Sweltering Tokyo tries to go green

Posted: 28 July 2004

Author: Justin McCurry in Tokyo

Cast your gaze in the right direction and you could be standing in the middle of a rice paddy or a rose garden. But glance upwards and the idyll is shattered. This is not a horticultural show, but a tiny oasis of verdant calm in central Tokyo.

A view of Tokyo's skyline from City Hall. Photo: World Photo Gallery
A view of Tokyo's skyline from City Hall. Photo: World Photo Gallery
A view of Tokyo's skyline from City Hall. Photo: World Photo Gallery
In a country where the cement never sets, high-rise building developments are turning Tokyo into a mass of overheating concrete. The buildings - and the hot air spewed out by the air conditioners used to cool them - are exposing Tokyo's millions of gasping citizens to ever higher temperatures. The city centre, according to meteorological data, has never been hotter. On Tuesday, the temperature soared to a record 39.5C (103F), sending 48 people to hospital with heatstroke.

Even the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, admitted the weather had left him hot under the collar. "I am not a fan of air conditioners, but I'm finding it difficult to sleep without one at the moment," he said in his weekly email bulletin.

The heatwave is expected to continue until the end of the month, with the temperature hovering around 31C, well above the July average of just over 25C.

Demand for power has shot up to record levels as Tokyoites turn up the air conditioning. Next month, they will be asked to douse the streets with water.

Greening the city

But that will bring only temporary respite. The Tokyo government believes the long-term solution is to cover the buildings with trees, plants and grass. Under regulations passed two years ago, greenery must cover at least 20 per cent of every new, large private building and 30 per cent of all public buildings.

Trees and plants apparently stop some of the heat from penetrating the buildings below and absorb air pollutants.

Mohri Garden, Roppongi Hills complex, Tokyo.
Mohri Garden, Roppongi Hills complex, Tokyo..
Mohri Garden, a traditional Japanese garden spanning 4,300 square metres at the Roppongi Hills complex, Tokyo.
More than 39 hectares (97 acres) of new gardens have been added in the past two years, according to officials, but the fine for disobeying the regulations is just 200,000 yen (£992), much less than the cost of installing a garden worth showing off.

"The greening of the 23 wards of Tokyo is not proceeding too well," Masami Tokyofuku, a metropolitan official, said. "There is very limited space for other types of greenery, particularly in Tokyo, which is why we are focusing on rooftops."

Rooftop garden with a view of Tokyo at the Keyakizaka Complex, Roppongi Hills.
Rooftop garden with a view of Tokyo at the Keyakizaka Complex, Roppongi Hills.
Rooftop garden with a view of Tokyo at the Keyakizaka Complex, Roppongi Hills.
Officials say the initiative needs time, and have set a target of 1,200 hectares by 2015. They say the effects of filling rooftops with trees and shrubs are known, but have yet to be quantified.

The greening of Tokyo's most fashionable corporate rooftops has brought dividends to their owners, some of whom charge the public for snatching a few minutes in the shade of a tree.

One of the best examples is the 1,300 square metre garden at the trendy Roppongi Hills business and entertainment complex. As killifish swim in the pond and rice plants sway in the breeze, it is hard to believe the garden was built directly above a multiplex cinema - except that it is still very, very hot.

Justin McCurry is a Foreign Correspondent for The Guardian.logoThis article was first published in The Guardian, (Saturday, 24th July 2004). All rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission.

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