rail

Nanohana (Rapeseed) in subway ad for Izu

渋谷駅で、菜の花のディスプレーが伊豆への電車旅行を宣伝しています。

I was delighted to see these nanohana (菜の花, or rapeseed) flowers in a subway display promoting rail trips to Izu, a subtropical peninsula a few hours from Tokyo. Rapeseed can be eaten like brocoli, used to make canola oil, or planted as a winter cover crop to improve soil quality. It is clever to promote rail trips to the countryside by bringing a bit of nature into the subterranean tunnels of heavily trafficked Shibuya station.

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.

 

Semi-wild, semi-cultivated space in Yoyogi

I noticed this interesting semi-wild, semi-cultivated space alongside a busy Yoyogi road and in between two train tracks, an elevated overpass, and a convenience store. It shows you what minimal effort and Tokyo’s abundant rain can do to create a space that is lush and full of summer flowers. I like the mix of wildness and anonymous stewardship. The results are such a contrast with poorly organized city efforts like this Shibuya Greening Project, documented by Chris on Tokyo DIY Gardening, which seem doomed to rapid failure.

Tokyu Hospital covered in vines and plants

The Tokyu Hospital building in Ookayama is truly stunning. I blogged about it last fall, when I noticed that the Tokyu rail/construction/retail conglomerate was advertising “we do eco” in the Tokyo Metro. Seeing the hospital in person exceeded my expectations: a huge building on top of a rail station and enveloped in plant life that will only become more attractive over time as the plants mature.

In addition to the two large facades with vines climbing the height of the building on tension wires, another side has deep balconies that are lushly planted. The landscape is meant to promote healing for the patients who can see and access the balconies from their rooms. I imagine it is also calming for visitors and workers, plus it makes an amazing contribution to the neighborhood and all the people using the rail station.

I would love to see the landscape from the inside of the hospital, and to learn more about the plant selection of this fantastic vertical garden.

Between reading about this project and seeing it recently, I was also very fortunate to meet Tokyu Hospital’s landscape designer, Hiraga Tatsuya (平賀 達也). After working at Japan’s largest architecture firm Nikken Sekkei, designers of Tokyo’s new Sky Tree, Hiraga-san now runs his own successful landscape architecture firm called Landscape Plus.

Alongside institutional and private projects, Hiraga-san contributed to Ando Tadao’s master plan calling for a new Sea Forest in Tokyo Bay (Umi no Mori or 海の森) linked to a network of old and new green spaces that would improve wind circulation throughout Tokyo. This was part of Tokyo’s failed bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Speaking with Hiraga-san, I was very impressed by his vision that an individual site design’s performance and aesthetics are improved when it responds to its context. Hiraga-san also told me about his love for Tokyo’s hills and soil.

It seems very courageous that he has created his own practice despite the poor economy for architects in general, and also Japan’s still limited understanding of the value of landscape architecture. I wish him great success, since I am certain that Tokyo as a city will continue to benefit from his projects.

Quoted in San Francisco Chronicle article about high speed rail

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted me about what California can learn from Japan’s high speed rail. Japan’s rail success is not just about traveling quickly between cities, but the convenience and efficiency of city transit and car-free living.

Agris Seijo rental farm in Seijogakuenmae

I visited Odakyu’s Agris Seijo rental farm in Seijogakuenmae in Setagaya and was prepared to be charmed by a community vegetable farm built by a rail company above their tracks. Three years ago, the Odakyu corporation rebuilt the station, undergrounded the railway, and used some of the new land to promote urban farming. But I left feeling somewhat strange that reclaimed land could be gated and restricted. Although it is the rail company’s property, I think they missed a huge opportunity to create a great space for the neighborhood.

The farm is entered through a two story building that has a plant store on the first floor, spilling into the sidewalk, and a club room on the second floor. On entering the building, I learned that the garden was gated, and that no photographs were allowed. With my Tokyo University of Agriculture business card, I was handed a visitor’s pass. Two explanations were given about the no photography policy: customers would be concerned about their privacy, and photographers might misrepresent the photos they take. Please note that all the photos in this post were all taken from public roadways outside the gates.

Once inside, I discovered that this Agris Seijo has 303 rental plots, ranging in price between 5,500 and 14,500 yen per month ($60 to $175) depending on size and sunlight. 70% of the plots are being used, and the farm is organized in two seasons, with a fallow period during winter. Many of the customers are first time vegetable growers, and there are classes and staff to help them.

Some of what I observed: an elderly man harvesting giant sweet potatoes. Attractive netting with metallic strips to deter birds and insects. Some very attractive plots with broccoli, rainbow chard, carrots, celery, lettuce, salty leaf, peppers, basil, cauliflower, onion, eggplant, daikon radish.

Clearly burying the tracks below grade reduces railway noise for the neighbors and adds soil and plants which benefits the environment. There are benefits for customers and neighbors. Yet, I was struck by how empty the farm was during my weekday visit, and wondered why only 70% of the plots are rented after three years of operation. I also wonder if the customers or the railway company owner feels more special or important because of the gated aspect of the garden. In a city that is remarkably safe, I cannot imagine why there is a real need for keeping people out.

This wealthy project reminds me of the community garden I observed in Tsukushima. There, neighbors invested great time and effort in making beautiful spaces on an existing concrete river embankment. It appears that each gardener is expressing their own passions and perhaps competing with their neighbors. At no cost to the local government, neighbors have beautified dead space which can now be enjoyed by anyone. The Tsukushima community garden is completely accessible 24/7 and shows how ordinary people can create a great public space.

Some more thoughts and image about Odakyu after the jump.

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