A history of Tokyo: What can the world's largest city teach us about building sustainable megacities?

Harquebusiers and Samurai re-enact a battle scene during a festival in 2003. Image: Getty.

A major campaign, “Cool Japan”, is underway to promote the nation as a “cultural superpower”. As part of a resurgence of interest in the Edo era (the name for Tokyo between 1603-1868), we want to suggest that “Edo Japan is Cool.”

Today, the Japanese have an insatiable appetite for all things Edo. This goes deeper than the daily long lines outside the Edo-Tokyo Museum or the very popular historical dramas on TV every Sunday evening. Azby Brown, author of Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, believes current anxieties about the state of the world are driving interest in the Edo experience.

At the beginning of the Edo period, Brown argues, Japan faced ecological collapse from deforestation, erosion and watershed damage. New conservation practices were introduced in response to this crisis and to promote Satoyama landscapes. This brought about a sustainable interaction between nature and humans.

Azby Brown explains the lessons of the Edo period for sustainable living today.

This is supported by Conrad Totman, author of The Green Archipelago. Totman argues that the Edo government (Bakufu) responded to these ecological threats by introducing new technologies. Complemented by a combination of social and cultural value changes, this led to Edo becoming a sustainable city.

So what lessons can growing, developing-country cities learn from Edo?

Edo’s global relevance

With a population of 38m, modern Tokyo is 13m people larger than the world’s second-largest city, Delhi. While Tokyo’s population is predicted to decline slightly, Delhi’s is still growing – and the two cities will be the same size in the next 15 years.

In 1721, Edo was also the world’s largest metropolis with a population of around 1m. The next-largest city was London with 630,000 people.

London’s growth was limited, in part, because it couldn’t efficiently dispose of sewage. This problem wasn’t solved until the invention of Victorian sewerage pipes. Edo dealt with this problem by collecting and disposing of night soil.

The intensity of Edo’s agriculture gave the city a crucial advantage. Rice farming required smaller plots of land than grain or animal husbandry, so it could be closely woven into the fabric of the city. This, in turn, reduced the effort and cost of transporting night soil.

Agriculture also buffered flooding from typhoons, giving the city a clean and stable water supply. As for food, such was the primacy of urban agriculture, fruit and vegetables were named after the Edo suburbs known for producing them.

The first lesson from Edo was therefore to develop and maintain a unique home-grown technological solution to urban life.

The traditional sento, or public bath house, promotes sustainable water use as well as communal values. Image: Rosewoman/Flickr/creative commons.

In addition, efficiency was central to the Edo economy and daily life. Rather than have a bath in each house, co-operative bathing in a sento became an essential place for socialising, while saving on water and firewood for heating. Clothes were maintained and mended, ceramics repaired. Whole industries were built around recycling and resource recovery.

The people of Edo understood the meaning of a zero-waste society well before the term was invented. Edo teaches us the value of looking carefully at planning solutions that are developed in a particular context. It also shows us that, for cities such as Delhi, West is not necessarily best.

Ethical but not utopian

The second lesson relates to the ethical framework of the citizens of Edo. Their worldview was informed by an ethic of life and interaction.

Brown suggests that the people of Edo understood the “big picture". They recognised that they needed to run their city, economy and lives within the limits of the natural world. This is something most people struggle with today.

We live as if we are free to ignore ecological limits and planetary boundaries. For most people today, a life lived within limits easily equates to impoverishment and austerity. This constrains our imagination of what it may be like to live in a constrained economy, as in Edo Japan.

Edo was by no means a utopia. It had a rigid class structure of samurai, peasant farmer, artisan, merchant and untouchables. You were born into your position and could not move between classes. The samurai lived in gated communities and the average merchant or artisanal family lived in cramped conditions with few possessions.

Yet, knowing your place in the community extended out to knowing your place in the city and the natural world. This was a key mechanism to help citizens understand the right thing to do and live an ethical life through codes of honour, loyalty and a sense of duty.

While this might jar with our modern values, it raises the question of what rights, if any, we would be willing to give up. And what responsibilities would we be willing to accept for a truly sustainable future?

Citizens of Edo knew their place in the community and in the natural world. Image: Brendan Barrett/Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Edo and the future of Japan

The third and final lesson derives from a dystopian prediction of our ecological predicament.

One of the most forceful advocates for reassessing Edo is the Japanese author Eisuke Ishikawa. In his 1998 book, 2050 is the Edo Period, he argues that Japan is undergoing a “slow crash”.

The book traces the decline of Japan through the memories of an old man in 2050. Society has declined and aged. The economy has stagnated for decades. In 2050, according to Ishikawa, 99 per cent of the population will be living rural lifestyles and the big cities of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka are derelict.

In the West, this dystopian Japanese vision of the future is paralleled by James Howard Kunstler’s “long emergency” and his engaging novel, World Made by Hand. Kunstler depicts small-town US after the collapse of the global economy and modern society. It is a world where we have to live with less – no electricity, no running water, no health services, no government and so on.

Interestingly, Kunstler writes about Japan in his blog and comments on the nation’s two-decade economic malaise, as the population shrank and its debt climbed. He suggests that all this is “getting to them [the Japanese] in a deep, major way” and “they perhaps secretly long to get back to something like an older traditional Japanese society” – the Edo era.

It would be impossible for Japan to revert to that time, but we can profit vastly from Edo’s experience. In the words of Azby Brown:

The challenge that faces us now is to redesign our production and our consumption so that they share the virtues of their Edo-period counterparts, to link our sophisticated technical systems to the kind of mentality that those prescient forebears displayed.

As the Japanese government promotes a “soft power” campaign of “Cool Japan”, it should embrace a larger and more nuanced view of Edo’s contribution to human progress.The Conversation

Brendan Barrett is research fellow, and Marco Amati an associate professor of international planning in the Centre for Urban Research, at RMIT University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.