Since 2012, the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities has been making innovative water sensitive principles and practices ‘business as usual’ in a complex and challenging urban environment. Indeed, the International Water Association recently profiled our successes in the City of Kunshan (Jiangsu Province) in an excellent expose.

This experience in China demonstrates how implementing water sensitive principles can move from discrete projects to larger proofs-of-concept and finally to mainstream practice. We started with a single project, embedding nature-based technology into the landscape architecture of the Opera House and Cultural Plaza in Kunshan to improve water quality.

Kunshan became a CRCWSC incubator city

Opportunities to implement the water sensitive approach expanded in 2014, when Kunshan became a CRCWSC incubator city. In short, the city used development projects to apply new planning, design concepts and new technologies generated out of CRCWSC research. These projects aimed to address Kunshan’s pressing water management issues: seriously degraded waterways due to catchment pollution from urban land use and inadequate sanitation services, poor water circulation, and poor drainage that often leads to flooding.

The Kunshan City Construction, Investment and Development Company embedded nature-based solutions into multifunctional open spaces, to manage both wastewater and stormwater to reduce diffuse pollution. The cleansed water can also be harvested for non-potable use. Two examples were the Kunshan Forest Park Ecological Wetland and the Kunshan Ring Road.

The CRCWSC was recognised with an Excellence in Innovation    Award in 2017  acknowledging our impact in supporting the City of Kunshan to become more ‘water sensitive’. Indeed, Kunshan is now China’s leading example of urban water innovation. The award also recognises outstanding examples of the transfer of CRCWSC research, results, knowledge and technologies that have been developed for a wide range of users. (You can read more about the award here.)

We tested integrating constructed wetlands into precinct parklands at Kunshan Forest Park Ecological Wetland 

Water from the polder was recirculated through constructed wetlands for treatment, creating a series of open cells within the polder waterway network to maintain the park’s water quality. This system laid the foundation for converting the park into an emergency detention basin that provides broader and larger flood protection services benefitting the polder. Our SME project partner, E2DesignLab, played a key role in designing and developing this wetland.

Construction of the elevated Kunshan Ring Road was a major opportunity for a multidimensional and multifunctional green-blue-grey corridor

The ring road crosses many canals, so there were opportunities to construct wetlands at various locations along the road land to treat canal water and contribute to the overall water quality management strategy for the city. Among the innovations for this project were:

  • multifunctional landscapes – designed to support both water quality treatment and enhanced amenity within an urban setting by designing a road corridor that is multidimensional and multifunctional
  • road stormwater treatment – using water sensitive urban design techniques, such as raingardens and constructed wetlands for water treatment, to immediately treat stormwater runoff from road surfaces, improving water health of receiving water bodies
  • ecological system of nodes and links – using parklands at specific spots along the ring road, creating urban green spaces for local communities.

Again SME project partners, E2DesignLab and Realm Studio, played keys roles in designing and developing the ring road.

These projects delivered tangible environmental benefits for Kunshan

The ecosystem services embedded into the cityscape have improved water quality, enhanced landscape connectivity, created biodiversity, introduced food production, and influenced the urban microclimate, allowing the city to repair itself. This city-wide strategy reduces pollution into regional waterways and mitigates flood risks for downstream cities.

But even more importantly, they proved that water sensitive approaches work

These projects delivered to city government the evidence to transform what was once perceived as innovative but risky into standard practice, which in turn authorises the next wave of innovation and collaboration. This evidence underpinned subsequent policy development, helping to overcome the regulations, community perceptions and institutional risk aversion that can get in the way of innovation and practical action.

Our social-technical approach also fostered collaboration and integrated governance among the many stakeholders involved in city planning, infrastructure delivery and water environment protection, each with their own objectives. Our partnership started with two end users: the Kunshan City Bureau of Planning and the Kunshan City Construction, Investment and Development Company. Over time, recommendations from those two partners drew the attention of three additional bureaus, which joined the effort, systematically building a coordinated whole-of-government approach to transforming the city. We now have support from the Mayor’s office right down to the city’s many stakeholder bureaus. The partnership activities encompass policy reforms, incentive schemes for public–private participation, design, construction and capacity building.

We have now completed over 30 projects and our collaboration with Kunshan is entering a new phase—scaling up technologies and integrating them into broader urban frameworks. Kunshan is now embarking on an ambitious AUD 1 billion capital works program to continue its transformation.

Included in the program is the AUD 20 million Jiangsu–Victoria Sponge City Innovation Park

This exciting 10 hectare innovation hub incorporates an Internet of Things (IoT) platform that aims to optimise water management and city planning objectives. We have now signed a new MOU with the city to commence field validation of the real time control operation of water cleansing, stormwater harvesting and flood management in some of their many polders. These experiences will directly benefit Australian projects as we enter a new era of digital technology.

The water sensitive approach is now being considered in other cities

The CRCWSC’s work in Kunshan attracted the attention of the Jiangsu Provincial Government, which has initiated a sister-state MoU with the Victorian Government to apply the CRCWSC–Kunshan partnership model to other cities in the province, two of which have already been nominated for immediate partnerships. In these cities, we can make a dramatic impact by setting them up at the outset with systems to secure long term sustainability.

We have also assessed Hotan’s (in Xinjiang Province) water security vulnerability, working with the Asian Development Bank to develop that city into a model Chinese Sponge City for the desert environment. This project also demonstrated that the concept of a sponge city goes beyond stormwater management. We identified opportunities to position and transition the city into a water sensitive city, by incorporating water ecological landscapes into the city’s urban design. We developed a vision and transition strategy that ensures Hotan has a sustainable water supply, is resilient to climate change, and promotes greater liveability and ecological civilisation outcomes.

Our work in China also benefits Australia

The world is seeing Australia breaking new ground in urban water management and population- and climate-adaptive cities. We are creating world-leading examples of urban water innovation at scale and demonstrating our water sensitive cities leadership in an international arena.

We are building capacity, empowering stakeholders, creating consensus, upscaling solutions, and gaining global recognition that good urban water management is the foundation for the liveability of our cities.

What’s more, we are creating pathways to market, securing lucrative commercial partnerships for local suppliers of environmental engineering, planning and design services, modelling products and technical solutions. In partnership with Austrade, we have developed a virtual reality platform to showcase Australian knowledge and continue to export the industry expertise overseas . In this way, we’ve helped water practitioners respond to travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What began as a single project in China in 2012 is now a lucrative partnership and a high profile stage for what’s possible. All the lessons gained over the years are being brought back and converted into an innovation portfolio, which our Chief Innovation Officer, Dr Jianbin Wang is keen to share with you at our 5th Water Sensitive Cities Conference.

Last updated: 12th Jan 2021