Others, No.8  Oct. 3, 2011


Moderator: This summer, with calls to save energy and reduce electricity consumption, we are seeing the emergence of a movement to use greenery as a way to beat the heat, with “green curtains” becoming the focus of a great deal of attention, for example. Today we are going to hear from two experts about the future of the relationship between cities and greenery. We’ll start by asking your opinions on the current state of the kind of greenery that everyone is familiar with, such as roadside trees.

FUJII Eijiro: Unfortunately for the last twenty years or so in Japan, there are more and more trees that have been terribly over-pruned. Even in parks there are a lot of trees that have been pruned unnecessarily. For trees such as Platanus Orientalis (plane trees), for example, if they are in parks then there is no need to worry about fallen leaves or over-shading, so it’s OK to let them grow with wide spreading branches. The Platanus trees in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden are the oldest in Japan–apparently they are more than a hundred years old–but because they haven’t been trimmed excessively they have grown into superb shapes.

Photo : Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Platanus trees in the Shinjuku Gyoen
National Garden, Shinjuku ward, Tokyo

KAI Tetsuro: In Japan there are a lot of streets without any shade from greenery at all, perhaps because roadside trees are so few and far between. On a scorching summer day, walking along in direct sunlight is really hard going. In Europe, on the other hand, it’s not unusual to see luxuriant tree lined avenues.

Fujii: In London and Rome Platanus trees are allowed to spread their branches wide, despite the fact that the streets are only narrow. Roadside trees in Japan would grow in the same way as those in Europe if we let the upper branches spread out, although it would still be necessary to trim the lower branches on the side facing the road.

Kai: What’s behind the changes that have taken place with roadside trees?

Fujii: I guess it’s no surprise that one of the biggest reasons is that the departments in charge of looking after roadside trees, such as local governments and the office for national highways, have had their budgets cut. It’s probably relatively easy to make cuts in these areas because they don’t face very much active opposition. Sometimes, as a result of complaints from people living nearby, trees are trimmed in a way that goes against the way that they should grow and their role as roadside trees.

Kai: I regularly work with government officials responsible for greenery, and they have told me that although their role is to promote increased greenery in urban areas, having to respond to complaints is never far from their mind, and they are often faced with difficult dilemmas. I suspect that it’s only been in the last few years that there has been an increase in complaints.

Fujii: Rather than an increase in the number of complaints, perhaps what we’ve seen is a change in the way that government officials respond. Some students conducted a survey on the attitudes of people living along roads which found that only about 10% of people complained that roadside trees were unnecessary or should be reduced. About 70% of respondents expressed positive attitudes regarding the current situation. Surely this means that if the government decides to follow the wishes of the mere 10% of people that complain then this goes against the wishes of the silent majority.

The people in charge of roads might be experts about roads, but very few of them have any knowledge about trees. If they don’t understand the functions of roadside trees, or when and how to trim them, then roadside trees end up being managed in such a way that the most important thing is simply to prevent complaints.

Why do we have roadside trees?

Fujii: Roadside trees have a huge array of functions. For starters, they provide shade during really hot times such as now. It’s not so much that the temperature is lower below the tree canopy as that it blocks direct sunlight, resulting in the so-called “parasol effect.” In Kyushu and Okinawa, this natural process has been treasured since antiquity, but in recent years the shade provided by greenery has become extremely significant in urban areas of Honshu as well, due to the increasing seriousness of global warming and the “heat island” phenomenon.

Another function of roadside trees is their role in creating a clear division between sidewalks and roads. Actually, statistics show that when there are no roadside trees almost all pedestrians walk on the far side of the pavement, away from the road. When roadside trees are present, about 30% of people walk either in the middle of the pavement or on the side of the pavement closest to the road.

Kai: So roadside trees allow the full width of the sidewalk to be utilized effectively.

Fujii: That’s right. For pedestrians, the road is a threatening presence, but roadside trees provide a psychological partition.

For drivers, roadside trees have an important screening effect, allowing them to relax and focus on the road ahead of them. When we measure drivers’ eye movements when there are no roadside trees, we find that their attention is drawn to artificial objects along the road, such as buildings and signs, and their eyes move frequently, indicating that drivers are in a kind of state of tension.

Thirdly, in cities with very little nature, roadside trees are an important keystone for other living creatures. Nowadays there are almost no places where soil is directly exposed to the air, as is the case with the plantation boxes for roadside trees. These places are made up of a rich biota of microorganisms and insects.

Moreover, when it rains the water flows rapidly along sealed roads, but where there is soil the rainwater soaks in. In Japan, until quite recently precipitation rarely exceeded about 30 mm per hour, but nowadays it often reaches 50 or 100 mm per hour. As surface drainage increases we begin to see a risk of urban floods, so areas with extensive soil components, such as parks and plantation strips for roadside trees, have an extremely important water retention function.

At the same time, the moisture stored within the soil evaporates as the temperature rises, bringing about a cooling effect, similar to the traditional Japanese practice of sprinkling water on the ground.

Kai: Those small plantation boxes play a big role, don’t they.

Fujii: That’s right, they’re only small, and apparently most people think that the roots of roadside trees only grow within those areas, but actually the roots spread out below the entire pavement like a fan. On the road side, there is an extremely hard layer of concrete and asphalt, so the roots can’t get in.

About the cycle of trees and livelihoods

Kai: The fact that roadside trees have so many functions seems to be almost completely unrecognized. But trees have been regarded as extremely important things in Japan since time immemorial, as places where deities live. Through historical records and narratives, I’ve heard stories about a big gingko tree protecting a shrine from a big fire, or preventing the fire from spreading by releasing steam.

Fujii: Japanese people once had the wisdom to respect trees and to get along well with them. That’s why we still have so many giant trees. For example, in Living in Tokyo, 1928 to 1936 (published by Iwanami Bunko), Katharine Sansom–the wife of the British Ambassador, who lived in Japan before the war–writes that trees were almost never cut down in Japan. As she watches the gardeners tend the trees, she describes how each tree is tended carefully according to its individual characteristics, like educating a child.

Kai: When it comes to making houses and gardens too, for a long time after the war it was regarded as common sense to plant deciduous trees on the southern side of the house, providing shade in summer sun while letting in the sunlight in winter after the leaves had fallen. Many houses had a private forest on the northern side of the house to act as windbreak, and the trees planted for these windbreaks often tend to grow quite large, such as keyaki (Zelkowa serrata).

One beautifully preserved example of this kind of innovation, which I often talk about in my seminars, is an ancient hamlet in Okinawa called Bise. Hedges of fukugi (Garcinia subelliptica) act as windbreaks surrounding each house. This greenery links up and produces a sense of unity for the entire town. Okinawa tends to be a very windy place, so much so that it is sometimes called “typhoon alley,” but once you enter the avenues of fukugi trees you feel as though the wind has suddenly stopped completely.

Photo : Bise area in the western coast of Okinawa main land
Fukugi tees protect houses from even
typhoon winds. (Photo: Bise area in
the western coast of Okinawa main land)

Not only do these hedges mitigate the wind, they also play a role in moderating the temperature, so that it is cool inside the hamlet even in summer. Fukugi trees are used for dyes, and they also play a role in protecting cultivated land from salt damage. They really are multifunctional.

Fujii: I’ve studied agricultural communities in Ibaraki and Chiba, and the same kinds of concepts could be found here and there. Like the fukugi hedges, in the past private forests were also the sites for producing timber and other materials. For example, shirakashi (Quercus myrsinaefolia) provides materials for making agricultural tools, and keyaki (Zelkowa serrata) provides building materials.

In other words, not only did people expect trees to regulate the temperature and protect them from natural disasters, even the trunks and branches were useful when the trees were cut down. But once thatched roofs are replaced by roof tiles, trees are no longer needed for windbreaks. As timber gets gradually replaced by materials produced overseas, the trees in the garden are tended simply for the sake of tending them and so looking after them becomes too much of a bother. In other words, the cycle of how trees are used has been increasingly broken up into separate individual elements.

Kai: In Okinawa, the number of concrete houses being built exceeded the number of wooden houses being built for the first time in 1964. Since then towns laid out like the town of Bise that I described earlier have all but disappeared. Unlike wooden houses, concrete houses can withstand typhoons on their own, and so people no longer had to rely on trees acting as windbreaks to protect them. Once air conditioners began to appear, together with more airtight building materials with better insulation performance, people could still be quite comfortable even if they locked themselves inside all day.

In other words, we have made a transition from an era when we couldn’t survive without planting trees around our houses and actively working with the surrounding natural environment to an era where our houses are highly self-sufficient, and we can live comfortably by simply adjusting the insides of our houses. I believe that this transition has brought about a huge change in the way that people relate to trees. At the same time, perhaps we have lost that tacit understanding that the townscapes that have formed naturally through our interaction with nature should be passed on to future generations as a kind of culture and regional identity.

Fujii: I think you’re right. In Japanese the word “community” is made of the characters for “public” and “togetherness,” and when local people have a sense of “togetherness” then it becomes possible to preserve and maintain roadside trees as well. In the past, “togetherness” had a big part in the way people lived, and “individuality” was situated within this context of “togetherness.” But I venture to suggest that there has been a disjunction, so that roadside trees are now managed according to the logic of “the public sphere” rather than the logic of “togetherness.”

Kai: I see. The “togetherness” between us–the “common” in community–has disappeared, and all that is left is “individuals” and “the public.”

Fujii: That’s right. And communities that can turn “the public” into “togetherness” should be able to maintain good roadside trees.
Photo :  the road in Den-en Chofu, Ota ward in Tokyo
Roadside gingko trees
that have been pruned so
as to have short branches
on the side facing the
houses, and long
branches extending over
the road in Den-en Chofu,
Ota ward in Tokyo

Kai: These days “togetherness” is something that doesn’t take shape without a conscious intention. I don’t think we can expect it to just happen unless we treat it as strategic teamwork.

Fujii: In places like Den-en Chofu there are avenues of splendid gingko trees with branches reaching out over the road, and I think this is a good example of the government officials responsible for greenery acting with the understanding of the local people. I believe that giving local municipal governments more and more discretion is the first step towards encouraging participation in “togetherness.” Apart from key routes, I don’t think that national highways need to be managed by the national government–we need further decentralization of political power.

For example, a moment ago we were talking about the cycle of people’s relationship to trees. Well, until quite recently all of the branches pruned from trees were carted off to the waste-processing center, where it was disposed of at great expense.

Kai: What a waste!

Fujii: Nowadays, a lot of local governments, including those in central Tokyo, are turning these branches into wood chips and returning it to the earth in the form of compost. But this material is produced every year, and so there is a surplus as the local governments are unable to use it all up themselves. What this means is that the circulatory system has still not been fully developed. One reason for this is our over-compartmentalized bureaucratic system, where the local, metropolitan and national governments all adhere rigidly to their narrow domains of responsibility, with no flexibility when it comes to accommodating one another. For example, there are several large parks in the Tokyo metropolitan area that are managed by the national government, so they could use a lot of woodchips if they created an area for storing them, or spread them around the parks.

Kai: It would be good if roads could be converted into commons in small units. As local places become venues for interacting with other people, we might even see local people getting involved with maintaining roadside trees.

Seeking amenity

Kai: My company is involved with cooperative housing, mainly in the Kanto region, and this cooperative housing could be described as an attempt to strategically create this kind of “togetherness.” Our starting point is the idea that in order to increase amenity for individuals it is more cost effective for these individuals to cooperate with the people around them.

For example, there are fifteen households living in Keyaki House in Setagaya (Tokyo). If everyone has to try to get along well with everyone else then it’s inevitably going to be quite a stifling environment. That’s why community building is ultimately a means to an end. In other words, by “working with others for one’s own sake” individuals can work together to gain a utility that they cannot achieve on their own–something that I call “community benefit.” This then allows them to share the kind of connection with nature that many people in the centers of cities have given up on.

Keyaki House is an apartment complex that was built on the grounds of an old house that had a small private forest. The owner wanted to keep a big, old tree from this forest, and so the new building was built around a single keyaki tree, which is shared by all of the residents.

The tree was moved thirty meters from its original location, which cost about 1.8 million yen. However, this cost was divided equally between the fifteen households, and so the burden for each household works out to only about 120,000 yen each. This level of expenditure is not too much to bear, and as a result everyone can enjoy the blessings of the keyaki tree on a daily basis. The front door of each apartment faces the keyaki tree, and so residents always pass the tree as they come and go each day. The living rooms are also on the northern side, the same side as the keyaki tree, and so the rooms don’t get too hot in summer. The area beneath the tree is a shared space, and so people are naturally drawn there, attracted by the pleasant space around the tree. Children playing there are watched over by everyone, and so parents don’t feel isolated as they bring up their children.

Fujii: It’s interesting to see how a plant, like a keyaki tree, can become the focus of amenity. From this example we can also see that although the term “cool spot” usually refers to broad areas of greenery or water, in fact even just a single tree can fulfill this role.

Kai: If there’s a big keyaki tree like that on the axis that the wind travels along as it passes through the house then you can really feel the cooling effect. The huge presence of a tree that is 250 years old–greater than any human existence–can create its own centrifugal force, drawing things towards it. I believe that it is the day-to-day interpersonal relationships mediated by the tree that lead to the formation of the community.

Fujii: In contrast to this example, the Tokyo that we have today is a result of the development of only the logic of the individual. One high-rise building has been built after another, blocking the flow of air. For example, the redevelopment at Shiodome has blocked the sea breeze, and apparently the temperature in Chuo Ward is now two degrees higher as a result.

If we are going to reconstruct the relationship between cities and greenery from its current state into a more ideal arrangement, then for a city like Tokyo we will need to have a massive plan. But it is possible to revive the degree of “togetherness” and foster a sense of “community,” and I feel that it is important that we start with this.

Kai: Communities arise as a result of individuals seeking amenity and then seeking a sense of having gained something worthwhile. At the same time, the day-to-day repetition of a mode of living that does not abandon these kinds of bodily sensations will inevitably result in urban environments that are gentle to living creatures. What happens next is that the community then draws out the possibilities of the urban environment–and the amenity that is drawn out in this way is then returned to the people in the community as sensory experiences. Well, ideally this is the kind of cycle that should arise, anyway.

Another concept behind the cooperative housing that I’ve been involved in planning is the question of how to create amenity by designing the “heat flow.” Our bodily sensations are ultimately relative, and so our sensations are determined according to the relationship between our bodies and the environment. Putting clothes on or taking them off is one way of adjusting this relationship. Buildings can also control the flow of heat via such things as the position of windows, insulation performance, and the way that air flows through the building.

Moreover, the type of environment in the grounds outside the building–whether there is a car park covered in asphalt right next to the building, for example, or whether the building is surrounded by a forest–determines the amount of heat exchanged between the building and the environment. This heat flow is connected to the environment of the adjacent block of land, the presence of roadside trees or parks, and even Tokyo Bay and the Chichibu mountain range in the distance–ultimately it extends to the relationship between you and the global environment. Bodily sensations are created through interaction with the entirety of all of these elements. If the sea breeze is completely blocked by building high-rise buildings as you said before, then the prevailing winds from the surrounding cool sinks will be disrupted, so that the urban climate itself starts to change.

Does high-performance housing provide amenity?

Fujii: These days there are a lot of advertisements promoting energy-efficient homes and eco homes. But do these incorporate greenery?

Kai: The idea behind the low CO2 housing advocated by industry and the national government is basically “Let’s build better houses by bringing together a whole bunch of high performance specifications, such as high performance air conditioners and solar panels, and building materials with good insulation and heat shielding properties.” But this only makes the inside of the house comfortable, and the discontinuity with the external environment remains unchanged. This kind of structure does not allow “togetherness” to emerge.

When we ask the question of which type of home is more attractive–these kinds of “specification oriented” homes with their assembly of high performance functions, or environmentally symbiotic homes that have been designed so that heat flows appropriately–we get remarkably different responses depending on whether we ask the sales staff of home building companies or customers who are choosing homes.

For almost all of the companies that build homes, specification-oriented homes are easier to sell. This is because saying a house is “multi-functional” means that it has a lot of selling points, which makes it easier to differentiate your offerings from those of the competition. However, users are not simply interested in the facilities inside the house. Another important element is the “surroundings” that one passes through on the way to the front door. Rather, to the extent that, unlike the inside of the house, the surrounding environment does not simply conform with your desires, once you have decided that you want to live in a particular area it is relatively easy to follow through with a decision to live there. Our attitudes towards price also differ depending on whether we are selecting a place to live or selecting a house as an object.

Fujii: Being attracted to a townscape or the surrounding atmosphere can also be described as a consequence of the function of “feelings” and “sentiment”–aspects that often tend to be disregarded. I feel that for modern humans bodily sensations have become dulled, and we tend to forget the “nature inside of us” as opposed to external nature. Overwhelmingly, the relative emphasis seems to be on rationality–on the “intellect” part of the intellect-emotion-volition triad.

Photo : Long row of keyaki
Long row of keyaki (Zelkowa serrata) trees in Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture (left) and Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture (right)

Kai: Awareness regarding amenity has not progressed beyond singular indices, such as the temperature settings for air conditioners. If you sit under a tree there is sufficient sunshade even if the temperature is 30 degrees, and you can feel the ruffling of the breeze and the subtle temperature difference due to the transpiration activity of the leaves–it really is delightful. This is not something that arises through the combination of various individual specifications, it is a more complex, unified sensation.

A society formed by intellect and specifications is based on the assumptions of abundant energy and advanced technology. Following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident earlier this year, surely now is the time for us to be reconsidering the way things should be.

Fujii: Humans have transformed the natural environment, particularly the natural topography, and I interpret the earthquake and tsunami as a massive retaliation by the earth against these changes that we have made. We’ve filled in depressions in the ground and built embankments of earth, and these places suffered enormous damage from the tsunami and from soil liquefaction due to the earthquake. We extended our residential areas to include places where we should never have been able to live if we followed the logic of nature, and we have forgotten how the original topography really was.

In fact, I am sure that if you were to stand in a depression in the ground you would intuitively sense that it was a dangerous place to be. But this sensitivity is lost when that depression is filled in and covered with roads and other structures and the urban environment expands beyond the human scale. Perhaps the moral of the story is that we commit huge mistakes if we put too much faith in the conscious world of “intellect” and rationality and fail to pay attention to the unconscious world of our intuitions and reflexes.

We can actually learn quite a lot from the unconscious world, as with the example of studying the eye movements of drivers that I was talking about earlier. Different countries create gardens and raise plants and trees in different ways, and this too signifies the different sets of these unconscious worlds manifesting as separate individuality.

The voice of “the nature inside”

Kai: I believe that we shouldn’t be trying to work out how to save energy simply as an extension to the trajectory that we have taken since the period of high economic growth, when we single-mindedly piled one specification improvement on top of another. Instead, we should realize that we have the option of radically changing the way that we live our lives. The movie An Inconvenient Truth sounded the alarm about global warming and was the focus of a great deal of attention a few years ago, but I’ve been disappointed by the way that when it comes to ideas for things we can do to help, the only suggestions can be summed up by the idea of changing the specifications for components or devices–“Let’s choose eco cars” or “Let’s switch to a new type of light bulb.”

In the future we will need to design happiness and prosperity, rather than simply seeking greater efficiency in achieving these kinds of conveniences. Designing happiness involves becoming directly engaged with interpersonal relationships and lifestyles. Are there elements of the local environment or culture that have been treasured over time? And are there other people that can treasure these things with you? If we don’t extend our design processes to encompass these kinds of questions then I can’t see how we can make our aging society a prosperous society.

This is not to say that we should return to a world of hardships and inconvenience, but rather that we need to revise our specifications once more, and take a long hard look at our relationship with the environment even as we make use of them. The Japanese people of today lack the ability to conceptualize space in such a way as to link technology with the environment. Unfortunately, I sense that the people that build houses, facilities, and the green environment are all disconnected, from each other as well as from the external environment, with everyone simply seeking better specifications from their isolated standpoints.

Fujii: One example of design that extends to an environment that mediates human relationships is a teahouse garden. Everything from the tearoom and the garden down to the teacups and the bamboo spoons is basically designed by the master. This is the spirit behind the proverb “Treasure every encounter for it will never recur.” It comes down to relationships with other people. They devote all their sincerity into making the garden a place for making connections with people. So I think that the ability to produce the kinds of designs that you are talking about really does exist within Japan. Within rural villages too, whether it be in the form of the houses or the form of the village itself, a kind of “good balance” has been constructed over the course of their long histories.

The interplay between outer nature and inner nature has been disrupted by our intellects. It would be good if we could recapture a sense of this once more.

Translated from “Midori ga toshi wo kaeru, kurashi wo kaeru,” SEKAI, September 2011, pp.209-216, ?2011 by Fujii Eijiro and Kai Tetsuro, Reprinted by permission of the author c/o Iwanami Shoten, Publishers.