Month: February 2010

Small lane in Nakano Fujimichou

I love this tiny lane in Nakano Fujimichou that extends two blocks between a larger building and a series of small residences. The proportion of pavement seems just right: soil, pavement, soil in almost equal thirds. The lane serves as access to residences, bicycle storage, laundry drying, garden, and public passageway.

I wonder if the land is officially part of the ward or the residences. In any case, I imagine that it is the residents who maintain it and set informal rules about usage. The charm of this type of small semi-public semi-private space seems impossible to create by government planners or real estate developers.

Flowering volunteer

This plant in the foreground arrived on its own to my balcony container garden, and now it is flowering. The flowers look like peas, and the plant is growing vigorously with a nice cascading shape. Does anyone know the name of this plant?

In gardening, the unplanned is often the most intriguing. I wonder if the seed came in the wind, in the soil of another purchased plant, or by bird droppings. Even a small artificial ecosystem can take on a life of its own.

A single manicured tree

By Tokyo’s standards, this residential yard is large. I love simplicity of the garden, viewed from the street: a long hedge, a bamboo fence, an orange tree in the background, and another heavily pruned tree that is dormant in the winter (maybe a cherry tree).

The star of the public face of the garden is the elaborate pine tree pruned into four rings.

I wonder if every few years, the gardener adds an additional ring. The design is at once simple and the result of regular care over years of growth. Like the finest traditional Japanese garden, this single tree combines nature and artifice, and conveys a relationship between people and other life forms. I like the generosity of the owner who shares this tree equally with passers-by and the residence’s inhabitants and guests.

The tree is, I think, called ゴヨウマツ or Japanese white pine in English (Pinus parviflora), a common bonsai and garden tree.

Mejiro on our balcony

Recently a mejiro bird has been visiting our apartment balcony early in the morning. The mejiro is tiny, bright green, and sports a white ring around its eyes. This bird is particularly attracted to nectar, and seems to enjoy the pink camellia outside our kitchen. What great company to have during breakfast!

Azby Brown’s book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan

I recently read Azby Brown’s book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan. Brown is an architect, professor, author, and expert on Japanese traditional and contemporary building design. This new book explores ecological principles of late Edo Japanese life (about 1800) and their relevance to sustainable living today.

The book mixes three levels of information: detailed descriptions of rural and urban life focused on farmers, carpenters and samurai; hundreds of amazing drawings of ecosystems, houses, tools and objects of everyday life; and finally reflections on how modern society might emulate a zero waste society that fed a population of 30 million including over a million living in Tokyo. By focusing on social structure, farming, transportation, forest management, urban planning, and domestic life, Brown explores how Japan was able to maintain the environment, including clean water, and avoid many of the diseases that plagued European cities of that time.

Brown provides a remarkable analysis of how natural resources were used by this growing population without harming the environment. Some notable examples include limiting forest extraction to fallen limbs and what can be carried on a person’s back, an irrigation system in which the resulting water was filtered and cleaned by rice fields, a transportation system that relied on human and water transport rather than animals, the role of courtyards as shared space for commoners, and samurais’ reliance on urban farms to make ends meet.

Viewed from today’s post-industrial times, it is remarkable to think that Edo Tokyo has a huge tree canopy and significant urban farming, and that zero waste included re-using night soil as fertilizer with a higher price for those of daimyo lords and for entertainers whose diets were richest. By carefully showing how Edo people lived, Brown is able to show how architectural elements like the endogawa porch can be used today as a way of connecting interior and exterior, residents and visitors. Modular and multi-purpose rooms are other features that would make living today both more efficient and comfortable.

My only criticism is Brown’s focus on the ethics of sustainability. I believe that pleasure and ecology must go together, so that making better choices is about improving life not about “doing good,” which is often a poor motivator. Brown does mention some of the coercive features of Edo life that would not be attractive today, such as infanticide as a population control method. For our times, I think the challenge is to both persuade people to embrace zero waste as a lifestyle improvement, and at the same time enact new policies that reflect the true costs of agro-industrial “cheap” food  and fossil fuel reliance built.

Current policies promote bad choices, including subsidizing corn sugar despite the health consequences, and hiding the true cost of fuel by externalizing the endless wars that guarantee our supplies, the free roads that encourage sprawl, and the pollution and climate change caused by emissions.

Brown’s book Just Enough will be thought-provoking for those interested in Japanese history and culture, and those engaged in a new global dialogue about a sustainable post-industrial future. His research, analysis and images provide new inspiration for a revitalized relationship between farms and cities, people and nature.

US military protects wildlife and habitat on bases

US Military in Iraq, February 2008. Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

I am still trying to grok this news from the New York Times promoting the US military’s role in wildlife and habitat preservation on its 270,000 acres of bases in the US. Some of the activities sound ridiculous: like carving holes in trees “so the woodpeckers did not have to toil for six months carving the nests themselves.” On the other hand, controlled burning probably does increase wildlife habitat.

There is a realism beneath this change in policy: by preserving wildlife the military reduces the number of species designated as endangered and allows the military more freedom to to conduct training on their lands.

It’s hard for me to support the idea of nature preservation which will then allow more destruction. Does nature really benefit from bullets, tanks and bombs? But the cold logic behind this policy suggest that almost any large organization can find benefits in supporting bio-diversity. Despite the PR nature of this story and the ultimately violent nature of this organization, the military’s change in attitude about its role as a property owner is at once revolting and cause for optimism.

(Check out New York Times video, too).

Coyotes in Manhattan

Coyotes have recently been spotted in New York’s Central Park, and at Columbia University. It’s funny to see these reports while I am reading Marie Winn’s charming book about urban wildlife called Central Park in the Dark, in which she chronicles her and other amateur naturalists’ obsessions with city bats, birds, moths, mice and other creatures. Her website includes “latest news”:

Picturing smart growth

Amazing animations showing how smart growth can improve streetscapes across America by adding greenery, slowing auto traffic, and applying smart growth principles of walkable streets, in-fill, mixed use, public plazas, and adaptive resuse.

You can search dozens of cases by map, by community type (urban, suburban, exurban, rural), by site type (avenue, highway, greyfield, etc), and by the type of improvement. The site is from the National Resource Defense Council.

The extremely visual nature of this site shows the steps that can transform common streets into extraordinary new places.

Picturing smart growth, from NRDC

19-20-21 Super City project by Richard Saul Wurman

The 19-20-21 Super City project by Richard Saul Wurman looks at the impact of mega urbanization on the environment and people. From the inventor of the term “information archictect” and founder of the TED conference, this project succinctly captures the massive change worldwide caused by the unprecedented growth of global cities and what it means for “business and urban planning.”

Fixes: a new site about altering space in Tokyo

A-small-lab, Chris Berthelsen’s creativity research and practice studio, has just launched an amazing blog called Fixes. Fixes investigates and documents “alterations of space/objects at the public/private boundary in suburban Tokyo.”

There are many creative examples of people using simple and recycled materials to improve spaces outside homes and shops in a residential area. A wire coat hanger stores outdoor sandals on a beam, someone creates a wood stand for plants and bbq seating on top of a driveway boundary, a gardener recycles plastic storage containers for garden edging, and, above, someone uses a cinder block to even out the entry stairs to a residence.

Chris has an amazing eye for the creativity of Japanese people making small changes to their environment and blurring the boundary of private and public space. This blog project is simply genius.

Kuma Kengo’s new design features cool roof gardens

Famed architect Kuma Kengo’s new building, Tamagawa Takashimaya S+C Marronier Court, features cool roof gardens that jut out over the sides of the building on four levels. I am curious what the plants are, and how it will look as they cover the triangular frames. More photos on Designboom.