Yu Kongjian recalls the day he almost drowned in the river. The rice terraces in Yu’s farming commune in China had been inundated by the White Sand Creek, which had been swollen by rain. Yu, who was just ten years old at the time, dashed to the river’s edge. The ground beneath his feet suddenly disintegrated, carrying him into the torrents in an instant. The river’s flow was halted by banks of willows and reeds, allowing Yu to grip the vegetation and pull himself out. “I am sure that if the river was like it is today, smoothened with concrete floodwalls, I would have drowned,” he told in a statement.

It was a watershed moment that would have far-reaching consequences not only for him but also for the rest of China. Yu, one of China’s most important urban design theorists and Dean of Peking University’s college of architecture and landscape, is the brains behind the sponge city concept for flood management, which is being implemented in a number of Chinese towns. Even while some question whether sponge cities can actually operate in the face of more extreme floods due to climate change, he feels it is an idea that other locations may follow.

Prof. Yu acquired many of the classic farming techniques he learned growing up in Zhejiang’s eastern coastal province, such as storing rainwater in ponds for crops. It was well worth it. Following President Xi Jinping’s approval, the government launched a multibillion-yuan plan with an ambitious goal: by 2030, 80% of China’s municipal areas must contain sponge city characteristics and recycle at least 70% of rainfall.