Tokyo is not known for its greener pastures but for hypermodern architecture and a cityscape that looks like a future preconceived in the early 80s. “Wow! Amazing!” is how tourists usually react. But how do people actually live in this concrete urbanity? Given the lack of vast green spaces, Tokyoites are taking action: First, reclaim your immediate environment and stuff the sidewalk with flower pots as much as possible. Second, on the official side, imitate nature to soothe the stressed commuters with a forest of plastic plants, cement trees – or the friendly chirping of an artificial bird. PingMag shows you the green islands and blossoming places in this most dense populated area.
Written by Michael Mahoney
Photos by Michael and Verena
In a recent Monocle (Vol 01, issue 05,) it was revealed that only 4 percent of Tokyo’s urban landmass is allocated for green space – compared to 12 percent in New York! So in 2000, the metropolitan government laid out The Green Tokyo Plan and showed that cities like New York, but also Vancouver or London have circa 26 to 29 square metres of green spaces per capita – compared to 5 square metres in Tokyo (the plan is now aiming for 7 square metres by 2015.) How come?
Construction? All I see is a lovely little plant…
We are trying to sum up some basic facts about Tokyo’s growth as urban organism as explained in The Transformation of Tokyo during the 1950s and early 1960s paper by Raffaele Pernice of Waseda: The destruction during the Pacific War until 1945 caused a vast housing shortage. Due to the limited materials and strict control by the American occupation, construction was rather limited. As a result, people started building their own wooden shelters that spread and thus mimicked the pre-war, mosaic structure. Later, from the end of the 1950s, the construction industry became one of the main industries and the rapid economic growth led to the following:
“The typical characteristic of modern Japanese cities, most evident in Tokyo, is a chaotic, patchwork-like, urban environment filled with high-density residential and commercial areas close to industrial plants. Few green areas, and a serious shortage of fundamental services such as sewerage and water supply, was indeed the consequence of the combined actions of fast urban growth and limited planning development.” (p. 255)
In another paper, Subcentres and Satellite Cities: Tokyo’s 20th Century Experience of Planned Polycentrism, Andre Sorensen points out that there was indeed a plan for a greenbelt in the late 50s. However, it “was overwhelmed by a combination of greater than expected economic and metropolitan growth, and active local opposition to its implementation.”
A row of green brightens up the gray curb off Omotesando.
In the time of rapid development, it was the citizens of Tokyo themselves who favored unbridled urban expansion over preservation. Local governments embraced growth policies, while landowners within the greenbelt regions partitioned their land and sold it to developers.
Since no laws were enacted to preserve the green spaces, the land was gradually filled in and, as the few rural spaces within the Tokyo area were rezoned for development, the city expanded ever onwards…
Well, let’s see what creative citizens are doing to bring back some of the green:
1. Greener Pastures For The Tiniest Spaces
There simply is no space left free in this sprawl that consist of thousands of villages. Seriously! Every square inch is taken up already – by a street, a building; by a sickly city tree rooted in concrete; or, of course, by the inhabitants. The so the common American ‘front yard’ doesn’t exist: Due to the traditional construction ways, houses are set flush against the street or sidewalk, leaving only tiny concrete embankments for people to use as yard.
Yet homeowners and shopkeepers here have an amazing amount of ingenuity in greening up these tiny grey spaces that remain! Curbs bordering the street become homes for geraniums; A/C units become perfect platforms for potted trees – there are no limitations. And it is quite charming to see how cleverly space are reclaimed!
One man’s fire extinguisher, another man’s gardening plot…
Hard to tell if this one is real or not…
With no grassy spaces to use as gardens, Tokyoites often decorate their doorways, stoops and walkways with loads upon loads of flowerpots. Here are what we’ll call flowerpot gardens.
Notably in the older sections of, for example, Asakusa and Ueno, many homeowners use three-tiered, bleacher-like stands to make multi-storey flowerpot gardens, echoing Tokyo’s multistorey lifestyle (left):
A multi-storey flowerpot garden in Asakusa – the bottles are to keep cats from snacking on it.
Bakery shop front spiced up with birdhouse and gnome!
Pictured above on the right: This adorable little French bakery in Tawaramachi really went all out! Cute flowers, a trellis … even a little birdhouse and gnome! The owners here really are trying to make this into a garden…
Expanding beyond doorway yards and shop fronts, these flowerpots are placed in spaces you’d never imagined before: pots as decor of parking lot curbs, boarded-up basement windows or even construction sites?!
Much of Tokyo’s 4 percent green space seems to be broken up into tiny bits and pieces, scattered along the streets. Seemingly, this gives just enough space for city planners to drop some sickly trees here and there. However, in the bits of soil that remain, creative Tokyoites have speedingly managed to make even more green spaces for themselves:
The same jungle, as seen from the side.
In case you’re wondering why people bother putting potted plants in such tiny spaces, we asked around:
“To be closer to nature – because otherwise you won’t get any”, says Mizuho, a resident of Asakusa.
“Because we love green… to make things look prettier!” says Chiemi, of Tokyo’s Setagaya ward.
“Because they don’t have any gardens! Tokyo used to be full of rice fields but they’ve gradually disappeared”, says Tom, of Meguro ward.
Also, if you aren’t familiar with Japan, you might surely wonder how can such precious little green spaces exist in such a big city, without vandalism or other disturbance?
Bring back the birds…
…in crowded Daiakanyama.
One possible reason might be what ethnographies describe as the respect Japanese have for public and private space. To generalise a bit: Everyone plays a part in keeping spaces nice, tidy and orderly for everyone else in ‘the group.’ This possibly also explains all those times we see strangers picking up other people’s rubbish in the streets. As such, (hopefully every) Japanese person would not think of littering or destroying a tiny flowerpot garden since, as a part of a shared common space, it is to be respected.
2. Imitating Nature: Bring Wild Life Into Urbanity
At times and places where real greenery can’t be implimented, Tokyo does its best to recreate it: Plastic plants, plastic trees – even fake animals, often in the unlikeliest of places, attempt to bring a bit of the outdoors back to the urban jungle. Do they succeed?
Tree Trunks As Lampposts
It really does look more or less like a real tree – doesn’t it?
Until you look up and you see a lamp where the leaves and branches should be.
Birds Chirping At Train Stations (and at other places)
While waiting for the Hibiya Line train to arrive at Roppongi Station, you get enchanted by the sweet song of some unknown songbird, whether day or night. Suddenly you realise that it’s been thirty minutes and the bird is still singing the same song. Either the poor thing has gotten into the Red Bull, or you have been fooled by what we call a robo-bird – a tape recording of birds chirping, which are played at various outdoor stations in Tokyo’s train network.
Now that we’ve given you a rough education in some of the best of real and fake nature in Tokyo, let’s take a quiz:
Picturesque ivy dangling from this vending machine…
Looking to bring some nature back to a vending machine, this parking lot owner added some green to his Coke machine.
Fake or real plant?
Special thanks go out to the inhabitants of Tokyo who, whether natural or not-so-natural, are doing a great job beautifying our space, little by little…