transit

School kids in a gaming trance on a station platform. Is this a “still city”?

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昨年末から、オランダの「Still City」という東京についての研究とアートのプロジェクトに参加しています。「Still City」の主題は成長後の都市です。中学生たちが電車のホームでDSで遊んでいる写真は、静かな都市のイメージの一つだと思います。東京は巨大なのに、公共の場所は平穏です。安全なので、包括的です。

Since late last year, I’ve been involved with a research and art project called Still City, based in Amsterdam. Over 25 Dutch urbanists, designers, and artists came to Tokyo to create a guide book exploring the idea of Tokyo as a Still City. The main meaning of “still city” is post-growth.

This image of two school kids lost in a daze of handheld gaming on a train station platform also make me think of a still city. Tokyo is a “still” mega-city that is remarkably quiet despite the crowds of people, and with few exceptions, disarmingly safe. Tokyo is also a place where public functions, from transit and streets to bathing and swimming, are clean, efficient, and open to everyone.

Onward in Tatsumi, a place for transit

この「Onward」というの看板の前をよく通り過ぎます。都市の端の湾の近くは、倉庫やトラックや高速道路が多いです。

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.

Pleasures of Tokyo trains and subways

東京の電車と地下鉄は分け合う空間です。時々、居心地の悪いときもありますが、いつも東京的で面白いと思います。

It’s hard for people outside Tokyo to imagine what using Tokyo transit is like. The busiest station, Shinjuku station, handles over 2.5 million users per day, more than any other station in the world. And, yes, early morning rush hour and the last trains around midnight are not comfortable. This photo is from 10:23 am on a Saturday morning in the Marunouchi line, and you can see that the train is quite full.

What does it feel like to be surrounded by so many people on your way to work, school, errands, or fun?  Office workers, school children, families, construction workers, teens, dogs in bags, babies, elderly people. I find it exhilarating, intimate, and educational. Mostly people pretend they are in their own space and do not look directly at others. Courtesies include taking children’s shoes off before letting them stand on the cushioned seats, and drying umbrellas to keep the train clean.

Many people hide behind earphones, portable game players, comics and books. Others are sleeping. Yet there is no mistaking that you are in a shared space, one person among masses going about their lives. If you keep your eyes open, you can sense that others are also quietly observing. Taking the train is a good way to get out of your own head space, and sense other people’s moods, fashions, and presence.

More flowers in transit bathroom

These flowers were discovered in Odakyu’s Shinjuku station’s mens room. Like the two liter bottle with ivy in JR Metro, these flowers seem to be the spontaneous result of a caretaker eager to bring life into this drab interior space. My traveling companion wonders if the flowers aren’t recycled from bouquets that passengers have discarded at the station.

Shinagawa station: a river of people

The continuous flow of people in Tokyo’s largest stations (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Tokyo Station, and Shinagawa) is a sensory overload of spontaneously choreographed movement. There is a rush of excitement that no free freeway can create. Crowded highways produce paralysis, while crowded stations welcome and release a dizzying parade of people each moving on an individual path yet combining in a steady flow.

This is a 17 second movie created from 34 still images at Shinagawa station on a weekday during mid-day. One of Tokyo’s oldest stations dating back to 1872, Shinagawa station was rebuilt in 2003, and now offers 22 rail platforms and funnel an eclectic mix of people through this wide concourse: workers at Sony and other multinationals, students, inter-city bullet train and Yokohama-bound passengers, and residents of new apartment towers on Tokyo Bay and of older neighborhoods with hundreds of years of history.

This ordinary transit experience in Tokyo is unimaginable in many world cities. Great transit allows city people to abandon private automobiles and fossil fuels, increase energy efficiency, share infrastructure, and free up roads for higher-value public uses, such as parks, gardens, farms, wildlife habitat, bicycling, music, dancing, and social spaces.

See also Pierre Alex’s Perpetual Yamanote art video.

Gardening for Strangers in Tokyo: New Huffington Post article

The Huffington Post published the English version of my recent Newsweek Japan article. Entitled “Gardening for Strangers in Tokyo,” it argues that the smallest gardens connect city people with nature, culture and history. Written in a personal voice to show a foreigner’s view to a largely Japanese audience, the article emphasizes how “Tokyo’s distinctive streetscape encourages proximity with many small gardens and their gardeners,” creating human as well as environmental benefit.

Gardening for Strangers in Tokyo

(This article originally appeared in Newsweek Japan on January 12, 2009 in Japanese)

Spending several weeks in Tokyo on a business trip in 2008, I was startled and enchanted to discover its human scale and its streets alive with people and plants. Like many foreigners, I assumed Tokyo would be all cold high-rises, crowded Shibuya scrambles, and flashing neon advertising. In short, I imagined the world’s largest metropolis entirely removed from the natural world.

I brought to Tokyo a lifelong interest in gardening. What surprises me still are Tokyo residents’ ingenuity and passion for cultivating plants and community in a crowded, over-built city. On leaving a beginner’s ceramics class in a humble Tokyo neighborhood one day, I came across four perfect pansies growing in the crack of a narrow sidewalk.

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This image of Tokyo as a gardeners’ city motivated me to relocate from San Francisco to research and write about Tokyo Green Space. Placing my research in the context of design anthropology and urban ecology, I was extremely fortunate to receive generous support in 2009 from Hitachi, which is committed to a Japanese approach to environmental protection and to cultural diplomacy.

The sidewalk pansies show that Tokyo is organized differently than United States and European cities, and that many of these differences are nearly invisible to Japanese people. I formulated several guiding questions. Why do Tokyo residents care so deeply about their surroundings? What role can nature play in dense urban environments? What can other cities learn from Tokyo’s urban gardening culture?

I began collecting images of gardens visible from streets and sidewalks. Surprises included a valuable bonsai collection growing on a private residence’s cinder block wall; rice maturing in styrofoam containers; a single, exquisite mini-watermelon supported by a wooden stand in a Ginza backstreet. Sadly, in San Francisco and most developed world cities, these potted plants would be quickly stolen or vandalized. Meanwhile few Tokyo residents connect the respect shown to public plants with their unequaled personal safety in streets and transit.

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Rushing into a men’s room in the Tokyo Metro, I glimpsed ivy growing in a two-liter plastic bottle lying on its side. In the twenty-first century, United States cities permanently closed their subway restrooms for “public safety.” Here in Tokyo I could calmly imagine the anonymous person who beautified an underground utility with a living organism and minimal resources. Did he return regularly to change the water? What inspired his passion for plants and his kindness to strangers?

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Across the four seasons, I observed Tokyo residents celebrating nature together in public places. For hanami (cherry blossom viewing), it is common to see people sleeping overnight in parks and along rivers to reserve spaces for blue sheets and the next day’s outdoor party for family, co-workers, or friends. The pink cherry blossoms transform the entire city as boisterous crowds share drinks and food. In fall, many thousands view ginko trees turning bright yellow in Aoyama, and special evening “light up” displays of red maple trees in traditional Japanese public gardens.

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Taking JR Chuo line to pick kiwis

Taking JR Chuo line to pick kiwis

For an American, it is shocking to see how frequently all the Japanese transit lines advertise the lovely, and often seasonal places, they will take you. In the United States, taking transit almost always signifies necessity, poverty and routine. The JR station poster above shows happy urbanites and young workers (signified by their white towels) with the headline “I like the Chuo line.” In small print, they explain that you can take the Chuo to Mitaka in western Tokyo and participate in kiwi picking. On a cold day, this station ad seemed sunny and hopeful.

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?

San Francisco transit

Muni Mess, by Mike Monteiro

I often tell Tokyo-ites how marvelous their train and subway system is: fast, convenient, clean, and safe. Mostly, Tokyo residents stare in disbelief when I explain how filthy the transit system in San Francisco is.

Recently I read a reminder that not only is San Francisco’s transit dirty, slow and inconvenient, but also dangerous. In the aftermath of a serious stabbing of an 11 year old boy, riding a Muni bus for his first time, the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper’s top political columnists provide the following advice for riding transit at night:

Muni manners: Roxann Hohman, who often rides Muni home from work late at night, passes on some unwritten safety rules for fellow riders. To wit:

— Sit in the middle. The mentally unstable and homeless sit up front where they grope or panhandle at will. The hood rats sit in the back where they can punch people in the head on the way out just for kicks.

— Keep your purse jammed under your arm and the strap wrapped around your wrist, lest someone grabs it on the way out the door.

— If you listen to music, don’t use the telltale white earbuds of an iPod – it’s just asking for trouble. And never listen to music so loud that you can’t tell what’s happening around you.

— Finally, don’t say anything to the three teenagers who are screaming at the top of their lungs, though they are just 2 feet from each other. To do so ensures you’ll get jumped, and you won’t get much help.

Is it any wonder that public transit is a service used almost exclusively by the poor in San Francisco? I am certain these columnists, and many of their readers, never ride the MUNI, certainly not in the evening. With such a continued heavy dependence on private automobiles, will San Francisco be able to grow without sacrificing mobility, air quality and health?

Creating a common vision for green cities

governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and 2009 California budget deal

Reading about the drastic budget cuts in my home state of California makes me wonder about the potential future of green cities in that state and in the United States. After months of political deadlock, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a divided state Congress agreed on $US 30 billion in cuts over two years to schools, colleges, health, welfare, prisons, recreation and other services.

A New York Times analysis quotes University of California, Berkeley professor of political science Bruce E. Cain saying, “In the end, we do not know for sure whether the California public really wants the California dream anymore. The population is too diverse to have a common vision of what it wants to provide to everyone. Some people want the old dream, some want the gated privatized version, and some would like to secede and get away from it all.”

The conventional wisdom that California or the United States has no “common vision” reflects a political and cultural deficit, and will create more long-term damage than the economic downtown. For many government and educational authorities, diversity makes a convenient excuse for an unwillingness to invest in social programs that broadly benefit the public good. Nostalgia for previous boom times obscures the massive investment and cultural change needed to create green and sustainable cities.

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Transit precision

Tokyo Metro: Transit precision

A green city with lively pedestrian streets requires an excellent public transit system. I have already posted about some simple but effective station signage about the workings of the system and the neighborhoods surrounding the stations. Just recently, a foreign researcher pointed out an ubiquitous chart that I had overlooked and that can be found on every Tokyo Metro platform.

From left to right are the number of minutes to reach the next stations, the names of the next stations, whether the car doors open on the right or left side (in red), and details about which car to board if you are switching to other train lines, needing a bathroom, elevator, escalator, station office, station agent, or wheelchair assistance.

The efficiency and communication is astounding. The contrast with US transit is total. In Japan the transit system treats its riders with courtesy, respect and dignity. In the US, riding transit carries strong feelings of failure, disrespect and lack of care.

Great transit city

Shibuya station, Ginza line, schedule on steps

A great transit system is essential for a walkable and livable city. This frees residents from owning or using cars for most trips, and allows streets and public spaces to be used for people rather than vehicles.

What makes Tokyo’s transit system truly great? Speed, reliability, convenience, and ubiquity are remarkable. On top of that you have remarkable signage, including the steps on the Ginza line’s Shibuya station which remind me you of the sequence of stations, minutes required to arrive, and the fare. And, at the end of this post, you can see an example of outstanding art in a transit corridor, whose delight, awe, and mild terror adds an emotional level to all the functional goodness of Tokyo transit.

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