It’s funny. Look for ‘city’ in Google Images. The first photos depict skylines, highways, and waterfronts. But we know cities are more than concrete and asphalt. We can’t blame Google because the pictures represent what we think of when we think of cities.
Besides the buildings and the vehicles, in all cities, there are parks, plazas, and playgrounds. Although the predominant color is gray, the presence of green in cities is essential. City greenspaces (GS) are the main suppliers of ecosystem services. They help us to breath better air quality and they reduce noise pollution. GS play a fundamental role in mental health. For those that think city life is insane, they should imagine how it’d be with no GS.
What’s even more important than city GS is their location. Before creating or redesigning a GS, environmental landscape designers do some research. What’s the best area in the neighborhood? Will people access to it easily? Who will visit this GS? What will users do there?
I do research on ecosystem services. Also, I evaluate the landscape management. I estimate the labor forces needed in every kind of green space. Then I create a landscape plan. That’s how Assistant Professor Chika Takatori lists some tasks of her job. Takatori currently works at the Graduate School of Environmental Studies, Department of Environmental Engineering and Architectural and Environmental Design, University of Nagoya.
Planning and Managing Green Spaces
Planning and management are two essential concepts in Dr. Takatori’s projects.
The first step is studying accessibility. It makes no sense to create a beautiful park, packed with awesome facilities, in the middle of nowhere. What’s a park without visitors?
The second step is understanding which sector of the population will use the GS. Take a minute and think of the activities you’ve done at a park throughout your life. When you were a child, you played in the sandbox, fed pigeons, and watched the other kids on the carousel. Later, the park was the meeting point with your friends. Then, you started yoga or running (soon after you’ve probably given it up). Finally, the park becomes the place to walk your dog or join the 6 am tai-chi lesson.
Planners know that each social group has particular demands. Thus, the design of a GS depends on objectives, accessibility, and specific characteristics. Roughly, there three options at the moment of designing a GS. Those with the highest accessibility are the prior area for planners.
There are projects that don’t consist of creating but redesigning a GS. That happens when an existing GS with high levels of accessibility shows a mismatch between the requests of a certain social group.
Finally, there are GS with low levels of accessibility. One option is to create infrastructure near potential users. Another possibility is to develop transit to reach that GS.
The government and the municipalities provide limited labor force. Dr. Takatori estimates how much it will be necessary to effectively manage a certain GS, in proportion to the people accessing it.
Green Spaces in Japan
In Japan, only the gardener existed historically, not the landscape architect. The history of landscape architecture is short in Japan. Parks were made by the municipality or the government engineer, starts explaining Dr. Takatori. We imported the concept of ‘landscape architect’ from the USA.
‘Landscape architecture’ wasn’t merely a new profession. It brought a new way to understand the relationship between citizens and nature. Until then, trees and water were seen as components of park design. Since landscape architecture arrived in Japan, such elements have been considered from an ecological point of view. For instance, Mikiko Ishikawa is an expert on city environmental and landscape planning. In her works, Ishikawa studies and plans the way people coexist with nature. Also, she’s been one of Chika Takatori’s professors.
Dr. Takatori gives an example of one of her own projects. She has analyzed the different wind flows in Tokyo during the Edo era and today. It changed dramatically, due to the skyscrapers in Roppongi and Ginza areas. Not only the wind flow has varied. The Assistant Professor explains that during the Edo era, in Ginza there were many canals and GS. They had the role of cooling the city. My goal is to plan where is the best place to locate skyscrapers in the future. Creating new GS in the plateau area is part of this project too.
In countries that are particularly prone to natural disasters, like Japan, GS play a central role. In the 1923 Tokyo’s Great Earthquake, parks saved people’s lives. During the reconstruction plan, 55 parks were created in Tokyo. Two years ago the Japanese government started a project in many cities, including Nagoya, to develop green infrastructure to this purpose.
New York and Copenhagen are other examples of cities with GS that protect residents. In New York, Takatori tells us, Bjarke Ingels Group is designing open spaces to protect Lower Manhattan from big sea waves, floodwater, and storms. It’s called the Big U plan. The ‘U’ is divided into compartments, each of which protects a particular zone.
In Denmark’s capital, they have the ‘Copenhagen Cloudburst masterplan. It’s named after the precipitation that took place in 2011. In less than two hours, 150mm of rain left different areas of the city under up to one meter of water. The masterplan presents cloudburst and detention roads, as well as central detention basins.
Who Pays for the Japanese GS?
PPP: Public-private partnership. In the words of Takatori, the Japanese population is declining. Also, there are more elderly people. The municipality’s investment in architecture and civil engineering is very limited today. City taxes go mainly to the healthcare system. So, public spaces are created by private companies.
Green Spaces in Nagoya
Back to 1924, Japanese engineer Hideaki Ishikawa traveled to Amsterdam. There he learned the green belt concept. The event was the International Town Planning Conference and that belt was Ebenezer Howard’s one.
Sir Ebenezer Howard was a British urbanist, founder of the garden city movement. He introduced the green belt to constrict and control urban growth. The idea made the Japanese engineer go blind.
Ishikawa didn’t hesitate to bring the green belt to Japan. He wanted to create smaller neighborhoods separated by GS. As Chika Takatori explains, the green belt connects the GS both in the suburban and city areas. The green belt is still very important in today’s Japanese planning, even in Nagoya.
Japanese landscape urbanism found inspiration in the United States too. In Tokyo, Nagoya, and other cities, it’s possible to find Park Systems. The author of the idea is the self-proclaimed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Creator or New York’s Central Park and Boston’s first Park System, Law Olmsted envisaged the way to connect the city’s parks, canals, and roads.
Changing Demographics and Land Use
One big challenge Nagoya faces today is the land adjustment. Long story short: there are plenty of unused fragmented lands.
Maybe that was too short.
In the mid-1950s, there was a green belt plan. But it failed, says Takatori. Landowners wanted to develop the land so the many green spaces were disappeared. The city expanded dramatically from the center towards the outer areas. Nowadays, as elderly people died, each family receives a piece of land. With so many landowners, it’s difficult to reach consensus and redevelop. This is why in the suburban areas there are very few parks.
In Japan, the green infrastructure is very important, explains Takatori. Nagoya isn’t particularly a progressive city. Yet, there are many revitalization projects to encourage people to move to the center.
Today, the biggest project in Nagoya is the revitalization of the Hisaya Ōdori Park. That’s great news! Hisaya Odori Park was dark and people didn’t want to visit it. They felt unsafe. It used to be managed by the government. Recently the company Mitsubishi did a plan and the municipality accepted it. They will connect the park to the Hisaya subway station. They’ll cut the trees and they’ll open shopping malls and cafes. This Hisaya Odori Park is so big that all citizens of Nagoya can come here. It should be comfortable for everyone.
In Nagoya, continues Chika Takatori, there are many waterfront projects. One is the Nakagawa river. The municipality is looking for revitalizing the area. It will become a recreational district. People will even be able to move there.
A living room with a view isn’t the only incentive to move next to the Nakagawa river. The municipality has other reason to encourage people. These projects are part of the Nagoya compact city master plan. The municipality wants to gather people next to the station. The question is, do people want to live there?
Japanese citizens became very sensitive about living next to rivers. Such areas are particularly dangerous during earthquakes. If an earthquake occurs, there are possibilities a tsunami will arrive, Takatori adds. That’s why it can be a risky area and the population is decreasing. Conversely, the population is increasing in the plateau area. Thus, an essential aspect of the revitalization project is a disaster prevention plan. The municipality is working to control the water level. After an earthquake occurs, they’d lower the water level. This should mitigate the impact of an eventual tsunami.
Transit connectivity is another aspect of environmental landscape design. Developed transportation networks will make Nagoya a more beautiful city. Takatori mentions one example. There is a current plan to connect the Nagoya station to the Sakae area. All Nagoya attractive points are connected.
After discussing the functional aspects of environmental landscape design, I asked Dr. Chika Takatori about aesthetics. Neighbors participation is very important. Nagoya organizes workshops where residents can help designers to create GS. We’ve been doing this since the 1960s. For example, they ask to preserve a tree that has been in a certain open space for a long time.
Residents’ participation can be more active. Takatori remembers a project at a park of the Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo. We conducted a workshop with residential people. They were traditional gardeners who created new types of Sakura and other Japanese traditional flowers. We used these flowers in the project.
Green Space Improvement
About two years ago, the Japanese government authorized opening cafes in public spaces. Again, it’s a public-private partnership. Let’s say a private company opens a cafe in the park. They have to pay taxes to the government so that they can manage the landscape, explains Takatori. This is a major policy in Nagoya city.
GS management can be tougher than pruning trees and opening coffee shops. There are hard questions when deciding which route to follow. For instance, should designers focus on one particular park? Or should they manage all parks the same way? On the one hand, working on several GS at the same time is difficult. Also, the results may not be the best ones. On the other hand, all citizens have the same rights and so there should be GS for everyone. Such is the current debate between Nagoya’s Residential and Green Departments.
Let’s Wipe Out Green Spaces
Given the importance of GS, the best thing we can do is to eliminate them.
Hopefully, in cities where there will be so many GS, it will be hard to say which are GS and which are not.
Cities designed for people, rather than vehicles, are or aim to be endlessly walkable. The boundaries between areas tend to fade.
Ideally, the growing number of green and open spaces will merge with the rest of the urban landscape. This will increase the number of activities in common areas. This is especially important in countries like Japan. Most Japanese cities have strict regulations on public space use.
One more reason to increase -or wipe out- GS is to encourage people coming back to cities. Beautiful landscape design adds value to the centers. They have convenient access to work, study, health, and entertainment. Also, urban centers can be pleasant places to live.
After publishing this article, Assistant Professor Chika Takatori noticed some errors and asked me to fix them:
×Law Olmsted envisaged the way to connect the city’s parks, canals, and roads.
→〇Law Olmsted envisaged the way to connect the city’s parks, river
front areas, and wetlands.
×The green belt is still very important in today’s Japanese planning,
even in Nagoya.
→〇The green belt plan was not completed perfectly but itis still very
important in today’s Japanese planning, even in Nagoya and Tokyo.
×Neighbors participation is very important. Nagoya organizes workshops
where residents can help designers to create GS.
→〇Neighbors participation is very important. Landscape architects have
organized workshops where residents can help designers to create GS.
×About two years ago, the Japanese government authorized opening cafes
in public spaces. Again, it’s a public-private partnership.
→〇About two years ago, the Japanese government authorized park PFI
which is a new way of public-private partnership.
The area around the city center has few parks because it wasn’t prescribed to creating parks in the pre-revision land adjustment law. Today, opening such spaces is difficult because there are many landowners that have to reach consensus in order to redevelop.