agriculture

Pasona’s new farm and landscaped building

UPDATE: I posted a revised article, “Sensing Four Seasons at a Tokyo Office Building,” on Huffington Post on July 30, 2010.

Some friends and I visited Pasona’s new office last week. They are a large Japanese staffing farm that had a highly publicized basement farm in their old Otemachi headquarters. This year they moved nearby to Yaesu in their own newly built, nine story headquarters between Tokyo Station and Nihonbashi. Pasona has unveiled a much more elaborately landscaped interior and exterior.

The image above is my favorite because it highlights the interface between the futuristic farm, dependent on a variety of grow lights including LEDs, and the urban environment outside. I am certain that the indoor vegetables will give them the most attention again, but actually I believe the exterior landscaping is more inspiring and impactful.

Below is a brief tour of interior and exterior. After the photo tour, I will suggest some metrics for judging the success of this very visible corporate monument to urban nature.

Glowing all the way across the wide downtown street even in daylight, a spectacular rice paddy with dozens of strong lights occupies the main lobby entrance of the building. The entrance doors are flanked on the outside by beautiful apple trees in giant rusted steel planters.

Almost the entire first floor of the building is devoted to the spectacle of vegetables planting, growing, and ripening under powerful grow lights: rice, tomatoes, melons, corn, eggplants, herbs, and lettuce. A large cafe features wood posts hung at angles and supporting canvas bags with soil and corn. One wall has a series of metal cases with purple lights and tiny fans that have a very “next century” feel.

There is also a room with racks and racks of lettuce, and a field of giant sunflowers. And everywhere vegetables and seedlings are arranged in attractive vignettes. Elsewhere, tomatos hang from the cut-outs in the ceiling. (Click to enlarge the photos below).

What I think works are the following:

  • Pasona demonstrates its commitment to bringing nature into the city by devoting so much valuable space and employing great landscapers and designers.
  • Pasona packages its vision in a combination of high design and new technology that is visually stunning, unique and in many ways hopeful.
  • It is interesting how the cafe and second story meeting spaces are divided and enhanced by greenery. The constant changing as plants plants grow and get replaced, and juxtaposing informal meeting spaces with living plants is a welcome change from most office interiors.

But I also have to point out where the vision falls short.

  • It largely fails as a public gathering place. The giant lobby rice paddy is at once open free to the public and oddly devoid of people, except for a few curious first time visitors. The strange color, strong heat, and loud sound of the lights seems to repel people. In fact, the employees use a side entrance, and bypass the lobby. There is no sense that employees or neighbors will use most of this space, except for suited young people using the cafe and second floor meeting rooms.
  • The intensity of the lighting and sheer quantity beg the question of energy expenditure. Pasona must address how sustainable this idea of indoor agriculture is, and whether they see energy production or usage changing in the future of urban farming.
  • There is no sense of season or natural habitat. It is understandable that birds and wildlife are not permitted inside, but their absence makes the interior seem sterile. Why is the corn ripening in May?

While the indoor farm will generate the most attention for Pasona, I think that the exterior landscaping is more impressive and ultimately more interesting for urban habitat creation and the integration of nature with work space. Two thirds of the building front and at least one side have been carefully planted on handsome screened balconies to produce four seasons of color. Included are citrus trees, wisteria vines, Japanese maple, blueberries, and flowering vines like clematis.  Although the plants are small now, it is easy to imagine the exterior becoming a unique vertical forest and colorful garden over the next years.

The exterior vertical landscaping has 200 species of plants, and many trees that lose their leaves in the winter. The idea is that the plant mass will reduce carbon emissions, summer shade will keep the building cooler, and winter bare branches will allow more direct light during the cold season. While the public is not invited to the upper floors, it appears that the exterior plants are all on balconies that are either accessible or viewable from inside the offices. Click below to see posters that explain the exterior landscape and the designers who worked on this project, and how the exterior garden appears from the sidewalk below.

I am looking forward to watching the exterior of the building grow into its potential. And I am eager to hear how the office workers feel about the outdoor plants that are so close to their interior work spaces.

I’ll end this post with a dandelion weed I spotted on the edge of the rice field. It is this type of unplanned feature that makes natural landscapes so enchanting.

City and Country, 1970s and now

“The Japanese think of the City in the way that Englishmen used to think of Mighty London. It is either one or the other. Rice paddies or the Ginza.” (p35)

I am reading the wonderful author Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, first published in 1971. Richie is the ultimate American expat in Japan, who stayed from the start of the Occupation until today, and this is a classic travel book focused on Seto Nai Kai (the Inland Sea), which I recently visited.

This passage struck me because Ginza Farm, which I have visited for Tokyo Green Space, overcomes the division between city and country by bringing a rice paddy to Ginza, Tokyo’s most celebrated commercial district full of De Beers, Cartier and now of course Uniqlo flagship stores.

Richie’s The Inland Sea also reminds me of the recently deceased French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, which chronicled an Amazon on the verge of extinction. In a similar voyage by boat, Richie bemoans the new highways and lure of the city that threaten the fishing economy and general isolation of these islands and peoples. What used to be called “salvage anthropology” clashes with contemporary feelings by focusing on purity and what is about to be lost. This antique attitude also portrays the writer as both the “first” and last foreigner to capture a vanishing culture, creating a false sense of importance for the individual writer.

Despite this unease, it is hard not to enjoy Richie’s beautiful writing, his insights on insider and outsider culture, and his only partly closeted attraction to Japan. And I do not doubt the gulf that once existed between city and country, which makes the current urban interest in rural life and agriculture all the more indicative of profound social and environmental change.

On a related topic, I read this week in the New York Times that Korea, which is generally more accepting of national diversity, is having difficulties integrating children of mixed marriages. Most mixed children are the progeny of Korean farmers and their Chinese, Filipino and Thai wives. Partly the social question is of race, but also of class and city versus country.

I was struck that Korea shares Japan’s rural abandonment, and seems ahead of Japan in responding through immigration. Perhaps Japan, too, will first open its doors to immigrants willing to live in its rural areas now inhabited almost exclusively by the elderly. Despite Japan’s xenophobia, immigrants as care-givers and farmers seem more likely than the techno fantasy of robots: more cost-effective as workers and more human in terms of care and culture.

Maids’ environmental group in Akihabara

Maids environmental group in Akihabara

Thanks to a great Japan eco-blog Kurashi, I learned about an Akihabara maids organization called Licolita that is involved in public environmental activities: including summer-time uchimizukko (splashing water on the sidewalk to lower ambient temperature), blessing bicycles at a shrine, and now growing and harvesting rice in rooftop pots. It is cool that this group is so focused on otakus (manga and anime fans) and raising their awareness and interest in urban ecology and agriculture.

White House bee hive

White House bee hive

Michelle Obama has brought beekeeping to the White House, and the New York Times has a lovely three minute video story about this activity that connects the president’s home with Washington DC’s seasonal trees and flowers, and school children. The honey is eaten at the White House and offered as a gift to world leaders.

With the First Family of the United States involved, ultra-local honey production is certain to influence residential and corporate beekeeping around the world. It is the first time that honey has been produced at the White House. This symbolic and practical activity is a great beacon for urban agriculture and ecology.

White House bee hive

A related article talks about how the Obamas’ personal chef is involved with food policy making.

Michelle Obama and chefs

Stop Big Ag in the White House – Say No to Monsanto and CropLife

Stop Big Ag in the White House

Food Democracy Now is organizing an online petition to stop Obama and Congress from nominating and approving industrial agriculture leaders to key government food and agriculture positions. The petition seems organized for United States residents. Nonetheless, appointing executive level GMO and pesticide advocates to senior US government positions will certainly have a global effect on food and the environment.

 

Mebiol: Hydrogel Agriculture Technology

Professor Mori Yuichi of Mebiol

I recently had the chance to meet Professor Mori Yuichi of Mebiol, an agriculture technology company in Kanagawa. This research professor at Waseda University started Mebiol in 1995 exploring first medical and then agriculture uses for hydrogels. I was intrigued by his Hymec system for indoor farming and Skygel for rooftop gardens.

Mebiol lettuce

Hymec looks like a plastic sheet allows for no-soil and low-soil farming, with the water and fertilizer separate from the plants roots. The roots remain dry while drawing water and nutrients from below the membrane, and oxygen from the air. Lettuce and other leaf vegetables can be grown with no soil, tomatoes with a thin layer of soil. Compared to other indoor farming techniques, Hymec uses less water, less fertilizer, less insecticides and less energy because the barrier prevents contamination from bacteria common to traditional hydroponics. Benefits include the ability to plant smaller seedlings (called “plug seedlings”), greater plant density, and more nutritious and sweeter vegetables, with tomatoes producing more Gaba and Lycopene.

Mebiol Hymec lettuce

I was intrigued by what Professor Mori calls “mobile farming.” In his words, “Hymec releases farming from the earth by a water-proof sheet” and allows farming in cities, factories, deserts, indoors, and even in waste incinerators. Some applications are the Kyoto Brighton Hotel, where tomators are grown on a concrete floor in a bamboo greenhouse, and a test farm in Dubai, where Hymec makes possible low-water farming with reduced air conditioning, and replaces costly and carbon-heavy vegetable imports from Europe.

Another Mebiol product is Skygel, mixed with soil and used for roof and slope planting. In this case, the hydrogel increases water retention, lowers run-off, and decreases the need for irrigation. Mixing Skygel and soil allows for a lighter load, ideal for roof gardens. The roof garden at Mebiol’s office (in top photo, with founder Professor Mori), is only 10 cm thick, and the plants can survive for up to 10 days without water in the Japanese summer heat.

Below is a diagram explaining Hymec.

Mebiol's Hymec farm system

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.

Visiting Nagano and Niigata with Nodai

Niigata Dream House

Last week I visited Nagano and Niigata prefectures with Nodai. It was my first experience seeing the incredible beauty of the countryside, the rice fields and satoyama ecosystems, steep hills, wood houses, and small towns. The focus of the trip was rural revitalization and experiencing history, both centuries-old and more recent, in landscape.

Although I had heard of satoyama from 5bai Midori, I had not expected to be so overwhelmed by the exuberant greenery of rice field, abundant water and forest. In some ways, the agricultural landscape looks like it had been there for 2,000 years of co-habitation between people and nature. Because of the small plots and terraces, much of the farming is still done by hand, and there was no evidence of industrial agri-business like flat Kansas wheat fields or Maryland chicken mega-factories.

Matthew Puntigam photo of Niigata satoyama

Our university field trip made clear that this is no pastoral eden. Abandoned houses and schools reflect a rapidly aging and shrinking population, and we witnessed buildings from Japan’s 1980s Bubble that were shuttered or on the verge of bankruptcy.

The trip included three major locations connected to efforts by Nodai’s professors in the Garden Design Laboratory and Landscape Architecture Science. The tour was led by Professors Shinji, Suzuki and Hattori.

1. Obuse in Nagano: an Edo town that was once a center of commerce and culture due to its location at the confluence of the Matsu-kawa River and Chikuma River, with a six hundred year history of chestnut trees and one hundred year old sake distillery. Today there is a famous Hokusai Museum, restaurants, chestnut foods, sake production, a marathon, and an “open garden” town program.

2. New Greenpia (ニュー・グリーンピア), a massive resort built in the 1980s to provide outdoor experiences for working class urban residents. A central feature is a garden designed by a Nodai professor, and the resort history shows how the exuberance of the Bubble laid a poor foundation for the past two decades. Its name refers to its green mission and its uto*pia*n ambitions.

3. Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial, which describes itself as “350 artworks, deployed in communities, rice fields, vacant houses and closed schools, are the fruit born from the collaboration and exchanges between rural locality and city, artist and satoyama, and young and old.” A Niigata Art Triennial director spoke with our group outside Marina Abramovic’s Dream House (see Nodai Trip, part 4, for more on this installation and Niigata Art Triennial).

Nodai Students in front of Niigata Dream House

The trip also included a chance to speak informally with the professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and Research Fellow, plus banquets with enormous portions, visits to Japan’s giant highway rest stops, and onsen bathing.

Nodai students at trip banquet

And lastly, there was an informal lesson on making onigiri for my foreign colleague and me.

I’ll post more photos and observations from the trip in the next days.

NTT Facilities’ Green Potato

NTT Facilities Green Potato

From City Farmer‘s amazing blog, I found this photo and story about NTT Facilities‘ growing sweet potatoes on rooftops in Tokyo. This urban agriculture project makes use of wasted urban space, reduces the heat island effect, and provides local and safe food. Sweet potatoes apparently thrive in harsh sun and strong wind. The Agence France Presse story from November 5, 2008 says that NTT Facilities hopes to take their “Green Potato” project to other Tokyo office buildings and nation-wide to schools.

What prevents other corporations from implementing rooftop agriculture? Is it know-how or cost? There should be some savings by reducing air-conditioning costs (and carbon emissions), and also an opportunity to give office workers opportunities to work together and learn more about how food is grown.

Vancouver’s Olympic vegetable gardens

Vancouver Olympics 2010 mascots

In 2006, the Vancouver City Council created a challenge to add 2,010 vegetable gardens before the 2010 Winter Olympics. As of the end of June, they had reached 1,800 new food-producing gardens, only 210 gardens from their end of year goal. Working with the Vancouver Food Policy Council, the city government urges new gardens to be created on roofs, balcony, in the ground, a backyard sharing program, and a “grow a row, share a row” program that contributes to local food banks. They are currently working on a backyard hen policy.

The Sharing Backyards program is ingeniously simple: it connects people who want to grow food with people who have land and want someone’s help with gardening. “Yard sharing” makes use of wasted space, creates connections between city residents, and increases local food production. Here’s a screen shot of the interface that allows gardeners and people with garden space to connect.

Vancouver backyard sharing

Vancouver’s City Farmer says that 44% of Vancouver’s residents are involved in some form of urban agriculture. This program seems simple and low-cost. Why aren’t more global cities promoting urban agriclture?

Image of Tokyo residential vegetable garden in 1944

Tokyo residential vegetable garden in 1944

This is an image of a residential vegetable garden during the war in Tokyo from March 1944, published by Life Magazine. It comes from an amazing urban agriculture website called City Farmer, out of Vancouver, Canada.

United States residents are aware of our country’s World War II “victory gardens,” recently revived by the Obama White House. Yet somehow seeing a similar war-time image in Tokyo, shortly before the city was decimated by fire bombs, is surprising.

In times of war and scarcity, urban residents naturally turned to growing food in their gardens. Are today’s combination of unemployment and climate change enough to generate an equally widespread movement in global cities today? What skills have urban residents lost? What governmental and non-governmental resources could make urban agriculture a significant source of food?

Some images of the Obama’s White House garden after the jump.

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Kajima and bees

Kajima bee project on Japanese MX television

Yamada Yuriyuki (山田順之) , a biodiversity specialist at Kajima, one of Japan’s largest construction companies, appears in a video on Japanese TV about Kajima’s beekeeping and biodiversity education work. Kajima has started a hive in one of their buildings, and is studying how and where bees travel.

Yamada-san makes the important point that “greening” is not just about aesthetics but about eco-systems. Bees play an important role because they pollinate fruit trees that in turn attract birds. Bees also scare away crows. And it is because of the decline of bees in the wild that farmers need to manually pollinate fruits and vegetables. The video also shows how Kajima has educated school kids about the value of bees.

I am curious how far bee-keeping can take off in Tokyo, and the connections its advocates can make with native plants, urban wildlife, and city agriculture.

Corporate ecology

Pasona o2, LED lights

In Japan, all corporations have “Corporate Social Responsibility” groups, and most of them focus on the environment. Some corporations have grant-making foundations (such as Coca Cola Japan), and others have green businesses (Japan’s largest car company Toyota and largest beverage company Suntory both have green roof subsidiaries).

Starting on April 1, 2008, nineteen large companies formed the Japan Business Initiative for Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity (JBIB). Members include major electronics, construction, housing, insurance, food and telecommunication companies. I am hoping to learn more about this group, and its efforts to become corporate leaders in advocating for biodiversity.

Shortly before it closed for renovations, I visited an unusual basement farm set up by one of Japan’s largest staffing agency Pasona. Named Pasona o2 (a summary in English here), this underground farm aims to raise popular awareness of agriculture, provide relaxation for nearby office workers, and attract media attention:
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Affiliation with Tokyo University of Agriculture

Tokyo University of Agriculture

I am thrilled to receive an affiliation with Tokyo University of Agriculture for my Council on Foreign Relations Hitachi fellowship. Also known as Nodai,Tokyo University of Agriculture is one of Japan’s most respected schools, with strengths in agriculture, the environment and landscape design. I will be hosted by the Department of Landscape Architecture Science.