Shenzhen, a coastal city located in Southern China, exemplifies the idea of rapid urbanization. In just 40 years, Shenzhen has transformed from a fishing village to a bustling megalopolis. Today, about 50% of Shenzhen’s 13 million residents live in its urban villages. These urban villages are some of the few places left in the city that provide affordable housing. Urban villages used to be “real” villages, but rapid development has turned the farmland that once surrounded them into high rise buildings.
Urban villages are characterized by their dense living conditions, where resident buildings are built so close together that neighbors can shake hands with one another from their windows. Inside the villages, the streets are filled with markets, restaurants and shops, making people’s lives convenient. However, very few green spaces, such as parks or gardens, exist inside the villages. Gangxia Village in Futian district is one of them, where the high density of built environment has replaced nearly all vegetation. Coupled with a limited underground sewage system, during the city’s six months long wet season, urban villages like Gangxia are especially vulnerable to floods.
To address this problem, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), along with other key partners, launched an innovative pilot project— Green Cloud —on an old building in Gangxia village, transforming its rooftop into a “living sponge” space. The project utilizes three-dimensional light steel structures that are simple to construct and have the capacity to hold over 420 plant containers filled with plants mostly native to Southern China. The original concrete rooftop is transformed by vegetation, which is capable of absorbing and preserving rainwater, creating a nature-based stormwater management system for the residential building, achieving a 65% of run-off control rate. As a result, a living “green cloud” is formed on a rooftop of Gangxia village.
The Green Cloud Project became a prominent example of the “Sponge City” initiative, a Chinese national policy framework that focuses on sustainable urban stormwater management led by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. In 2016, Shenzhen became a pilot city of the “Sponge City initiative. Since then, TNC has been working with the local government to help urban communities in Shenzhen become more resilient to urban flooding through the utilization of green infrastructure.
The green roof not only serves as a sponge for rainwater, but it is also a sponge for community engagement, education, and culture, even when things don’t go as planned. During the first two weeks of construction, neighbors filed complaints as many thought the renovation taking place was illegal construction. Due to the housing shortage in urban villages, it was not uncommon for land owners to build additional floors to existing buildings.
After receiving complaints, local authorities arrived asking for an approval document in order to continue contrusction. However, the concept of a sponge roof was still so new that approval papers do not yet exist within current government agencies, and unfortunately, the construction of the green roof had to be temporarily shut down. To resolve the problem, TNC made various visits to local community centers, street government offices and bureaus to explain the project and its objectives in further detail. After many such meetings, TNC and its partners established a relationship of trust with the local stakeholders, and the project was given the green light for construction to resume. Realizing the importance of community and local support, TNC took the lead in engaging many university students, residents and youth volunteers in Shenzhen to come together and be a part of building the Green Cloud Project.
On the opening day, TNC invited politicians of Water, Urban Administration and Housing Construction divisions, press, and professionals from across different sectors of the city to bear witness to this innovative project. The green rooftop became not only a living space for nature, but also a living space for communities.
Even with just one rooftop, the possibilities for community-building are endless. One idea that was transformed into reality was a live musical concert on the green roof. With the support of a local youth education center, students volunteered to organize a concert for the residents of Gangxia village, many of whom may never have the means or time to attend a classical concert. So, one summer evening, a group of young musicians used the rooftop of an urban village as their stage and performed a classical music concert while sitting among native plants. The surrounding residents simply came to their windows to listen in, and the proximity between neighbors in this dense urban village suddenly became an advantage.
The Green Cloud Project has also had a positive impact on youth and their perception of nature. For the past two years, the green roof becomes an outdoor classroom for nature education every summer, where children take classes to learn about subjects such as biology, water and conservation. To provide urban youth with the opportunity to soak up knowledge while reconnecting with nature would be the project’s ultimate long-term achievement.
In 2019, the rooftop was incorporated into Shenzhen’s Eco-Discovery Route by CityPlus, an official guidance platform of Shenzhen municipality, as the only sustainable architecture featured in the guide. It is open to visits by the public twice a week. By recreating community spaces such as the Green Cloud project inside urban villages, TNC hopes that they can become “green sponges” for culture and community —— where relationships between neighbors are rebuilt and the sense of community is re-cultivated while enjoying nature. This project has demonstrated the multifaceted benefits that green infrastructure can provide in improving the urban environment and people’s lives. In the future, TNC will continue to work towards building healthy cities through the integration of green infrastructure and community engagement.
Vivin Qiang, Fish Xin Yu
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