What immediately comes to your mind when you hear of the words ‘smart cities’ or ‘sponge cities’?


The ‘smart cities’ concept is an evolving paradigm and transcends professions, sectors and even government policy. A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills research paper in 2013 explains that a smart city is about “enabling and encouraging the citizen to become a more active and participative member of the community, for example, providing feedback on the state of roads and the built environment, adopting a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle.”


In practical terms it is about planning for people and their dynamic interaction with the environments, activities and communities around them. But the only references to ‘technology’ or ‘smart’ concepts in the National Planning Policy Framework currently only highlight opportunities related to broadband infrastructure and smart travel technologies. Although current demonstration pilots across the UK may be seem outside the mainstream and a specialist discipline, in essence smart cities is, and should, at the heart of an inclusive, not exclusive, part of the planning process. Future Cities Catapult’s Future of Planning programme is currently looking how to innovate the planning system.


The 'sponge cities' concept, although the term was only coined by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, is nothing new in the world of planning and engineering. But the Chinese are taking a more integrated approach. Championed by the Ministry of Finance, the concept is at the forefront of an integrated systems approach to urban development and local resilience beyond just flood risk management or green infrastructure approaches and fragmented delivery mechanisms here in the UK. For example national guidelines on sponge cities focus on both new and existing towns and cities, and place responsibilities on central government to co-ordinate arrangements for and improve funding support to guide sponge cities pilots.


Both concepts are central to the Chinese government’s focus on accelerated promotion of sustainable urbanisation in its 13th Five-Year Plan and New Urbanisation Plan, and have issued relevant directives to lower tier governments and supporting pilot demonstration projects to a scale that those of us working in the UK can only admire from a far. But in both the UK and China, we must strive to mainstream and 'accelerate' these concepts into the normative planning and development process rather than purely through demonstration pilot projects.


With the support of the UK Government’s China Prosperity Fund, the TCPA will return to China in November to deliver an urbanisation roadshow with the British Embassy Beijing. This follows an initial capacity building visit in 2014 (highlighted by Roger Harrabin at BBC News) and further visits in 2015 on waste & water management and sustainable transport

The 2016 Smart Cities and Sponge Cities Roadshow will be led by Michael Chang of TCPA with Geoff Snelson of Milton Keynes Council and Paul Shaffer of CIRIA, and also involve participation by a number of UK companies with Chinese presence, including Sparta Digital, Cisco, Foster + Partners, Mott Macdonald, HR Wallingford, Arup and PwC. It will take place in the following five Chinese cities with their hosts

  1. Shenyang in north east China co-hosted by the China Centre for Urban Development (CCUD) and the Shenyang Big Data Bureau as part of the 2016 Shenyang 3rd China Smart City (International) Innovation Conference,
  2. Wuhan in central China hosted by the Wuhan Municipal Development and Reform Commission and Wuhan Municipal Party,
  3. Tianjin to the south east of Beijing hosted by the Urban Planning Society of Tianjin (UPST), Tianjin University Research Institute of Architectural Design& Urban Planning (AATU) and Tianjin Architecture Design Institute (TADI),
  4. Jinan in eastern China hosted by the Shandong Provincial Government, and
  5. Xi’an in central China hosted by the Shaanxi Urban and Rural Academy of Planning and Design.


The Roadshow activities will comprise a series of plenary workshops, high level meetings and exchanges with local policy makers and businesses, and local site visits so that UK experts can experience and hope to contribute to local projects through follow-up opportunities. While the main purpose of the Roadshow is to share UK expertise and practice, it also provides the opportunity for knowledge to be brought back to the UK so that UK planners can be inspired to innovate and continue to be the beacon for sustainable urbanisation around the world. For the TCPA this means to actively promote and disseminate the knowledge we have gained through channels to its membership and widely, including its New Communities Group and its active campaign for a new generation of 21st Century Garden Cities. So watch this space for feedback and insight following the Roadshow in November.


- Michael Chang

Please also refer to Town & Country Planning August 2016 article by Michael Chang and Zahrah Ali.

For background about the TCPA activities and background in Chinese, please refer to our newly published brochure