Leaving the Tatsumi Metro station, I cross over one highway on a pedestrian bridge, while passing below several elevated highways intersecting with flyovers.
This Onward sign on top of a warehouse feels like a personal extortion to move through this jumble of smog and burning fuels. Onward also seems to capture this part of Tokyo’s role as a place of distribution by ship and tractor trailer. In this frenzy of “logistics,” I always wonder what’s being transported and to whom.
Fortunately, the trees planted decades ago muffle the noise somewhat, and part of this marginal land is used as a park, community vegetable garden, and Olympic level swimming pool.
In my balcony garden, I like juxtaposing plants that evoke different places. Here is a late-blooming pink rose, originally from Asia yet cultivated extensively in Europe, along with fujibakama, one of Japan’s seven fall flowers. Mixing forms, colors, and histories make even the smallest garden fun.
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.
In urban settings, shrines and the entrances to cemeteries are open all day and night. Especially at night, they provide equal doses of nature and mystery that is both within and separate from normal urban life. These long exposure photos capture some of the magical beauty of nighttime trees, plants, shadows and stones.
This experience in a nighttime cemetery reminds me of a term I recently learned from a Tokyo University professor who works at Hakuhodo: harappa (原っぱ). Harappa is an in-between urban and wild place that traditionally allowed children a space to play and explore. It could be a meadow, a grove of trees, or an abandoned building. With ever increasing construction and denser urban lives, these liminal spaces are harder to find. Shrines function as one of the most solid barriers against total urbanization.
A small tip: I recently learned how to take crisp nighttime photos with an inexpensive digital camera. To avoid shaking and blurring from long exposures, use the timer and set the camera on a hard surface.
I read Richard Florida’s 2008 Who’s YOUR City? book, a “self-help” book about the central importance of where we live and the outsized opportunities in the world’s leading mega-cities. Drawing from Jane Jacobs and a wealth of statistics, Florida analyzes how the world has become “spiky” with concentrations of innovation and economic activity in mega-regions. Despite globalization and technology, place has become ever more important for individual happiness and economic growth.
For individuals, Florida argues that the choice of where to live is the biggest factor in our lives, happiness and communities. And for urban leaders, his writing and consulting describes how to become a magnet for the creative class and economic growth by promoting the arts, tolerance, talent and technology.
Tokyo is the largest mega-region, with 55 million people, and appears to far exceed all other mega-regions in the innovation map below. There are many other interesting maps on his website, although heavily focused on the United States and Canada.
Since Florida is increasingly focused on sustainable urban living, it would be interesting if he can correlate urban plant and biodiversity levels with human happiness and economic activity. Somehow I imagine this is a topic he will be investigating soon.