Report: Urban Sustainability Seminar in Tokyo

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    Urban Sustainability

    Japan Probe was invited to the Italian Chamber of Commerce’s “urban sustainability” seminar. Architects A and O wrote this report for us.

    It was a busy Friday afternoon at the Italian Institute of Culture in Chiyoda-ku. At first it was not quite clear how a chamber of commerce and urban sustainability are connected, and there were not many clues to that in the events’ posters. Despite the architecture themed topic, the crowd was largely comprised of dignitaries, reporters and businessmen -in suits and speaking Italian of course-.

    It was the opening speeches by Francesco Formiconi, the president of the Italian chamber of commerce in Japan and Domenico Giorgi, Italy’s ambassador, which set the stage for this whole event. Its purpose is to open the 2013 annual meeting of Italian chambers of commerce in Asia and south Africa, and set the mood for its three-day proceedings. Urban sustainability and business might seem like an odd pair, but according to the speakers -sporting only a single architect among them-, we should think otherwise.

    The change in East Asia’s economic profile seems to be of great interest to European economies, since according to Italy’s ambassador, East Asia is slowly but steadily moving towards more regional integration. With Japan entering the TPP (Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement ) and impeding tripartite negotiations between China, Japan and Korea on further trade agreements in May, “the overall picture of trade flows and investment will change”. If the connection to urbanism is still not clear, we are getting there. Since 2009 for the first time in human history, more than 50% of the Earth’s population lives in cities, and one should not forget that east Asia is home to the world’s largest urban regions, or “mega-cities”.

    Consequently, the regional integration of economies brings further questions about the geographic distribution of production, the mobility of workforce and the creation of economic zones that do not strictly coincide with national borders, but instead follow transit networks between urban cores. A very large percentage of the regional wealth is produced in ever expanding urban conglomerates, such as the Tokyo Metropolitan area or the Pearl River Delta in China (an articulated mega city with an estimated population of 50 million). The form that these cities will take will affect the lives of -literally- billions of people and shape the economies of the region. The point that the speakers tried -and managed- to make is that urban sustainability is an urgent matter, because it is a matter of money. We seem to be moving towards a future where we will inhabit one expansive, interconnected, transcontinental city.

    The main point that one could get out of the opening speeches was that, the complex systems dictating how cities function, expand and connect to each other will define our economic strategies -especially in the Asia-Pacific region-. While the 20th century answer to issues of urban livability was the protection and preservation of natural reserves in the periphery of the cities and the creation of open green spaces within them, for the 21st century we need to come up with integrated strategies. The urban environment cannot be separated from the natural any more, and there is a lot to be gained by addressing urban regions it as natural systems. Some of the main components of these systems are waste management, energy production and allocation and the compound problem of commuting of ever increasing populations.

    The speeches of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation manager Marta Marmiroli and American architect John Mader further explained the technical part of this challenge. For John Mader, the four principles that define a sustainable city are:

    -efficient intercity and intra-city transport. Cities should be at the same time more dense, more inter-connected and more liveable.

    -pedestrian friendliness.

    -resilient and robust land use (mixed use areas as opposed to separation of residential, commercial and industrial zones). Multifunctional urban cores.

    -incorporation of Nature in the form of Parks, reserves and even urban food production to reduce energy footprints

    On the other hand, Marta Marmilioni was more business oriented in her presentation, which focused on the experimental gradual implementation of a “smart grid” in Japan. Smart grids are networked systems handling de-certified energy production (eg by home solar collectors) and reallocation according to demand and with minimum loss. As cities keep growing, the traditional electricity grids seem increasingly incapable of dealing with fluctuations in production and demand of energy across huge areas. The possible success of this system would make ventures in green energy production in Japan even more profitable, since for the couple of years a “feed in tariff” system is already in place, paying hefty subsidies to investors.

    We would have liked presentations on waste management, water use and and high speed-rail but there was a certain lack of technocrats in the event, which was indeed more focused to matters of regional policy in connection to future city development. The seminar was programmed to close with a round table discussion by the Presidents of the Italian Chambers of Commerce from Asian and south African countries, that turned out to be a series of short speeches -no table, no debate and no q&a due to time constraints-. Many of them offered fascinating albeit short insights on urban strategies, as insiders and entrepreneurs in a multitude of Asian and African cities.

    Since the raison d’etre of this kind of gatherings is of course networking, the actual closure came with Campari cocktails at the Italian Institute of Culture’s lobby. Again, the thing that most stood out were the suits and people speaking in Italian, albeit this time with drinks in their hands. The proceedings of the 2013 annual meeting of Italian chambers of commerce will apparently follow this weekend, behind closed doors.

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