Toddler bike fleet lined up outside our apartment building



It’s adorable that between the bike parking and the car parking, there’s a fleet of toddler bikes. It looks like they are shared among all the kids in our apartment building. I wonder how long they’ve been stationed there.

More personal take on no-space gardening in Tokyo

Plant Journal Issue #3 includes my article about flower pot gardens in Tokyo. The article also includes interviews with two Nakano gardeners who use sidewalk and wall space to create extravagant seasonal gardens shared with neighbors. You can find stores that sell the magazine worldwide, or order it online.

Did anyone see Sky Tree lit up for the new year?


am sorry I didn’t see Sky Tree lit up for one of the first times this new year’s eve. Fortunately, the fantastic photographer and blogger Muza Chan shared this lovely image.

Bus stop chairs are gifted, unmatched, and spontaneous




This sidewalk and street have nearly no visible plants. Yet anonymously gifted bus stop chairs are very Tokyo and very much in the spirit of Tokyo green space. Reacting to a lack of infrastructure– no shelter and no seating– neighbors simply recycle and re-use stuff from their homes and share it with neighbors in a public space.

Few designers could have coordinated this unlikely mix of colors, fabrics, and shapes. Its aesthetic arises from its spontaneous appearances. Is this the most beautiful, practical, or ideal solution to the lack of infrastructure? Probably not, although it reflects generosity and concern for others in shared spaces.

I have been writing about Tokyo green space for a while, ever since moving here three years ago. Tokyo is surprisingly green and livable despite the complete absence of planning for public open space, from its rise as Japan’s Edo capitol in the 1600s through the 20th century’s natural and man-made calamities that twice obliterated the city.

Tokyo has such forward-looking urban features like walkable small streets dominated by pedestrians and bicyclists. But these vital paths exist not because of  contemporary Tokyo’s good planning, but because the bureaucracy still in the thrall of automobile infrastructure and mega-developments hasn’t had the chance to alter them.

Documenting Tokyo green space has been a way for me to understand the life of this city. The grass-roots reclaiming of public space certainly increases the city’s appeal. But, post 3.11, I also now wonder if the residents haven’t demanded enough of the city leaders. We now know more clearly the dangers of leaving vital decisions to reckless and outdated politicians and bureaucrats.

As this difficult year ends, I wonder what all of us can do to create a more alive city.

Tokyo metabolizing creates vision for Tokyo as new urban form


“Tokyo seems to be changing into a city that is meant for people,” concludes the introduction to the Tokyo Metabolizing exhibit at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. The exhibit combines models and ideas from three architecture firms, Atelier Bow-Wow, Nishizawa Ryue, and Kitayama Koh, and formed part of the 2010 Venice Biennale.

Tokyo Metabolizing provides context for the rapid development of the world’s largest mega-city, and suggests new ways of living well in the city. I like how the architects respond with new dwelling types, including a blending of home and office, residences that share common spaces, and apartments where connectedness with others is valued more than privacy.

The architects are responding to new  realities of who we live with and how we want to live. In Tokyo the average household is less than 2 people, and these smaller households seek new connections with neighbors, colleagues, and friends. I think the most radical suggestion is that an awareness of other people living around you might be considered a positive feature rather than something to be concealed or suppressed.

The metabolizing title harks back to a radical modernism from 1960s Tokyo, and foregrounds the city as a living organism: with a life, history, and progression. Carolyn Steel, in her book Hungry City, uses the concept of the city as an organism  to focus attention on urban food delivery, prep and consumption. The urban built environment is also reflection of social life– from tax policy to demographics– and human aspirations.

I liked that Atelier Bow-Wow focuses on the untapped value of Tokyo’s void spaces: in-between, often wasted space between structures, which have potential for re-use and for gardens, community, and nature in the city.

The exhibit has great scale models, and is at Opera City until October 2. Also worth seeing is a special exhibit of recent works by young artist Ishii Toru (石井). Ishii creates psychedelic contemporary fantasies– full of convenience stores and fast food logos– using a traditional yuzen method of dyeing fabric.

Pleasures of Tokyo trains and subways


It’s hard for people outside Tokyo to imagine what using Tokyo transit is like. The busiest station, Shinjuku station, handles over 2.5 million users per day, more than any other station in the world. And, yes, early morning rush hour and the last trains around midnight are not comfortable. This photo is from 10:23 am on a Saturday morning in the Marunouchi line, and you can see that the train is quite full.

What does it feel like to be surrounded by so many people on your way to work, school, errands, or fun?  Office workers, school children, families, construction workers, teens, dogs in bags, babies, elderly people. I find it exhilarating, intimate, and educational. Mostly people pretend they are in their own space and do not look directly at others. Courtesies include taking children’s shoes off before letting them stand on the cushioned seats, and drying umbrellas to keep the train clean.

Many people hide behind earphones, portable game players, comics and books. Others are sleeping. Yet there is no mistaking that you are in a shared space, one person among masses going about their lives. If you keep your eyes open, you can sense that others are also quietly observing. Taking the train is a good way to get out of your own head space, and sense other people’s moods, fashions, and presence.

Leaving the apartment on a rainy spring day


This is the view from my apartment building lobby on a rainy spring day. Because of energy conservation, many lights are turned off. This increases the contrast between indoors and outdoors.

I walk through this lobby every day, and rarely think about it or consider taking a photo. Recently, I participated in the Xerox and City photo workshop at Vacant, led by Hirano Taro and organzized by Too Much magazine as part of their Romantic Geographies series. We were asked to take photos of our breakfast and then our trip to the workshop in Harajuku. It made me think more about spaces that become automatic or ignored.

Tokyo residents are more aware of energy use and lighting now. Many parts of the city are less brighly lit: from billboards to train stations to residences. By lowering our lighting, we are more attuned to natural cycles, and more sensitive to the boundaries between private and public, indoor and outdoor, personal and shared resources.

The Butterfly in the Metro

Metropolis magazine published my essay, “The Butterfly in the Metro,” that presents my impressions about the difference between public space in Japan and the United States. What is the role of shared spaces in urban life?

What makes a city desirable? After living in Tokyo for just two years, I realize that what passes as normal in a large US city now seems peculiar, unnecessary and even unpleasant.

. . .

Please read the full article on the Metropolis website. I am grateful to Eparama Tuibenau for the lovely illustration above.

Replacing Dead Urban Spaces with Living Habitat

The Huffington Post published my new article, Replacing Dead Urban Spaces with Living Habitat. Please read, comment, retweet, or share on Facebook. Thank you!

Figure 1: Two views of camellia (sazanka) in central Tokyo: close-up and context

Perpetual Yamanote

My artist and product design friend Pierre Alex, whom I blogged about earlier, created this funny “anti-design” video about Tokyo’s most famous rail line, the Yamanote that circles central Tokyo. The idea is that it’s a single train in perpetual motion.

How is this relevant to Tokyo Green Space? An extraordinary transit system is a basic requirement for a sustainable city that values public transit over private vehicles, and shared spaces over individual or members-only spaces. Tokyo’s transit system is truly the best in the world, for the area it covers, frequency of trains, cleanliness, on-time performance, and safety.

A fast, comfortable and convenient transit system is a place where all social groups intersect, and is the backbone of a walkable city. No matter where I travel in Tokyo, I am always amazed at how many friends I bump into.

I also believe that artistic visions are necessary for us to imagine and create post-industrial cities that are creative, desirable and serving human aspirations. Plus, the video is cool.

Pierre’s statement about the Yamanote (in French):

La Yamanote, c’est le mur d’enceinte version société industrielle.
La ligne de train circulaire entoure la ville et la protège de sa banlieue.
Mais comme me le disait Raphaël, dont j’aime les trëmas sur le prénom, c’est aussi Zazie dans le métro.
On se paye un ticket pour un petit tour d’une heure à regarder la ville.
C’est l’hiver, les sièges sont chauffés, il y a même la télé. On peut voir le golf, ou un cours d’anglais. Mais c’est souvent de la pub. Il y en a une, pour la bière suntory, où tout est en noir et blanc sauf les boissons. Chaque fois que je la vois, j’ai soif.
Ca tombe bien, la yamanote est une ligne aérienne, comme la ligne 2 à Paris vers Stalingrad.
Et quand on sort, entre Kanda et Ueno, on trouve sous les arcades les bars les moins chers de Tokyo.