Month: September 2009

2016 Olympics Decision on Friday

2016 Olympics, 4 cities competing

On Friday the Olympics committee will announce in Denmark which world city will host the 2016 summer games. It is exciting that Tokyo used sustainable urbanism as a core feature of its bid: re-using existing facilities, keeping the games within a small urban radius, and showcasing their best-in-the-world city transit system.

Still, it will be hard to compete with Rio de Janeiro, which would be the first South American host, and with Chicago, which has Obama and Oprah promoting its bid. It is interesting that despite the abundant official displays around Tokyo touting the bid, I have not heard much popular enthusiasm.

After starting this post, I read a Japan Inc column by successful expat in Tokyo Terrie Lloyd, who writes that low public support for the Tokyo bid is a big negative factor in the evaluation. Apparently a poll in February showed only 25% of residents “strongly favor” the bid. Given the exclusive focus on promoting Tokyo’s eco-city attributes and financial resources in their bid, perhaps Governor Ishihara and his committee did not even realize that the International Olympic Committee considers popular enthusiasm an important selection criteria.

In my research on Tokyo green space and sustainable urbanism, I often see the disconnect between the most well intentioned leaders and public participation. Master plans and visions are one thing, but creating change requires the participation of a very capable and resourceful population.

Certainly Japan is not unique in this shortcoming, but it seems that so much potential is wasted by ignoring the potential of popular participation. What do you think?

Okinawa morning glory

Okinawa morning glory

On our balcony, this Okinawa morning glory is just now flowering. All but one of the four Japanese morning glories have died back. The Okinawa morning glory is a vivid “crystal blue,” whereas the Japanese ones are variegated. The Okinawa flowers and leaves are larger, growth vigorous, and best of all the tag claims it is a perennial.

Last Wednesday was the first official day of fall, so the wind charm has been packed away. New fall flowers include fujibakama, cosmos and a “fairy white” daisy.

Here’s what the Okinawa morning glory looks like when the bud is one day from opening. The flower lasts just one day, but each bud is in a cluster of three to six, and there are many forming this month.

Okinawa morning glory bud

Reclaiming streets beyond pedestrian heaven

Ginza pedestrian heaven

For mature cities, creating green cities involves reclaiming unused and under-used spaces in crowded environments. For Tokyo, that largely means rooftops, walls and streets.

Ginza pedestrian heaven

Japan introduced a successful concept called “pedestrian heaven” or  hokousha tengoku (歩行者天国) in commercial districts including Ginza and Shinjuku. On weekends and holidays, small stretches of major roads are pedestrian-only. A similar project in Akihabara was discontinued after someon used a car and a knife to attack people in 2008. This is an unfortunate reaction, because in addition to promoting shopping, closing streets provides needed space for recreation, pets, children and walking.

There are just a handful of larger street closures that allow for greater recreation. On Sundays, Uchibori-dori outside the Imperial Palace is closed for a 3.5 kilimoters from 10 am to 3 pm. There’s even a free bike borrowing program. And there’s the Oifuto 9.5 kilometer cycling route near Haneda airport on Sundays.

Government visionaries would do well to consider how to turn more streets into occasional leisure, recreation and community spaces. The world’s largest is in Bogota, Colombia, with two million participants (30% of the population) using 120 kilometers of carfree space. Their “ciclovia” program traces back to the 1980s. This has inspired US cities such as New York and San Francisco to create similar programs.

In addition to these weekend or special event uses of streets, Tokyo could also convert many of its small streets into green alleys, parks and gardens. Tokyo’s side streets are already dominated by pedestrian and bicycle traffic, with very minimal auto usage. Since streets represent by far the largest public shared space in cities, these low auto traffic small streets could be transformed to provide greater human and environmental benefits. It would be great to see some pilot projects with pavement reduction, tree planting, community gardens, pocket parks, native plants, and biodiversity zones.

San Francisco is experimenting with some of these ideas, including a Pavement to Parks project that is creating temporary parks on underused asphalt. These parks, using tree trunks and other recycled materials, have proven very popular, and are part of a broader effort to reclaim public space.

My friend Jane Martin of Plant*SF has sent me some links describing the community benefits of these projects.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/09/18/BA7G19O9P4.DTL

http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/07/17/san-jose-and-guerrero-plaza-could-mark-triumph-over-deadly-traffic/

http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/09/08/san-franciscos-two-newest-trial-plazas-nearly-complete/

http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/08/31/eyes-on-the-street-timber-san-joseguerrero-plaza-gets-tree-stumps/

http://sfpavementtoparks.sfplanning.org/

And lastly there is an interesting SF Streets Blog photo essay about a renaissance in public space in San Francisco.

Given Tokyo’s already high incidence of walking, transit and biking for most urban trips (for work, school, shopping, and leisure), there is no reason Tokyo should not be at the forefront of experiments in turning streets into usable space.

Harvard switches to organic landscaping

Harvard organic landscape

I was proud to see a recent New York Times article about Harvard making its landscaping organic. Despite some initial resistance and skepticism that the new landscaping could withstand its heavy human usage, Harvard has found many benefits from abandoning pesticides and fertilizers: soil microbes now aerate the soil, its trees receive more nutrients and water, irrigation has been reduced by 30% or 2 million gallons per year, and tree diseases such as leaf spot and apple scab have been eliminated.

The photo above shows how grass roots now extend eight inches deep, and the soil, once heavily compacted, can now be cut like a “knife through butter.”

In a one acre test plot, Harvard has saved $45,000 per year by not buying chemicals and by composting grass clippings and branches that they previously paid to be hauled and disposed off-site. Harvard hopes to go from its current 25 acres of organic landscaping to its entire 80 acres of landscape in the next two years.

You can learn more about Harvard’s organic landscaping and what you can do on their website.

It is also exciting to read that the project was initiated by Eric T. Fleisher, the director of horticulture at the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, during his times as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Also involved was Michael Van Valkenburgh, the landscape architect whose public space designs includes the Teardrop Park in Battery Park City and Brooklyn Bridge Park. It is great to see money and knowledge being directed at the creation of new public spaces.

Fall omatsuri

Night omatsuri

This month there are many neighborhood omatsuri, festivals organized by local shrines to celebrate the harvest. Like the summer omatsuri I wrote about earlier, the festivals include carrying portable shrines through the streets, taiko drums, music, costumes include happi and fundoshi, public eating and drinking, and much neighborhood socializing.

Above is a large night festival in Suginami, popular with young people. The long path to the shrine is lined with hundreds of food stalls, selling regional foods and even imported ones like shawarma (which Japanese call kebab). Chocolate-covered bananas, light-up horns, and beer all seem popular.

Several features of omatsuri are particularly relevant to Tokyo Green Space: the celebration in the city of a harvest festival, the use of streets for community gathering, the multi-generational bonds of community that are formed and maintained.

Kids omatsuri

Last weekend, my local shrine celebrated with a kid’s omatsuri one day, and an adult one the next day. Each day the parade made a stop in front of my apartment building, turning the parking lot into a public festival. The supermarket offered free drinks and food, and I met several young fathers and kids who live in my building. The woman next door who tends an overflowing flower garden in the alley was at the shrine, watering the ground. She welcomed me and gave me a tour of the shrine area, which had portable structures and the doors open in the small permanent building. You can see it is surrounded by blue sheets for an impromptu seating area.

Local shrine open for omatsuri

I was also struck by the mesmerizing music. A band played in front of the shrine: three drummers, a flute player, and a simple metal instrument that resembles a tin bowl. The Youtube video gives you an idea of how it sounds.

After the jump, you can see a few extra pictures showing how the procession takes over the main street.

Continue reading

Worms and soil

Worms and soil

Recently I heard Robert Blakemore talk about earthworm biodiversity, ecology and taxonomy. Blakemore, a fellow at the Soil Ecology Research Group at Yokohama National University, reveals that less is known about soil than the oceans and even outer space. Soil is the foundation of our food and human life, even though in the mega-cities it is easy to forget that it is buried under the pavement.

Blakemore explains that worms enrich the soil and double crop output. As such, they play a role in ecology perhaps similar to bees: essential for food production yet often invisible and in decline.

The permaculture movement promotes worms for urban farming. Vermicomposting uses worms to break down food waste and turn it into fertilizer. Red wigglers, or Eisenia fetida, are recommended for worm boxes because they eat their body weight in food every day and produce exceptionally nutritious castings.

In Tokyo, city-run composting depends upon each individual ward government. I wonder if many individuals or groups are using worm composting. And what about the state of earthworms in Tokyo parks and soil? Here’s a how-to for building your own worm box.

Sinajina’s Kobayashi sensei teaching a class in Omotesando

Sinajina's Kobayashi teaching a class in Omotesando

Kobayashi Kenji from Sinajina taught two classes during the Silver Week holiday at Omotesando Hills. Using eight year old red pine trees, the students assembled their own saikei (miniature natural landscapes) in a 2 hour introductory class. Kobayashi sensei is clearly a gifted teacher, and enjoys sharing his plant mastery with a broad and often young audience. I will take his class next month in Jiyūgaoka.

Kobayashi sensei also told me about an exciting new public space project that he has been asked to coordinate. I will tell more details as I learn them, but it involves a difficult and large urban environment, heavily shaded by an elevated structure. Kobayashi sensei is hoping to bring in various public green space experts, including lighting and rice paddies. I am eager to see who he brings to this project and what he creates.

Why old homes and city farms are disappearing

Kyodo mansion entrance

For a city that suffered tremendous human and structural damages from World War II fire bombs, it is sad how little efforts are taken to preserve older houses and farms in Tokyo. The tax code, which levies an inheritance tax on the real value of property, literally forces many families to sell or subdivide their childhood homes in order to pay the tax bill.

Kyodo mansion overview

When parents die, the wooden homes with large yards and small urban farms become quickly transformed into multi-unit condos and apartments. New construction in Tokyo is often cheap and pre-fabricated, with the idea being that buildings should last for thirty years before being raised and rebuilt. Old gardens and trees are replaced with hardscape that provides neither shade nor habitat.

Kyodo mansion side view

Above are images of a grand home and garden near Nodai, the Tokyo University of Agriculture. It is one of only a handful of historic homes along the 20 minute walk between the Kyodo station and Nodai.

Below is an example from my neighborhood of brand new construction of a six unit building on what was previously a single family lot with garden. The amount of planting probably covers less than 2% of the lot size, and there’s four parking spaces paved in front.

New construction in Nakano

Changes to the tax code are necessary to stop this steady erasure of history and habitat. Click the link below to see another nearby house during demolition and its rebuilt form.

Continue reading

Fall crickets in Tokyo

Tokyo city view from 10th floor in Nakano

Last month, I posted a video with the sound of summer cicadas, of which there are four types. Several weeks later, the cicadas have been replaced by crickets, called suzu mushi (鈴虫), or little bell.

In a city that appears from up high to be covered in concrete for as far as the eye can see, it is amazing to be able to hear so many insects and experience the passing of the seasons. Click below to hear the sound of cicadas reaching a 10th floor apartment near central Tokyo.

Asagaya Zelkova Tunnel

Asagaya Zelkovia Tunnel

Perhaps the most beautiful street in western Tokyo is this Zelkovia (keyaki or 欅)tree tunnel on Nakasugi Douri in Asagaya. This photo was taken near the Minami Asagaya station of the Marunouchi line and the Suginami Ward Assembly Hall, looking towards the JR Asagaya station.

While this blog celebrates the anarchy of ordinary gardeners and the visionary horticultural initiatives, sometimes nothing can compare to government planting of street trees, and their maintenance over many decades. This Zelkovia tunnel always astonishes me.

Early fall at Sinajina

Early fall at Shina Jina

The exquisite miniaturization at Sinajina (品品) makes their modern bonsais a poetic reflection on season and landscape. Above is an image from last weekend, in which color and pattern capture the start of fall as surely as the first sighting of wool vests in the Tokyo streets.

To update my earlier post, I am also including some additional images of the new moss mosaic shop sign, a view of the modern structure housing the shop, and a shelves of bonsais for sale. Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) is a plant master with understated charm and extraordinary vision.

Early fall at Shina Jina Early fall at Shina Jina Early fall at Shina Jina

Statistics on World Urban Population

UNFPA logo

According to the United Nations Population Fund, in 2008 the world achieved an urbanization milestone, 3.3 billion people, more than half the world’s peoples, now lived in cities.

By 2030, 5 billion people will be city dwellers, and more than 81% will be in developing countries. From 2000 to 2030, in one generation the urban populations of Asia and Africa will double (from 1.7 to 3.4 billion).

The pace of urbanization is astonishing. From 1900 to 2000, the number of city dwellers rose from 220 million to 2.8 billion, an increase of more than 10 times. Poverty and sustainability are the two biggest challenges of our century’s global urbanization, with implications for transportation, water and energy supplies.

The role of gardeners in retrofitting mature cities and building emerging cities is vital in promoting cities where residents are connecting to each other and the environment. I hope that Tokyo Green Space can contribute ideas for global urbanization and development.

Related posts: Peter Head’s “Entering the Ecological Age”

Nouka no daikokoro: Locavore restaurant

Nouka no Daikokoro in Shinjuku

A new branch on Nouka no daikokoro (農家の台所), literally the Farmer’s Kitchen, has opened in Shinjuku, and is extremely popular. Housed on the fourth floor of a new tower, the restaurant brings a farm experience to urban resident with local food, an unusual interior, and information about local farmers.

Above the open kitchen and salad bar hang posters featuring the farmers who are growing the incredibly fresh vegetables being served. The posters are designed to look like election campaign posters, and the signage, including hanging cloth banners, introduce food producers to food consumers.

Farmer's Kitchen

The unusual farm experience begins with the entrance. Customers enter the restaurant through a large walk in refrigerator full of fresh produce for sale. If the wait for a table is too long, you can also buy a 700 yen (US$8) bento salad lunch and take it to nearby Shinjuku Goen.

Inside, the interior is an odd mix of a futuristic space (silver squishy floor and sleek counters) with a traditional space of tatami mats and low tables, and another utilitarian area of counters and tables near the salad bar. The first room has a papaya tree growing in a sleek tube, and the middle room a greenhouse with shelves of green peppers.

Nouka no daidokoro papaya tree

The vegetables were some of the tastiest I have had in Tokyo, and the lunch price very reasonable (800 yen for lunch set, 400 yen additional for raw salad bar). If you can’t get a reservation, it’s best to come late for lunch or early for dinner.

Farmer's Kitchen

Skyburb: High-rise suburban living in the city

Skyburb: High-rise suburban living in the city

From Inhabitat (click for more images), I read about a design concept for high-rise suburban living called Skyburb. It’s designed by Sydney architects Tzannes Associates to provide flexible, modular, and park-like vertical spaces in densely built areas. I am a bit skeptical about the idea of “introducing qualities of the suburbs into denser urban environments” because it is hard to imagine suburban living without privatized open space, automobile dependency, and nuclear family anomie. I think revitalized cities can and must do better than that. Still, the open steel structure and heavily green renderings are certainly appealing.

San Francisco transit

Muni Mess, by Mike Monteiro

I often tell Tokyo-ites how marvelous their train and subway system is: fast, convenient, clean, and safe. Mostly, Tokyo residents stare in disbelief when I explain how filthy the transit system in San Francisco is.

Recently I read a reminder that not only is San Francisco’s transit dirty, slow and inconvenient, but also dangerous. In the aftermath of a serious stabbing of an 11 year old boy, riding a Muni bus for his first time, the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper’s top political columnists provide the following advice for riding transit at night:

Muni manners: Roxann Hohman, who often rides Muni home from work late at night, passes on some unwritten safety rules for fellow riders. To wit:

— Sit in the middle. The mentally unstable and homeless sit up front where they grope or panhandle at will. The hood rats sit in the back where they can punch people in the head on the way out just for kicks.

— Keep your purse jammed under your arm and the strap wrapped around your wrist, lest someone grabs it on the way out the door.

— If you listen to music, don’t use the telltale white earbuds of an iPod – it’s just asking for trouble. And never listen to music so loud that you can’t tell what’s happening around you.

— Finally, don’t say anything to the three teenagers who are screaming at the top of their lungs, though they are just 2 feet from each other. To do so ensures you’ll get jumped, and you won’t get much help.

Is it any wonder that public transit is a service used almost exclusively by the poor in San Francisco? I am certain these columnists, and many of their readers, never ride the MUNI, certainly not in the evening. With such a continued heavy dependence on private automobiles, will San Francisco be able to grow without sacrificing mobility, air quality and health?