Maybe you have seen this already? Comic artist Shu Kuge made this map showing how the ocean connects Tokyo and San Francisco. For my first business website thirteen years ago, Shu drew a very memorable office map and staff avatars. I am lucky that he has created something new for Social Models, my new design research studio that is co-located in these two great port cities.
In the heat of August, who can resist a visit to the ocean? Despite the on-going revelations about nuclear leaks, the ocean is irresistible. This is Onjuku in lower Chiba. Below is the river that passes near the station. The tall skinny palms remind me of California.
Blue shark spotted in ocean at Morito beach in Hayama. In the distance, there’s a Shinto gate and some windsurfers.
I took this image on the Onjuku station platform, waiting to take the express train back to Tokyo. After spending the afternoon on the beach, the sight of the deep green rice fields was a happy image to bring back to the city.
A fascinating short video from IDG News Service’s @martyn_williams shows the inside of a functioning nuclear power plant in Japan. It’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the world’s largest nuclear plant, on the Japan Sea, also known as the East Sea of Korea.
In the past two weeks, we have all learned many details about nuclear power generation: from containment vessels to doughnut-shaped torus, steam venting, cooling pools, basement pumps and generators, and dangers from radioactive iodine and cesium. While the Daichi survived the earthquake, several days without electricity led to pressure build-up, exposed fuel rods, explosions, and radioactive releases.
Most Japanese school children are given tours of nuclear facilities to encourage familiarization and acceptance. Watching the video above, I am struck by the incongruity of these images of rational organization with the recent realization that a lack of power can quickly turn these engineering marvels into a grave threat to human existence.
It is interesting that the video above, and I am certain the hundreds of school tours, fail to mention that the reactors serve a second and equally dangerous function: they are the storage locations for spent nuclear rods. While the active rods have control rods and secured cases, the spent rods seem to be in less protected parts of the reactors.
The explosions at the Daichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima have literally blown the lid off a scary reality that is normally kept far from conscious thinking. Everyone knows that nuclear waste and the long-term dangers it poses are the by-product of this “clean,” low carbon energy. What is less known is that these spent rods remain near population centers and alongside ocean coasts that routinely experience tsunamis and earthquakes. They remain hidden from view within the plants because the rods are difficult to transport safely and few communities would welcome them.
I expect that as the crisis becomes less acute, there will be more attention to the questions of how much energy we need, how to balance what is possible with what is prudent, and how to make visible the true costs of energy production, including the wars used to “secure” petroleum from hostile regions, and the potential contamination of people and land from nuclear power and waste.
In the coming weeks, this blog will focus on recovery from the nuclear crisis, including increased city bicycling, reduced power consumption, and other positive developments. I will also show signs of Tokyo’s spring, and other evidence that the natural world continues in spite of human activity.
Recently I heard Mishima Yoshiki present a paper about the revival of the Kyobashi river in central Tokyo. Like most of Tokyo’s legendary rivers and canals, it has long been buried underground, when the Edo tradition of water transportation gave way to twentieth century freeways for private autos and commercial trucks.
Mishima’s paper was presented at the Tokyo University’s Asia Mega-Cities symposium in a session devoted to urban rivers. His paper was co-authored with Hayashi Masaki, Shikanai Kyoko, and Ishikawa Mikiko. Mishima is a PhD candidate at Todai’s graduate school of engineering, and a landscape architect trained at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Many landscape architects and urban historians point to the centrality of water in Tokyo’s history, and there is a growing desire to see its renewal in our post-industrial era. Mishima’s talk highlighted the Edo functions of the Kyobashi river, the history of its “reclamation” or burial, and the opportunities to remake it today.
Mishima’s project team chose the Kyobashi river because it is in central Tokyo and it is relatively short, with a history of connecting the Edo castle to the ocean. The paper introduced the concept of the kashi, a riverside commons that served as a place for unloading goods and commercial markets and where no private structures were allowed to be created. Today it has exceptional potential because it represents a mere 600 meters of the 320 kilometer Tokyo Expressway system, and is used by only 4,000 of the 53,000 daily expressway vehicles. Plus, its central location offers enormous potential as public open space and high rent commercial space.
Mishima explained how the Kyobashi river, like most of Tokyo’s waterways, became devalued and ultimately buried in the twentieth century when natural and human disasters overwhelmed the city. The 1923 Kanto Earthquake destroyed the kashi, and many private buildings were constructed. River commerce had already declined, and increasing garbage raised sanitation problems. The firebombing of Tokyo during World War II left huge piles of ashes along the river banks, making open space again a place for waste.
The post-war period saw some bizarrely futuristic plans. The 1950 “Sky Building Plan” envisioned building twelve story buildings above the old river, with an expressway running through the second floor. I am curious why this plan was ultimately rejected. In its stead, the city built a series of elevated freeways, mostly public and some privately owned, with several including the Kyobashi river having commercial tenants on the ground floor.
I enjoyed seeing the model of the renewal of the Kyobashi river. Using rainwater, treated sewage, and springs, there were would be plenty of water to support the new river. Water is constantly being pumped out from the subway tunnels (this happens in New York City as well, which I learned in the fantastic book The World without Us by Alan Weisman).
The Kyobashi river concept combines commercial development with the creation of a huge new green corridor. Some buildings would be placed on the new river, as a way to generate revenue for the construction and maintenance of the new public spaces. Green roofs would integrate the new buildings with the park. People would have access to the river on bridges, plazas, water decks, and recreational boats. It would be great to also see a river edge that combined some elements of natural riverbank vegetation and habitat.
Several factors make the idea of this project at least conceivable. One, the Kyobashi river area is small and borders high rent Ginza. Second, the elevated freeway, like most of Tokyo’s expressways, was built in the rush to “modernize” before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Therefore, they do not meet current earthquake standards, and the city currently faces a choice between expensive retrofitting or potential collapse. (The earthquake damage to San Francisco’s Embarcadero freeway in 1989 provided the impetus for freeway removal and opening the bay to the city in the early 2000s, which has been a huge success). Lastly, the low rent payed by the private company suggests that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and its residents receive minimal compensation in exchange for the environmental costs of the freeway.
Walking on a small street in Hiroo, in central Tokyo, we heard a strange noise and saw some people staring at a persimmon tree. On closer examination, we saw that there was a flock of wild green parrots gathered in this tree. The green on orange colors perched on a leaf-less tree is sublime.
I have seen wild parrots throughout San Francisco, and there was even a movie about them. I didn’t realize that Tokyo was warm enough for them to survive outdoors. I wonder how many there are.
Speaking with a woman recently about urban ecology, she told me that she enjoys city bird-watching. It made me realize that bird-watchers, particularly those who enjoy their hobbies in the city, can be an important voice for improving urban landscapes and habitats. Maybe urban bird-watchers are analogous to surfers who have been active in the clean ocean movement.
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.
Seiwoooo’s Alban Mannisi, a landscape architect based in Tokyo, has created a future scenario dystopia in collage and narrative about the future of Saipan and the Pacific Ocean in 2048.
Mannisiimagines a world in which sustainability and massive waste create so much new reclaimed ocean land that Saipan becomes a hub of land traffic between Beijing, Tokyo and Osaka on one side, and Honolulu, Los Angeles and New York on the other.
The project’s aim is “to develop some critical views on the new trend of sustainability in urban planning and to stimulate the people involved to be more conscious of the possible outcomes that can be disastrous.”
Is this an antidote to the positive message of Tokyo’s Umi no Mori (or Sea Forest), or a worst-case dystopia?
I had the pleasure of meeting Mansini recently, and he shared these Tokyo and global urban architecture links with me:
-Funny weird Japanese architecture : Atelier bow Wow : Made in Tokyo
-Japanese landscape architecture company : Studio onsite
-An architect-Urban planner-Thinker and teacher at Waseda University SOUHEI IMAMURA/atelier imamu
-The best Landscape Arch mind: James Corner
-Netherlands Urbanism Review : MONU
More about Mannisi and Seiwoooo here.
When USA Today focuses on green alleys, you can feel that this topic of recreating cities has reached a mainstream audience. A recent USA Today article focuses on Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle efforts to use alleys for environmental benefits and improved community life. Resurfacing alleys with porous surfaces reduces runoff, lowers the burden on municipal storm drains, and improves lake and ocean water quality.
In addition to functional environmental benefits, green alleys turn underutilized spaces into living spaces, places for walking, biking and gathering. The article quotes Suzanne Simmons who worked with her neighbors to close their alley to car traffic and set up instead benches, grills and tables.