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The green machine

With Tokyo green space at a premium, local groups try to save historic site from housing projects

by Geoff Botting

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, “Nakano spy school” turned out thousands of spies, propaganda chiefs and commandos to serve in the furthest corners of Asia during the Pacific War.

After the war, the elite and secretive academy in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, was reformed to become the National Police Academy, alma mater to the cream of Japan’s crop of law-enforcement and public security officials.

In recent years, however, the school has been re-located, and its historic and sprawling old campus remains empty.

The land’s 13.7 hectares include nearly 1,200 trees and plenty of meadows and empty fields. A peak over the property’s high concrete walls reveals a tranquil and almost bucolic scene starkly at odds with the site’s wartime role.

The other contrast is the location — in a central part of Tokyo that is otherwise intensely congested and developed.

So now Nakano Ward and the central government, which owns the land, are grappling with what to do with this highly coveted green belt. A wide range of proposals has emerged, from selling it to residential and commercial developers, to putting leisure facilities there, to leaving it as it is.

Ward officials presented some of these ideas earlier this month, at a meeting organized by no less than 15 civic groups with wide-ranging interests. Scores of concerned residents attended to listen to the speakers and offer their opinions.

One of the groups, for example, was the “Group to Consider the Future of the Square at Nakano’s North Exit.” The group consists mainly of musicians and performers who need an outdoor space to rehearse, a member told me at the meeting. The “square” in the group’s title is really just thin slot of concrete near the station. Its size shrunk drastically last year after an adjacent bicycle parking lot took over a large chunk of the land.

“Now we would like benches and other facilities in a future land development,” the member said.

Another group, which has put up posters throughout the ward, printed pamphlets and organized a signature-collection campaign, is the Midori no Network (“green network”). As its name might suggest, the group is pushing for the site of the police academy to be left largely left as it is.

“A park here would give the ward a kind of green corridor with an eco-system, with trees and grass. We may not get squirrels living there, but we could at least have some degree of nature, even within such an urban area as this,” said art teacher and Green Network member Naho Matsui.

Such thinking could almost be described as radical, when you consider the nature of Japan’s postwar development. Tokyo and other large Japanese cities tend to be intense urban sprawls in the true sense of the word, where trees and grass have long been obliterated to make way for buildings and concrete.

Statistics bear that out. Tokyo’s 23 wards provide on average 2.6 square meters of parkland per person. In central New York and London, by comparison, the rates are around 10 times as high.

Yet if anywhere needs green space in this day and age, it is Tokyo and Japan’s other major cities.

In Nakano’s case, the obvious reason has to do with quality of life. Green Network argues that Nakano, with its 300,000-plus population, is the most densely populated municipal ward in all of Japan, and among Tokyo’s 23 wards has the second-least amount of parkland per person.

Another reason involves the ever-looming danger of large earthquakes. Nakano’s existing parks and other open areas are insufficient to accommodate the huge number of evacuated residents expected in the event of a devastating quake, group members argue.

In densely packed Nakano, a large natural disaster could especially catastrophic.

“There are a lot of wooden houses here, so if there were a big earthquake, it would be an extremely dangerous place,” says Masami Kato, a housewife and Green Network member. Another consideration is the “heat island” effect, which has been broiling Tokyo during the last few summers.

The phenomenon occurs in hot regions with high concentrations of concrete — which discharges the sun’s heat — and an insufficient amount of greenery. In other words, Tokyo is almost like a massive heat island unto itself during the summers.

Authorities and scientists in Japan are keenly aware of the problem and have been pushing for such technically and administratively challenging measures as forcing building owners to create and maintain gardens on rooftops.

Yet it’s obvious that a more effective solution lies in the preservation of green spaces which already exist — almost literally — in our own backyards.

So with all that in mind, the Green Network is striving to convince ward residents and officials of the importance of preserving at least a significant portion of greenery inside the academy’s old campus.

Already, roads are planned to run through the property to help ease traffic congestion.

Some ward officials and residents, meanwhile, view the empty land as an economic bonanza and are keen to see residential and/or commercial development to boost the local economy.

It seems likely that some sort of compromise plan will be handed down, whereby part of the land will be slated for development and other parts made into parkland.

The Green Network, however, fears such a scenario.

If development is OK’d, “then preserving the land’s greenery would become difficult, and it would be highly likely that any development would be on a large scale and center around high-rise buildings,” the group’s literature states.

A formal plan is due this August. Let’s hope it reflects the best interests of all the ward’s residents.