On a wide boulevard normally devoted to multi-lane auto traffic, nothing could be more beautiful than the site of elegant ladies in matching kimonos and hats dancing in synchronized movements. The summer and fall Shinto festivals transform business Tokyo into a series of village parties evoking an agrarian culture rarely sensed inside the megalopolis.
Below are photos from the Shiba matsuri. The sub-group near my friend Bas’ home displayed photos from the 1945 festival, just a month after the end of the war in which the entire neighborhood and much of Tokyo was burnt to the ground. The last photo shows a man who is both telling stories and selling bananas, a continuation of an Edo-era festival character.
In the photos you can see how on a special holiday, the streets, overpasses, convenience stores, and other mundane urban spaces are transformed into a very social and well dressed public environment.
It was raining when @ilynam and Yuki joined me for the first meeting to create a website for the 500 garden database of Japanese gardens outside Japan, a project I am helping Suzuki sensei with this year.
At the entrance to the school, somehow this rainy scene was an apt start for this exciting project where we will mix design, gardens, pixels, and soil. Bringing this knowledge online will be very helpful for people around the world who are interested in knowing about and visiting hundreds of Japanese gardens in dozens of countries. And working with design stars Ian and Yuki, I am confident that we can combine simplicity and beauty in the interface.
The banner offering campus tours for new students says, “We are people who scoop. Environmentally active students.” The word sukuu means “scoop” and also “save.”
I have been thinking about the urban corridors and the distributed real estate that connect city people literally and experientially. Everything from rail lines that take us where we are going to convenience stores that make us feel that we are in the same place no matter where we are. Rail companies and retail chains own or operate so much real estate to make them second only to governments in terms of land ownership and possibilities for remaking our environment.
I love the chaotic, multi-directional rail lines in Yoyogi- two sets of elevated lines and street-grade lines taking traffic from Shinjuku to other parts of Tokyo, towns and resorts to the west, and across Japan. As a pedestrian, the rail crossings slow down your walk and make you aware of the millions of people circulating in Tokyo.
I’ve blogged before about the cool wildflowers with some unplanned cultivation on the sides of the tracks. The rail companies must be concerned about safety, including keeping neighbors safe and also minimizing garbage on the tracks. Yet it’s great that this land exists in a semi-wild state, and cool that it’s so accessible in Yoyogi. I wonder what further uses the lands beside rail tracks and stations could have in cities, suburbs, and countryside. Wildlife habitat, small farms, recreation, bee hives, or other uses.
The Nezu Museum and its gorgeous Japanese garden are a just short walk from the Nishi Azabu Juban wildness, the Kakuremino bar, and lush sidewalk garden. Many people come to the newly rebuilt Nezu Museum for its exquisite collection of pre-modern art, or the new building designed by Kuma Kengo. I am a huge fan of its garden that combines tea houses and paths in a setting that seems ancient, slightly overgrown, bigger than its footprint, and entirely removed from city life.
When I visited recently, just before closing time towards the end of a long, hot summer, I was enchanted by how the light struck this worn boat, the plants growing in its bow, and the illusion of minimal human habitation in an endless jungle. I was also surprised to see Japanese maple leaves already turning red, despite the temperature being above 32 celcius (90 fahrenheit) for many weeks.
Taken together, these four posts about Nishi Azabu Juban speak to the wide range of nature in the city: professional and amateur gardens, single plants and total environments, built and wild, public and gated, destinations and everyday experiences. Plants grow wild even in the densest cities, but how we choose to nurture them provides endlessly varied results. I am inspired by the full range of possibilities.
I prefer small tulips over the large ones. This simple tulip growing in a pot I made is so cheerful. At a recent talk, an audience member criticized my interest in ornamental plants and suggested that the environmental impact is minimal or none. I disagree. Taking care of even the smallest plant connects you to the magic of nature and the existence of other living forms.
Despite much anticipation for this tulip to bloom, after five days in bloom it is now fading. There is a beauty to its entire cycle.
Recently I took a day trip to Iwaki with my in-laws. We ended the afternoon on the top floor of a 1980s hotel in a cafe which had the clever idea of placing sand on the floor below the tables that face out on the coast. On closer examination, I realized that both the small hill and the seashore are covered in concrete.
The view reminded me of Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons about how the institutional forces that lead the government to degrade the countryside and the environment. On the one hand, pouring concrete on the hillside protects the houses below, and presumably what look like huge concrete children’s jacks on the shore prevent flooding. But did they need to build houses on such perilous land, or was the lure of construction profits and kickbacks too great to pass up?
Over the next two months, I will be regularly contributing blog posts to Creative Cities, a project by the British Council focused on creative cities in the UK, East Asia, and Australia. Under the direction of Australian arts director and editor Jess Scully, the Creative Cities brings together some exciting ideas from thirteen countries about the role of creative cities in our changing world.
This month, the focus is on sustainable cities, and I am looking forward to the discussion generated by the contributors and readers. My first post describes the very Japanese mix of otaku (geek) culture, old traditions, and environmental activism as Akihabara maids plant and harvest rice. I am excited to be in this exciting East Asian and UK discussion of the role of creative cities in solving problems and making our lives better.
This is a close-up of a small tree that has survived the disintegration of its styrofoam planter box and rooted itself into the ground. It is amazing that it was able to force its way through the pavement and reach the soil.
This potted tree breaking the pavement to root itself in the ground is almost the opposite of the cana flower spreading under and breaking the road to reach the air above. I find these images hopeful signs that no matter how much we pave over nature or confine it to a pot, plants are resilient, resourceful and able to confound our built environment.
By rooting itself in the ground below the street, the tree is able to draw more nourishment and grow larger. I wish that governments and residents would begin to de-pave Tokyo, and it’s great to see that domestic plants are not waiting for us to act.
On a beautiful warm November day, I discovered Tokyo University’s Sanshiro-ike garden. I had a few moments before a meeting, and saw on the campus map that there was a central garden on the main campus. I had assumed it would be a formal garden.
I was very surprised to descend a small hillside and encounter this natural looking pond. Looking in all directions, one sees only trees, water and sky, despite the compact size of the garden. Even on a warm weekend day with early fall foliage, few visitors were there. I was enchanted by the incredibly natural and removed-from-the-city feeling in this garden inside central Tokyo and Japan’s most famous university.
It takes a lot of artifice to make a city garden look so natural. The waterfall is amazing.
Continue reading to see some more images from Tokyo University, aka Todai.
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.
Much of Tokyo is covered in concrete and pavement. In the photo above, a low traffic small street has impermeable pavement. There is a wide, unnecessary brick sidewalk in the foreground built to accompany a recent apartment building. Two private residences also have concrete car-parks and cement surrounds. If you look very closely, to the left of the red traffic cone, a canna flower is breaking through the concrete and blooming.
Up close, the flower is brilliant on a sunny November day. Even more remarkable is that the plant has somehow managed to break through the pavement. How did it get there? How does it survive the city’s relentless drive to bury every grain of soil? Do the neighbors appreciate this floral beauty and the power of nature over the built environment?
After the jump, a closer view of the plant in its context.
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.
There was an interesting article about how East Japan Railways has installed special blue LED lights in all 29 stations of the central Yamanote loop line as a measure to reduce suicide. And Keihin Electric Express Railway Company, operating in Tokyo and Yokohama, has installed blue lights in two stations.
Six percent of all Japanese suicides, more than 2,000 per year, take place in stations by people jumping in front of trains.
There is no scientific evidence that these lights will help, although some experts are quoted as saying that blue lights have a calming effect. The cost was US$165,000.
I wonder why Japan Railways did not consider installing plants on their platforms. Plants on elevated lines would receive some natural light, and native plants would contribute to the urban ecosystem.
It would be great to see such a planted platform on even one Yamanote station, and investigate whether a live platform contributes to any decrease in what is euphemistically called “human accidents.” It seems strange that technology solutions receive quicker funding than simpler natural solutions that would have a multiplier effect in terms of benefiting all passengers and the environment.
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.
Tokyo Green Space examines the ecological and human benefit of reimagining cities with a focus on people and natural environments. I was interested to read a provocative article recently in Business Week entitles: “Cities: A Smart Alternative to Cars.”
The author Alex Steffen of Worldchanging argues that rebuilding cities into walkable places through in-fill and zoning changes might be more realistic and faster than the typical 16 year cycle to replace 90% of the United States automobile fleet. His definition of a new urban city is one in which daily driving is not a necessity and many people can live without private car ownership.
It is interesting that confronted with climate change, some hope that technological change will allow Americans to live as we have for the past thirty years with no change: zero emissions vehicles allowing for the same transportation patterns, and new building materials to permit the same massive housing structures. It’s analogous to finding a pharmaceutical cure for the effects of obesity without changing the foods we eat or the energy we exert.
The costs are staggering: transportation accounts for 25% of United States carbon, and 20% of that from personal transportation. There is also the environmental burden of manufacturing and disposal. I was surprised to learn that Americans spend more than 19% of household income on personal transportation, second only to housing.
Perhaps hardest for Americans to grasp is that denser, walkable cities can improve lifestyle compared to McMansions and suburbs. Well design buildings, smart infrastructure, and the community created through walking and biking could be a huge improvement to quality of life. Tokyo certainly exhibits many of the advantages of compact, transit-oriented cities where almost all daily activities are accessed by foot, transit and bike.
In addition to environmental and economic benefits, compact cities create more human interaction and community, improved public health from daily walking, and an opportunity to use public space currently devoted to vehicles for urban plants and wildlife.
(Note: I found this article on Allison Arieff twitter feed: http://twitter.com/aarieff)