climate change

Poppies growing in a crack in the sidewalk

I saw these beautiful poppies growing in the crack of a sidewalk. It reminded me of the first image that I took for Tokyo Green Space two years ago, of pansies growing in a sidewalk crack. I am still struck by the ingenuity and generosity of Tokyo’s unheralded urban gardeners. They are beautifying an environment that is often ugly, overbuilt and poorly planned.

The poppies make me think of the pansies photo. I recently received an interesting request by email asking for permission to include that original photo in a book about urban design and climate change that Alexandros Washburn, Chief Urban Designer of the  City of New York, is writing.

I am continually amazed by the importance of observing small details and the power of the internet to connect people who are distant by location, profession, and circumstance. It is both humbling and inspiring.

NYC takes steps to allow urban beekeeping

Just read in PSFK that New York City has taken the first step to allow urban beekeeping. I was surprised to learn that the ban on bees in the city also includes crocodiles, lions and pit vipers. And that this ban was introduced little more than ten years ago by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, with a $2,000 fine.

It is also interesting that the original report is from the Discovery Channel website, providing the surprise of a major cable network discussing the importance of bees for pollinating food and their decline due to pesticides, climate change, and other “man-made impacts.” In any case, it’s great to see urban beekeeping going mainstream.

Biodiversity Remakes Tokyo

The Huffington Post published my article entitled “Biodiversity Remakes Tokyo.” I will become a regular blogger, so if you like the article please leave a comment on the Huffington Post, post it to your Facebook account, or Tweet it to your friends. Thank you!

Here’s the first four paragraphs:

The Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference addresses unparalleled environmental crisis and the need to transform our relationship with nature. Many people assume that nature has no place in the city. On the contrary, cities are central sites for a sustainable, post-industrial era that supports population growth and a high quality of life. Biodiversity and urban forests can thrive with concrete and people.

Ordinary gardeners and environmental visionaries in Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis, are improving urban life for human and environmental benefit. While mainstream environmentalists work to save distant forests, urban innovators are creating new shared places that connect city residents to the environment and each other. Successful strategies include maximizing limited resources, engaging urban dwellers, and sharing daily life with plants and wildlife.

Tokyo’s size, density, lack of open space, and past policy failures paradoxically make it a model for rebuilding mature cities and designing hundreds of new cities. Along with climate change, the world faces unprecedented urbanization, reaching 60% of the world population or 5 billion people by 2030. African and Asian urban populations will double between 2000 and 2030.

To make cities sustainable and attractive, limited resources must be used for maximum benefit. Tokyo already offers vibrant and safe street life with relatively small private spaces. Because of usage fees and public investment, more daily trips are made by transit, walking and bicycling than automobile. And large numbers of often elderly residents tend gardens spilling out from homes into streets. With minimal horizontal area between homes, Tokyo residents are experts in blurring public and private spaces, and growing vertical gardens in even the narrowest openings.

Click to read the full story on the Huffington Post.

Public behavior: Tokyo’s advantage in building a livable city

Vandalism of Paris' Velib, bike sharing program

A recent New York Times story about vandalism of Paris’ visionary Velib bike-sharing program highlighted an enormous advantage that Tokyo has in creating great public spaces: the respect that citizens pay to shared space and to each other.

To mitigate climate change, reduce traffic and clean the city’s air, Paris created a remarkable bike sharing program, with over 20,000 bicycles available throughout Paris at a very low rental price. With 50,000 to 150,000 daily trips, this bike-sharing program created a real impact on how residents and tourists traversed the city. Since 2007, more than 80% of the sturdy bicycles have been stolen or vandalized beyond repair.

The New York Times quotes Parisian police and sociologists who blame the attacks on “resentful, angry or anarchic youth” in a “socially divide Paris.”  Specific blame is given to suburban youth, the mostly poor immigrants who live in the outskirts of the city and view the bicycles as a symbol of urban privilege that they lack.

Compared to the extreme inequality in many global cities, Tokyo remains surprisingly safe and clean. This allows for some amazing new public spaces, from the wonderous Ginza Farm open to everyone and unguarded– disturbed in five months only by a raccoon hungry for one of its ducks (more on this later)– to the many common gardens and plants placed outside homes and shops.

Most Tokyo residents are unaware that their relative social harmony is unique. With public behavior the norm, there are unparalleled opportunities to create even more exciting new public spaces that revitalize human life connected to plants and wildlife. Public spaces open at night, habitats that require clean running water, valuable plants that require time and care to mature, the care that individuals and organizations invest in place-making are all more likely to be respected and allowed to thrive in Tokyo.

Velib poster

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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Carbon reduction is electoral issue

Japan election results from 2005

Japan is entering a heated campaign for the Diet, and the Liberal Democrat Party ruling party faces a serious challenge that is unusual in the post-war period. The campaign by the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, has largely revolved around  a broad call for “change,” while many observers have difficulty discerning differences in campaign promises or likely governing policies.

It is interesting to note that the opposition DPJ declared yesterday that they are committed to a 25% reduction of carbon emissions by 2020 (from 1990 levels),  in contrast to the LDP’s 8% target. Policies include a cap and trade policy, opposed by business, a “feed-in tariff” that obliges power companies to buy renewable energy at a fixed price, and the “consideration” of an environment tax.

Reaching agreement between advanced and emerging countries on 2020 targets is critical to the success of the upcoming UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December. Some may be skeptical about whether electoral promises will be carried out. Regardless of the outcome, it will be interesting to see how much this issue resonates with the Japanese electorate and whether they will accept the price for environmental change.

(Note: The chart above shows the distribution of seats from the 2005 election).

Entering the Ecological Age

80% carbon reduction by 2050

Last week I heard Peter Head of ARUP present “Entering the Ecological Age,” the Brunel Lecture for the Institute of Civil Engineers. Director of ARUP’s “integrated urbanism” practice, Head focuses attention on the potential devastation of climate change and the role of cities in launching a new ecological era that uses renewable energy efficiently.

Head’s most sobering prediction is that by 2100 there is a 50% chance of earth temperature rising by more than 5 degrees celsius, which would lead to the end of human civilization.

Urban transit options

The solution is massive reduction in carbon dioxide by retrofitting old cities and building new ones organized around non-polluting transportation. Surpassed only by Australia, the US uses twice the energy per capita of Japan and Europe because of its reliance on the automobile as the primary transportation vehicle and the great distances between housing, work, schools and shopping.

I was interested in Head’s advocacy for “biomimicry.” Janine Benyus’ 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovations Inspired by Nature lists ten principles include uses water as a resource, diversfty and cooperate, gather and use energy efficiently, optimise not maximise, use materials sparingly, clean up not pollute, do not draw down resources, remain in balance with the biosphere, run on information, and use local resources.

I also found it interesting that Head believes cities are the most dynamic and capable of meeting the challenges of the post-industrial age. He cites the work of C40 Cities as climate leaders. Some urban initiatives he cites are Seoul’s removal of a freeway above the Cheonggyecheon River, and Singapore’s introduction of dragonfly habitats to reduce mosquitoes and dengue fever.

Head advocates an 80% carbon reduction by 2050 (compared with 1990 levels), which will require massive change in advanced and developing countries. His work seeks to contribute to the 2009 COP 15 meeting in Copenhagen (Convention on Climate Change), the most important since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

You can download a lengthly PDF version of the talk on the ARUP website, and watch video of the lecture on a website called Resilient Futures.