habitat

Summer of green walls on mid-rise offices and retail buildings

節電のために、この夏は東京のどこでもグリーン・ウォール「垂直の庭」が作られています。混雑して、背が高い都市では、垂直の表面のほうが屋根より多いです。まず、杉並区役所とマンションのベランダでグリーン・カーテンが作られました。今、事務所や店の建物で、グリーン・ウォ―ルを作りはじめました。夏にグリーン・カーテンはヒートアイランド現象の緩和のために良くて、一年中、グーリン・ウォールは庭や農園や生息地を提供します。この写真を芝公園、新宿御苑前、大井町、大門で撮りました。

Spurred by the energy crisis post-Fukushima, there’s been a notable increase in the number of mid-rise office and retail buildings with green walls. In an over-built city, vertical surfaces are the largest potential area for gardening, farming, and habitat creation.

Tokyo has far more vertical surfaces than roof areas, and we are only at the very beginning of creating an urban forest.

I have been following this topic for a while, and have watched this idea spread from notable public spaces like Suginami’s ward office (world’s largest green curtain) to apartment balconies, flower shops, and now commercial and retail spaces. This wide distribution across Tokyo and across building types is very exciting to see.

Some questions I have include:

  • What types of plants can be grown vertically and for what functions: aesthetics, habitat, scent, seasonal change, food?
  • How can green walls enhance innovative architecture and place-making?
  • How can vertical and roof gardens connect buildings, neighbors, and wildlife?
  • What is the impact on heat island effect, global competitiveness, and quality of life?

The answers will come from experimentation and diffusion. The photos, from top to bottom, are four green walls I’ve recently seen:

1. Hasegawa Green Building in Shiba Koen

2. Office mid-rise in Shinjuku Gyoen-mae (2 photos). The company that created and maintains this green wall is called Ishikatsu Exterior (石勝イクステリア).

3. Oimachi retail building near station.

4. Daimon office building.

Studying firefly habitat in Gunma with a Tokyo middle school

東京農業大学の鈴木先生は東京の中学校でホタルの生息地を作る予定です。毎夏、先生と中学生は群馬県に行って、ホタルを観察して勉強します。今回、私も招待されました。

ホタルにはきれいな水と暗闇が必要です。鈴木先生によると、都市の生息地には社会的なデザインも要ります。学校のとなりのお寺や退職をした方たちのセンターも参加できます。

川場村に来て、中学生たちは田んぼの草むしりをして、小さい川でカニとカエルを観察しました。都市の子供なのに、中学生たちは本当に勇気があります。

夜に、ゲンジボタルとヘイケボタルを見ました。林と田んぼのそばにはホタルがいっぱいいます。

なかのビレジ」というホテルに泊まりました。内側は和風モダンで、外側は山の一部 みたいです。湯名な坂倉建築研究所はホテルを作りました。

川場村では、たくさんリンゴが育っています。最近、ブルーベリーも育っています。

Tokyo University of Agriculture Professor Suzuki is planning a firefly habitat at a junior high school. Each year, teachers and students from the Tokyo school visit Gunma to study fireflies. This year I was also invited.

Fireflies need clean water and darkness. According to Professor Suzuki, creating habitat in the city also requires a “social design.” The temple, cemetary, and senior center near the school are also invited to participate.

When we arrived at Kawaba-mura, the school girls weeded a rice field and played with frogs and crabs in the creek. Even though they are city kids, the students are very brave.

At night, we saw Genji fireflies and Heiki fireflies. There are a lot of fireflies on the edge between the forest and the rice field.

We stayed at a hotel called “Nakano Village” which on the inside is Japanese modern style, and on the outside the building looks like part of the hillside. It was designed by the famous Sakakura Associates.

Kawaba mura has many apple orchards, and recently they are also growing blueberries.

The trip made me think of the following:

  • How can gardens be created in multiple connected sites?
  • How can all city and country kids learn about each other’s environments and lives?
  • How can cities begin to value darkness as essential to their vitality?
  • How can kids and adults create habitat and support wildlife where they study, work, play, and live?

Pasona’s vertical garden fills out near Nihonbashi

高層オフィスビルの垂直な庭はオフィス街を活気のある場所にする。

One office tower’s vertical garden brings new life to Tokyo’s business district.

Pasona’s headquarter’s vertical garden is filling out and bringing new life to the crowded office streetscape between Nishonbashi and Tokyo Station. The lushly planted wall includes many traditional Japanese garden plants and imports such as blueberry bushes. I like how it contrasts with the surrounding office towers, from the 1980s to recent years, and demonstrates that the potential for office wall gardens to benefit everyone inside and outside the building.

It’s amazing how much the garden has grown since I last visited Pasona in May. I am very excited to see this corporate garden become a landmark in the Yaesu district. It would be great for Mori or Mitsubishi to follow this example and experiment with vertical gardens and wildlife habitats on much taller Tokyo buildings. I also hope that Pasona continues to innovate with its urban landscape. Sidewalk gardens? More fruit trees? Butterfly hatcheries? Honeybees? Falcon’s nests?

Below are some details photos, including leaves that have turned red this fall, and some late-in-the-year pink roses.

TEDxSeeds presentation (English, 日本語) on Japan as world leader in living cities

TEDxSeedsのプレゼンテーションをご覧ください。「日本を都市生物多様性のリーダーにするために」がテーマです。

Please have a look at my recent TEDxSeeds presentation about making Japan a world leader in living cities.

This TEDxSeeds presentation, with English and Japanese captions, looks at how Japan can become a world leader in living cities. Despite Tokyo being the world’s largest city with a history of poor design, there are many opportunities for creating plant life and wildlife habitat. My goal for next year is to work with city governments, corporations, community groups, railway companies, and others to plan and implement creative public spaces that connect urban life with nature.

Creating a beautiful place for the least appreciated wildlife

芸術は小さな自然を美しい形で招き寄せます。この虫の家が欲しいです。

Art provides a beautiful way to invite the smallest and least cute wildlife into our lives. I want this bug home!

This beautiful “habitat sculpture” was created by Kevin Smith, with inspiration from Lisa Lee Benjamin of Urban Hedgerow, and featured at San Francisco’s Flora Grubb Garden. It is made from salvaged and natural materials, and promises to attract a variety of insects. The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran a story about creating “bug hotels.”

Art is a valuable way to help us invite nature into our lives. And insects, often ignored by city dwellers, are bottom-of-the-food-chain and critical for supporting a variety of wildlife and plant life. I like how Lisa talks about the importance of expanding our “tolerance” for wildlife that may not immediately appeal to us.

Wildness in unused land by rail tracks

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.

 

Intoxicating night scent of Angel’s Trumpet

Leaving an inspiring talk in Nishi Azabu-Juban yesterday evening, the intoxicating scent of Angel’s Trumpet made me pause. And take a photo.

Brugmansia is also very common in San Francisco (and many continents including New Zealand), although it comes originally from South America. It produces an incredible scent, but only at night. In Tokyo, the summer heat seems to overwhelm the plant. By fall, this hardy large shrub/small tree grows to three or four meters in height, and flowers continuously until winter frost makes them die back. By May they begin to shoot up from the ground.

Angel’s Trumpet, sometimes also called Devil’s Trumpet, is a strangely familiar plant: hardy and decorative, with a shamanistic function in its native Amazon habitat.

Paris japonica has the world’s longest genome

Especially relevant now that the world is focusing on biodiversity with the COP 10 conference in Nagoya, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens has identified Paris japonica as having the world’s longest genome sequence, fifty times greater than the human genome.

Scientific American reports that plants with more DNA take longer to grow and to reproduce, making them especially endangered. This sub-alpine canopy plant has only seven known habitats in the world. More details in the September 2010 issue of the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

I wonder if my United States readers know that our country is the only one of 193 countries that did not sign the 1993 Rio de Janeiro Convention on Biodiversity, and has only observer rather than voting status at this month’s Nagoya COP 10 conference.

(Thank you, Christophe, for sending me this news story. With the mutual French-Japanese attraction, this plant has a charmed name as well as a 100 meter genome strand).

San Francisco’s new urban ecology projects

Via Twitter, I’ve come across some fantastic new urban ecology projects in San Francisco:

Nature in the City, an NPO focused on conservation, restoration and stewardship. Currently creating habitat corridors for the the Green Hairstreak (Callophrys dumetorum), a small butterfly present in only three places in the city.

Urban Gleaning Program, a project of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works that encourages city residents to collect fruit from city trees and community gardens and distribute them to the homeless and hungry.

Urban Hedgerow, a new global cities project that creates space and allow more of our wild world into the city. The project joins urban naturalists and artists to increase insect, animal, and plant life, with projects starting in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, the UK.

Roppongi West Park is a quiet oasis on back street

Roppongi is a very foreign neighborhood for me since I rarely visit its offices, nightclubs and museums. However, with the recent conference, I took a friend along a back street between mega developments Mid Town and Roppongi Hills. We stumbled a very charming, small park named Roppongi West Park (六本木西公園). It was a welcome escape from the elevated freeways and concrete overload.

The park provides a great amount of shade and the loud murmur of cicadas. My fellow Maryland state friend and I wondered how come mid-Atlantic cicadas only appear every seven years, while Japanese ones go through similar seven year cycles but appear annually. The park had benches with businessmen smoking, chatting, using their cellphones, and escaping their offices. There were also sand box, playground, and a public bathroom.

Seeing this small gem made me think about the up-until-now unrealized possibilities for the mega developers to connect with their neighborhoods through landscapes. Mori Building talks about how its vertical gardens lower summer time temperature in its neighborhoods. And Mitsubishi Estate is concerned with making Marunouchi more attractive through livable streets.

Creating gardens and habitats that extend to nearby  pocket parks, as well as neighboring residential and commercial gardens, could brand these new places with historical memory, a signature fruit tree, butterfly or bird habitat, outdoor recreation, and innovative public place making. While the developers goal is to maximize rental income, attention to the neighborhood, its existing assets and people, could be a low-cost and high impact way to brand, differentiate, and attract visitors and tenants.

District landscaping is one of the most economical and transformative improvements. By extending beyond the limits of a single property or the holdings of one developer, district landscaping is vital to place-making, memory, habitat, and human affection.

Empty lots are abundant and under-used

Tokyo is full of empty lots that mark the time between demolition and building. Sometimes they stay empty for more than a year. Most are turned into automated parking lots, some so small they only provide space for a single car. Some in busier neighborhoods get covered in gravel and host crepe shops in a trailer.

The empty lot above, just off Omotesando in Aoyama has three uses: tapioca drinks for sale, vending machines, and ashtrays for smokers. Considering the proximity to so much high-end shopping and so many people, it seems like a vastly under-utilized urban space.

It would be cool to see something more useful in these temporary spaces: energy generators, plants for shade and habitat, edible gardens, nurseries to grow and sell plants, attractive places for relaxation, socializing, and pets. Their design would need to be portable, modular, and generate some minimal income for the owner. Creating a prototype space for these liminal spaces would be a great project for a local government, corporation, or non-traditional marketing company.

A historic landmark buried under freeway in Tokyo

Approaching by foot or by car, you would not know that up ahead is one of Tokyo’s most famous historic landmarks, Nihonbashi (日本橋, or literally Japan Bridge). During Edo, it was an important wooden bridge in the center of the capital. Today, Japan’s highway network uses the bridge as the zero mile marker.

Despite its landmark status, the 1911 stone bridge is obscured by the elevated freeway. When I visited, I saw a pair of elderly Japanese tourists taking photos of themselves with the bridge. The many pedestrians and the speeding cars on street and freeway level showed no signs of recognition that this space was special.

Like many of Tokyo’s rivers, what could be natural habitat and urban attraction has become dead space. Apart from one outdoor hotel cafe, the neighboring buildings face away from the river, freeway, pillars, and exhaust.

Benefits of corporate gardens

Great New York Times story about benefits of corporate gardens, including Pepsi-Co and Aveda. Improves worker morale, eating, health, and informal conversation across departments. Why doesn’t every company create a small edible garden? By adding native plants to storefronts and walls, and giving small plants to customers, corporations can brand themselves and create distributed habitat, too.

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.

Replacing Dead Urban Spaces with Living Habitat

The Huffington Post published my new article, Replacing Dead Urban Spaces with Living Habitat. Please read, comment, retweet, or share on Facebook. Thank you!

Figure 1: Two views of camellia (sazanka) in central Tokyo: close-up and context