Tokyo University

Teaching a graduate seminar at University of Tokyo

明日から、東京大学大学院でセミナーを教えます。ワクワクします。
Starting tomorrow I will be teaching a graduate seminar at Tokyo University. The course title is “Mega-Cities: Design Anthropology and Urban Landscapes” in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies. This master’s and PhD program is taught in English to foreign students, mostly from East Asia. I am very excited to see Tokyo through the students’ eyes. They will be closely observation urban life and documenting it online. My challenge to them is to connect experiential learning with history, comparative study, and theory.

Streetscape outside Tokyo University

Why are the plants trapped behind the walls?

On my way to an Asian Mega-Cities urban planning conference at Tokyo University, I was struck by the streetscape outside of the famous campus. To the left is the brick-clad campus, enclosed behind a wall and covered in a mature tree canopy. The sidewalk is wide and echoes the campus with a brick in-lay and small hedge on the street side. On either side of the road are heavily pruned ginkos, still without leaves in March. Across the street from the campus are the typical urban residential and commercial buildings completely bare of leaves or green plant life in winter.

It’s wonderful that the Tokyo University campus is so well planned with mature green spaces. But I wonder why some of that plant life cannot spread across the street and out into the neighborhood.

COP 10 Biodiversity Conference

On Saturday I went to a symposium at Tokyo University on Biodiversity and Sustainability: Rebuilding Society in Harmony with Nature, an educational forum that precedes this year’s COP 10 biodiversity conference in Nagoya. Many knowledgeable speakers spoke, including scientists, academics, government and corporate leaders. I especially liked Todai’s IR3S director Takeuchi Kazuhiko’s succinct formulation of the satoyama human-nature balance relying on traditional knowledge, modern science, and a “new commons” or vision of shared space that transcends government, private property, and national borders.

There were, of course, many discouraging facts. I was startled to learn that a single bottle of beer consumes 300 bottles of water in production. One speaker showed a graphic of how fishmeal from all over the world is transported to Thailand’s shrimp farms, making both the production and distribution of seafood a globalized product. I also learned that the 2002 United Nations goals on preserving biodiversity had not been met by a single country as of 2010. And lastly, I heard that the 20% level of knowledge and concern about biodiversity in Japan was one of the world’s highest levels of national awareness.

Given the challenges to preserving biodiversity, I was extremely disappointed by the top-down views and assumptions of the speakers. With no audience interaction, questions, or comments, the event seemed to invite trust in the capacity of elite academics, government leaders and United Nations bureaucrats working together. When Professor Takeuchi asked at the very end what can be done to avert a catastrophic tipping point, the Coalition on Biodiversity’s Executive Secretary talked about UNESCO’s role in cultural production. A top academic then spoke about the need to involve “the media” and celebrities to raise awareness.

I was surprised that such intelligent leaders believe in the viability of a top-down approach for reshaping the global economy and land use. In this formal auditorium at Japan’s most prestigious school, it was a missed opportunity not to provide action ideas for the hundreds of attendees. And to think of the “media” as the broadcast media is to overlook the tremendous power and potential of social media and popular participation.

One speaker briefly mentioned a lake biodiversity monitoring project that included local residents, government workers, and scientists. I would like to have heard more about how urban residents can connect with nature and become advocates for protecting and expanding habitat. Tokyo Green Space has documented the passion and energy of ordinary city residents, and I believe there is much more that can be done by engaging with bird-watchers, school children, seniors, and gardeners.

Tokyo University hosts biodiversity symposium

Tokyo University is hosting a symposium next month on Biodversity and Sustainability. It promises “a multi-faceted exploration of how to assess and rebuild traditionally human nature relationships into modern sustainable social systems.”

Speakers include Tokyo University professors, government leaders, and international researchers. You can see the program online (in English and Japanese) and fill out a free online registration (Japanese only). The sponsor is IR3S, or the The Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science.

Tokyo University Sanshiro-ike garden in fall

On a beautiful warm November day, I discovered Tokyo University’s Sanshiro-ike garden. I had a few moments before a meeting, and saw on the campus map that there was a central garden on the main campus. I had assumed it would be a formal garden.

I was very surprised to descend a small hillside and encounter this natural looking pond. Looking in all directions, one sees only trees, water and sky, despite the compact size of the garden. Even on a warm weekend day with early fall foliage, few visitors were there. I was enchanted by the incredibly natural and removed-from-the-city feeling in this garden inside central Tokyo and Japan’s most famous university.

It takes a lot of artifice to make a city garden look so natural. The waterfall is amazing.

Continue reading to see some more images from Tokyo University, aka Todai.

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Night views of cemetery and harappa

Night view of cemetery

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.

Night views of cemetery

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.

Fiber City: Tokyo 2050

Green Fingers Fiber City: Tokyo 2050

Fiber City: Tokyo 2050 is a vision of the future of Tokyo with a radically new balance between natural and built environment, conceived by Professor Ohno Hidetoshi of Tokyo University. I am fascinated by how this future vision responds to four urban challenges that involve shrinking: decreasing population, aging society, environmental crisis, and earthquake potential.

The overall vision is that a shrinking economy makes many facilities and houses surplus, freeing up land for a green city. While unprecedented population declines have been predicted for Japan due to falling birthrate and continued resistance to immigration,  I wonder if the metropolis will shrink as much as the countryside. Nonetheless, Fiber City provides new models for urban living in greater harmony with nature, with better access to mass transit, and improved livability with reclamation of historic features like Edo canals and bridges that have been covered by elevated expressways.

The four strategies include Green Fingers (image above), Green Web, Green Partition, and Uban Wrinkle. Taken together, they allow for greater green space, more mobility, reclamation of history, re-use of elevated freeways, emergency access for disasters, and restoration of historic urban features. As a visionary view of Tokyo, from macro to micro, Fiber City provides a model for global cities retrofitting for enviornmental and human benefits.

Green Web Fiber City: Tokyo 2050 Green Partition Fiber City: Tokyo 2050 Urban Wrinkle Fiber City: Tokyo 2050

Mori Building’s Vertical Garden City

Mori Building's Vertical Garden City

Mori Minoru’s Mori Building is Tokyo’s largest urban real estate developer. His Vertical Garden City idea and Urban New Deal Policy are private enterprise visions for a re-made city that is at once more densely populated, more environmental and green, and more profitable for the largest developers. 

I had the intriguing experience of being invited to witness a presentation by Mori Building company for a US journalist. Asked to remain silent so as not to detract from the journalist’s work, I witness one foreign journalist, a simultaneous translator, a guide from the Tokyo Foreign Correspondent’s Club, two Mori Building Public Relations officer and one urban planner. This is clearly a business where image is created through tremendous resources.

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