Yu Kongjian describes his near-drowning experience in the river. The White Sand Creek, which had been swelled by rain, had drowned the rice terraces in Yu’s farming commune in China. Yu ran to the river’s edge when he was only ten years old. The ground beneath his feet crumbled in an instant, hurling him into the floods.

It was a crucial point, with far-reaching implications not only for him but also for the rest of China. One of China’s most influential urban design theorists and Dean of Peking University’s college of architecture and landscape, Yu Kongjian, is the brains behind the sponge city concept for flood management, which is being applied in a number of Chinese cities. Even while some doubt if sponge towns can function in the face of more extreme floods as a result of climate change, he believes it is a concept that other places may adopt.

Prof. Yu mastered several traditional farming techniques as a child in Zhejiang’s eastern coastal region, such as storing rainwater in ponds for crops. It was well worth the effort. Following President Xi Jinping’s assent, the Chinese government unveiled a multibillion-yuan plan with a lofty goal: by 2030, 80 percent of China’s urban regions must have sponge city features and recycle at least 70% of rainwater.