Bright golden ginko against black night sky


Golden ginko leaves radiate against a black night sky in Nakano. Ginko is the official tree of Tokyo, and stylized versions appear on many sidewalk railings. This week they are turning gold. I like how in a long row on major streets, some turn sooner, and others wait. Look up!

ここの話, Koko no hanashi: Talking about Here

The incredibly prolific, creative, and productive Chris Berthelsen has launched a new public project, called ここの話, Koko no hanashi: Talking about Here. It’s an amazing, low tech and also analog project that creates community dialogue about public, publicly visible, and abandoned urban spaces. He’s prototyped it this week in western Tokyo, and you can read about it online and follow its progress through Twitter and a mailing list.

Talking about Here relies on a simple framework: placing a laminated sign and a simple question, like “Why can’t we use this park at night,” to invite neighbors to discuss very local spaces that are shared, visible, or under-utilized. People can respond using the QR code, or by simply writing in the notebook that is attached to the sign with a pen. Responses will be collated on a stripped down blog specific to each location.

The five initial locations are an interesting mix: a bleak park in front of a factory (run-down, official), a friendly neighborhood park which has been declared a ‘night no-go zone’ (well-kept, official), a park under an elevated freeway (run-down, secluded, official), an abandoned car in an apartment complex parking lot (illegal use), and a deserted house on a school route (run-down, private property).

The prototype just went up this week, and there are many questions: Will the signs be taken down? Will officials contact Chris to question his actions? Will neighbors use the QR code or notebooks to record their feeling and memories? Will neighbors be interested to read what other neighbors record?

I am always amazed at Chris’ imagination and ability to make things happen, with low fidelity tools and a bit of daring. We have worked together in creating the Tokyo DIY Gardening project, including the blog and collaborative mapping workshop last August at 3331 Arts Chiyoda. I believe he’s now got four projects launched in his spare time, all of which are shared freely online.

I have asked Chris if I can participate in Phase 2 of this project. I already have a few places in mind: a beautiful abandoned wood house with a garden that is minimally maintained by a neighbor, a pedestrian path that is heavily used and sitting above an old creek, my neighbors’ fruit trees. It might be interesting to ask property owners if they would like to have a sign that seeks comments about their public gardens. I wonder what the reaction will be?

2016 Olympics Decision on Friday

2016 Olympics, 4 cities competing

On Friday the Olympics committee will announce in Denmark which world city will host the 2016 summer games. It is exciting that Tokyo used sustainable urbanism as a core feature of its bid: re-using existing facilities, keeping the games within a small urban radius, and showcasing their best-in-the-world city transit system.

Still, it will be hard to compete with Rio de Janeiro, which would be the first South American host, and with Chicago, which has Obama and Oprah promoting its bid. It is interesting that despite the abundant official displays around Tokyo touting the bid, I have not heard much popular enthusiasm.

After starting this post, I read a Japan Inc column by successful expat in Tokyo Terrie Lloyd, who writes that low public support for the Tokyo bid is a big negative factor in the evaluation. Apparently a poll in February showed only 25% of residents “strongly favor” the bid. Given the exclusive focus on promoting Tokyo’s eco-city attributes and financial resources in their bid, perhaps Governor Ishihara and his committee did not even realize that the International Olympic Committee considers popular enthusiasm an important selection criteria.

In my research on Tokyo green space and sustainable urbanism, I often see the disconnect between the most well intentioned leaders and public participation. Master plans and visions are one thing, but creating change requires the participation of a very capable and resourceful population.

Certainly Japan is not unique in this shortcoming, but it seems that so much potential is wasted by ignoring the potential of popular participation. What do you think?