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Most first-time visitors to the Tokyo metropolitan area express a degree of surprise at the lush green spaces that can be found in the capital.

Take the green areas within walking distance of Yoyogi Station on the city’s loop line, for example. Within 20 minutes of disembarking from the Yamanote Line, visitors can access the expansive woodland area surrounding Meiji Shrine, the open spaces of Yoyogi Park, the manicured ponds of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and the ginkgo-lined streets near Meiji-Jingu Gaien, site of the verdant Olympic Stadium.

And those are just the main attractions, with a smattering of smaller parks also located close by that warrant a visit in their own right. Shinjuku Central Park, for example, is large enough to host woodland as well as sports facilities.

The surrounding scenery couldn’t be more different at Tabata Station, which is located on the northern edge of the same line. The largely treeless neighborhood close to the station is pockmarked by tiny, street corner playgrounds and the occasional leafy shrine. For an open green space in which to relax, the best bet is to leave Tabata and head to Ueno Park a few stops away.

This dual-reality extends throughout much of Japan. On one hand, city centers feature impeccably landscaped parks with ponds, seasonal flowering gardens, wooded walkways and grassy picnic areas. However, head a few stops on a local train in almost any direction, and visitors will find swaths of concrete with barely a tree in sight.

Private developers have recently been stepping into the void in a trend that could help to slow the decline of green spaces that has been apparent in Tokyo over the past decade or so. Many say this alone won’t help the city to balance soaring skyscrapers with sufficient greenery.

An aerial view of the green spaces that are within easy walking distance of Tokyo's Yoyogi Station | GETTY IMAGES
An aerial view of the green spaces that are within easy walking distance of Tokyo’s Yoyogi Station | GETTY IMAGES

Going green

Tokyo has an average of 4.35 square meters of park space per person, which ranges from more than 27 square meters per person in Chiyoda Ward to less than 1 square meter per person in Toshima Ward.

However, even Tokyo’s greenest neighborhoods are found wanting when compared to the availability of parks in other major cities around the world. At 27 square meters per person, London is as green on average as Chiyoda Ward. What’s more, Washington has nearly twice as much park space per person as London, while Stockholm leads the pack with a remarkable 80 square meters of green space per resident.

This is despite Japan having undergone a green and park space revolution in the 20th century.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, green spaces increased fivefold in Japan from 1970 to 2010. But that growth has stumbled and then slowed over the past decade.

Park space per person in Japan sat at 128,264 hectares at the beginning of 2020 — up just 10,000 hectares from the figures compiled for 2010, after growing twice that amount in the previous decade.

“One reason why there has been barely any progress is that combined national and municipal spending on urban parks peaked between 1993 and 1995, whether we look at total, new construction or land acquisition budgets,” says Christoph Rupprecht, a geographer and professor of environmental design at Ehime University. “Some cities have done much better than others, which has widened an already existing gap in green space provision even further. The differences are quite striking.”

Tokyo has an average of 4.35 square meters of park space per person, which ranges from more than 27 square meters per person in Chiyoda Ward to less than 1 square meter per person in Toshima Ward. | COURTESY OF THE TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT
Tokyo has an average of 4.35 square meters of park space per person, which ranges from more than 27 square meters per person in Chiyoda Ward to less than 1 square meter per person in Toshima Ward. | COURTESY OF THE TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT

Some are skeptical as to whether or not parks nationwide are accessible and actually improving quality of life.

Rupprecht and Lihua Cui at Kyoto University conducted a study that analyzed Japan’s day care access to green space, finding that many existing parks failed to meet typical day care needs, especially in Tokyo.

Japan’s parks lie at odds with the reality that large portions of its major urban centers are concrete jungles in dire need of greenery. However, improvement is teetering to a halt.

The benefits of creating green spaces in urban areas have been acknowledged by both national and municipal governments.

Tomohiro Sakashita, planning manager of the parks division at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, says the city has made substantial progress over the years, yet still lacks sufficient green space.

“As urbanization progresses in a dense city like Tokyo, parks are indispensable for environmental improvement, landscape preservation, disaster prevention and recreational purposes,” Sakashita says. “However, Japan’s urban centers still have too few parks compared to other countries.”

When natural disaster strikes, parks become indispensable evacuation sites that provide storage, temporary housing and essential utilities like toilets and running water.

After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, elevated parks became essential evacuation points for those affected by the disaster, providing safe spaces for emergency assistance groups to set up bases and distribute support, and giving refuge to thousands of stranded residents.

The benefits of creating green spaces in urban areas have been acknowledged by both national and municipal governments. | COURTESY OF THE TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT
The benefits of creating green spaces in urban areas have been acknowledged by both national and municipal governments. | COURTESY OF THE TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT

What’s more, green spaces are important as a measure against global warming, reducing the “heat island” effect of large urban centers and helping to absorb carbon.

Parks also preserve or increase the biodiversity of animals and plants. They can become urban gardens, helping local communities to grow food. They attract tourists and promote local economies. And all these benefits sit on top of the fundamental and well-documented ways that parks can help to improve city-dwellers’ mental health and quality of life.

Historian Paul Waley says Japan built its first public parks in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) in an attempt to refashion the East Asian nation in the image of European empires. Indeed, he adds, this explains the origin of such well-known parks as Ueno Park in Tokyo and Tsuruma Park in Nagoya. At the time, much of the limited green space that did exist in Tokyo was contained within temples and shrines, with large areas that remained inaccessible to the general public.

“There was no concept of parks as a public facility during the Meiji Era, so some prefectural governments did not even assume maintenance and management budgets for these (new) parks,” a spokesperson from the Landscape and Business Development Association told Nikkei Business.

The next stage of public park development occurred after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, when, according to historian Janet Borland, Tokyo built 52 small parks throughout Japan next to primary schools that were designed for children to use as a place to play and exercise.

In the postwar period, when green spaces were more widely rolled out as a public utility, small parks fitting the basic model of these original 52 parks were built in neighborhoods across the country.

Private partnerships

Anyone who has lived in Japan is familiar with what a local neighborhood park looks like. It’s about one square block, typically located near an elementary school, and equipped with a few trees, a playground, a small open field, a toilet and running water.

These small parks as well as larger, more elaborate parks placed in open land on the outskirts of cities were mainly built during and in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s economic boom, when park space per person in Japan doubled from 1970 to 1985.

“Since the high economic growth period of the 1960s and ’70s, the need for environmental improvement increased due to development and environmental deterioration,” Sakashita says. “We have been able to expand Tokyo’s green space by converting large-scale facilities such as former factories and research institutes. The acquisition of private land has been the primary method for expanding planned park space in cities.”

Tsuruma Park in Nagoya, one of Japan's oldest public parks | ERIC MARGOLIS
Tsuruma Park in Nagoya, one of Japan’s oldest public parks | ERIC MARGOLIS

Urban centers in Japan aggressively acquired green spaces along these lines from the 1970s into the early 2000s. However, the density of people and infrastructure in Japanese cities ultimately restricted the development of such spaces.

In the 2000s and 2010s, municipal budgets across Japan have declined as austerity measures have been implemented, chipping away at budgets for urban parks and green spaces.

At the same time, the revision of a 2003 Local Autonomy Law allowed private companies and nonprofit organizations to manage parks instead of governments, which has had a huge influence on park management in Japan, as detailed by the Nikkei Shimbun.

The emergence of private finance incentives to invest in parks was further encouraged by revisions to the Urban Park Act in 2017. According to the Landscape and Business Development Association, 12% of city parks nationwide were owned by private entities in 2018, with the number rapidly growing.

Private partnerships can be effective, especially when building facilities that naturally include extensive construction or operating costs such as public pools and athletic stadiums.

'(Privately managed parks) are often a consideration for cities with little green space available,' says Chris Boulton, founder of the CityGreen Lab. | COURTESY OF CHRIS BOULTON
‘(Privately managed parks) are often a consideration for cities with little green space available,’ says Chris Boulton, founder of the CityGreen Lab. | COURTESY OF CHRIS BOULTON

The Landscape and Business Development Association puts forward the example of Tennoji Park in Osaka, operated by Kintetsu Real Estate with permission from the city of Osaka. The resulting park was a 7,000-square-meter lawn plaza with restaurants, residences, athletic facilities and more. Tennoji Park attracted more than 10 million visitors in just two years after opening in October 2015.

Fiscal austerity has had a debilitating effect on park maintenance and management as well, which is an area that private management can step in to with a stopgap solution. The primacy of economic incentives can be seen clearly in Tokyo’s own 2015 parks development plan. Three of the top priorities of the plan focus on attracting tourists, promoting business and integrating the private sector within parks, while the remaining cover more traditional areas — disaster mitigation, citizen safety and comfort, and improving the quality of air and water.

Sakashita emphasizes the importance of collaborating with businesses and local communities to promote the development of new facilities and improve park management.

“In order to maximize the multifunctionality of parks with flexible ideas and management that is responsive to citizen’s needs, we are promoting the development and operation of facilities that utilize private funds and knowhow, such as outdoor cafes,” Sakashita says. “It’s difficult to secure sufficient green space in the city with only public parks. We expect that these (privately managed) parks will have the same functions as public parks, and that they will be spaces that anyone can use.”

But critics highlight a contradiction between privately managed green spaces and the essential purpose of parks. Rupprecht says commoditizing public land can damage the quality of life, as more facilities tend to lead to less vegetated space, promote unsustainable ecological footprints and unseat the civic purposes of public parks, such as the way they serve as places for protest and the homeless.

“(Privately managed parks) are often a consideration for cities with little green space available,” says Chris Boulton, founder of the CityGreen Lab.

“While it seems attractive at face value — someone else owns, maintains and manages the park — it is typically socially and/or economically disadvantaged citizens that lose out when access is heavily managed and/or restricted,” Boulton says.

“Effective green space provision means financially, environmentally and socially sustainable,” Boulton says. “Providing it is only the first part of the challenge — being resourced to develop, maintain and renew the built assets is just as important.”

According to the Landscape and Business Development Association, 12% of city parks nationwide were owned by private entities in 2018. | GETTY IMAGES
According to the Landscape and Business Development Association, 12% of city parks nationwide were owned by private entities in 2018. | GETTY IMAGES

Alternative approaches

Private management strategy has become a key component of greening plans in many cities in Japan. But it’s just one of numerous varied and constantly evolving approaches.

Jason Byrne, a professor of human geography at the University of Tasmania, says green spaces are generally secured in several ways.

Some local governments require developers to include public green space areas in their plans when granting consent to projects on the outskirts of the city. They might also use public funds to purchase private land for public green space developments as well as push for incremental green spaces to occupy such areas as roofs, walls and parking areas.

“The real cutting-edge strategies are where alternative financing models are being explored and developed, or where cooperative, community-led, grassroots initiatives are occurring,” Byrne says. “Anti-gentrification and ‘low-fi’ solutions approach to green space and public spaces has grown very rapidly in recent years.”

One alternative approach to green development that has caught on in Japan is community farms. This model brings the community together to grow food and encourage members to take care of the environment.

A conceptual community garden for retrofitting shrinking Japanese cities with shared spaces | COURTESY OF CHRISTOPH RUPPRECHT
A conceptual community garden for retrofitting shrinking Japanese cities with shared spaces | DESIGN: AOI LANDSCAPE DESIGN; SOURCE: TAMURA, MCGREEVY, RUPPRECHT, 2021 “MINNA DE TSUKURU ITADAKIMASU”

Community gardens, which are sometimes called shimin nōen (allotment farms) in Japan, have increased substantially since the 1990s, especially in the Kanto region.

A recent University of Tokyo study led by Kentaro Harada and Kimihiro Hino shows that community farms should be supported from a public-health standpoint due to their positive impact on physical and mental health.

“From a health promotion perspective, public support is needed not only for the municipality’s allotment programs, but also for the experience of farm programs operated by farmers,” the researchers write.

Parks are more important than ever, as lifestyle changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted more frequent and diverse use of local outdoor areas. Cities around the world are innovating with new types of parks and greening strategies, such as the creation of floating islands in Copenhagen and efforts to rewild large swaths of Berlin.

Singapore has long been a global leader in green development. According to a 2017 report in National Geographic magazine, new developments in the city must include plant life in the form of green roofs and vertical gardens before they’re approved. Greenery that is lost on the ground is replaced in the sky, as developments must comply with a 100% greenery replacement policy.

“We intersperse parks, rivers and ponds amid our high-rises,” Cheong Koon Hean, Singapore’s urban development agency head, told the magazine. “These bodies of water also double as flood-control mechanisms. And we plant lushly — some 3 million trees cover Singapore.”

Private management is a convenient solution for constrained budgets, but some suggest that Japan’s cities should pivot to community-based approaches for creating greener cities with the limited resources at hand.

“We should accept that the management and creation of parks will shift to residents due to neoliberal policies,” Rupprecht says. “But corporate public-private partnerships reinforce an infrastructure paradigm that makes it harder for people to feel it’s truly their park and become landscape stewards. The more difficult but more long-term viable strategy is to really rethink park management and rethink peoples’ involvement.”

Christoph Rupprecht was part of a team that analyzed Japan’s day care access to green space, finding that many existing parks failed to meet typical day care needs, especially in Tokyo. | COURTESY OF CHRISTOPH RUPPRECHT
Christoph Rupprecht was part of a team that analyzed Japan’s day care access to green space, finding that many existing parks failed to meet typical day care needs, especially in Tokyo. | COURTESY OF CHRISTOPH RUPPRECHT

Rupprecht has put forward a model of urban landscape stewardship that borrows from the traditional satoyama models of rural Japan that would help to create productive green spaces (private gardens, community farms), recreational spaces (parks, urban forests) and informal spaces (fields).

“It’s clear that the main goal would be to increase green cover throughout the city, not just for parks, but to think beyond the park as a physical space and go towards greening the city as a whole,” Rupprecht says. “Roads should be green. Everything should be green.”

Despite the existence of myriad parks nationwide, Japan’s cities have a long way to go if they are to meet the needs of their citizens, combat climate change and create integrated, green cities that support not just the lives of human beings but of all creatures.

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