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Tokyo’s urban design role

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The Hatoyama government’s ambitious carbon reduction goals position Japan for leadership in the postindustrial global economy. Less discussed is Tokyo’s remarkable energy efficiency, urban ecology innovations, and its potential for playing a leading role in the next decade’s biggest environmental challenge: creating sustainable cities with human and environmental benefits.

Last century’s urban renewal relied on demolition and displacement, which frequently privileged real estate profit over the needs of local residents. New urbanism transforms the imperfect built environment with the resourcefulness of existing communities. Key concepts are in-fill, participation, livable streets, reuse and a new relationship between cities and nature.

When I explain that Hitachi Ltd. and the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations awarded me a fellowship to research and write about Tokyo green space, many Japanese colleagues look perplexed. Wouldn’t Paris or Washington, D.C., be a better place? The assumption is that cities with better urban planning begun in the 19th century offer a superior urban atmosphere.

On the contrary, Tokyo’s poor planning, its rush to develop after the 1923 Kanto Earthquake and the 1944-45 firebombings, and its overwhelming scale as the world’s largest metropolis paradoxically make it a model for remaking existing cities and designing hundreds of emerging cities.

Along with global warming, the world faces unprecedented urbanization, reaching 60 percent of the population, or 5 billion people, by 2030. African and Asian urban populations will double between 2000 and 2030. Creating sustainable cities will require extraordinary grassroots efforts within the constraints of density and past policy failures.

Tokyo residents demonstrate remarkable ingenuity in maximizing small private spaces and limited open spaces. Most foreigners are unaware of Tokyo’s human scale, remarkably safe streets and the profusion of tiny gardens often tended to by elderly residents. Tokyo residents actively care for their surroundings with sidewalk and roji (alley) plants blurring the division between private and public, and with vertical gardens thriving in even the narrowest spaces.

Each season brings color, scent and edibles including persimmons, bitter melon, grapes and citrus.

Tokyo’s urban visionaries take grassroots efforts a step further. Several draw on Japanese traditions to bring agriculture into the city. Ginza Honey Bee Project, cofounded by Tanaka Atsuo, houses 300,000 bees on the rooftop of an office building. The bees gather nectar in existing open spaces including the Imperial Palace grounds and from newly planted flowering street trees.

This past summer and fall, Iimura Kazuki’s Ginza Farm — a street-level rice paddy fertilized and weeded by ducks — drew large numbers of shop clerks, construction workers, office staff, children and neighbors.

Habitat creation in the city connects plants with wildlife, urban centers with rural villages, and communities with the environment. Landscape designer Tase Michio revives distressed rural landscapes with modular “satoyama units” for homes, offices and public spaces. Bringing plants found near rice fields into the city enables wildlife to follow the human migration from country to city.

Tokyo University of Agriculture professor Suzuki Makoto works with students, teachers and the local community to build a magical firefly habitat at a Shinagawa middle school. Fireflies in the city require clean running water, near total darkness at night, and plants that feed and shelter them.

An indispensable resource is the Japanese cultural respect for nature, dating to prehistory and Shinto’s animist concept of 8 million spirits (ya-o-yorozu no kami). In Edo times (1603-1867), Tokyo gardens and agriculture permeated all social classes, including court nobles, shoguns, artists and common people in shitamachi (downtown).

Today’s visionaries are remaking Japanese culture for a new era marked by the “heat island effect” and global warming. On a miniature scale, Kobayashi Kenji has revitalized bonsai by appealing to young urban residents eager to experience nature in small living spaces with daily care.

On a city and national scale, construction giant Kajima and a new corporate alliance, the Japanese Business Initiative for Biodiversity, explore new ways to make development compatible with healthy environments.

Much work remains for Tokyo to reach its potential and become a world leader in 21st century urbanism. Tokyo’s density and extraordinary transit system already provide it with the advantage of the lowest per capita private transit use of any advanced city except Hong Kong: 33 percent less than London, 45 percent less than Copenhagen, and almost 80 percent less than New York.

Given the low private-vehicle traffic, why is so much of Tokyo paved over? Dismantling elevated freeways and freeing Edo canals and rivers from concrete burial will bring these vital arteries back to life. Minimizing street pavement will revive the soil, exponentially increase plant mass, prevent storm flooding and water pollution, clean the air, and create new places for people and wildlife.

When governments and corporations are able to connect with residents’ passions and potential for action, Tokyo can become an urban forest with a thriving ecosystem where the health of soil, plants, animals and people are deeply intertwined. In the leap from last century’s industrial economy to a sustainable future, Japan is poised for an outsized role on the world stage. By focusing on habitats and culture, Tokyo can become a model for a new balance between people and nature in 21st century urban life.

Jared Braiterman, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and a Council on Foreign Relations Hitachi International Affairs Fellow. He is a design anthropologist trained at Harvard and Stanford.