to continue this partnership in the future. Among our highlight speakers during the second day were Mr. Zefeng Shan, Deputy Director of the Tianjin Binhai district and Mr. Hing Huang, well-known social entrepreneur and winner of the Right Livelihood Award. The very international set of speakers that we brought from Germany to Canada and from India to Thailand were extremely appreciated particularly given the widespread longing to learn more from international experiences and to improve cooperation for sustainable development among cities around the world.


You can find some pictures of the event at the link below:
Pictures of the Forum 2015


The presentations slides are available on the download page.


A brief outcome report will be available to be downloaded in the coming weeks.

About last year Forum

During last year´s Future of Cities Forum in Munich, 90 participants including mayors, town councillors, local administrators, researchers, practitioners, communicators and urban planners from 18 countries came together to debate what leadership and participation really look like in cities, share their experiences of building bridges with other urban stakeholders, and explore the factors that create long-term visions for cities. More info on past events please click here.

Future of Cities Forum 2014

Photograph © Andreas Gebert


Flickr album