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There’s city and there’s nature. The two are distinct and their paths rarely cross. At least that’s the commonly held view. For many people, it’s a fact of life. The world’s inhabitants are increasingly gathering in massive urban centers, and the United Nation’s World Population Prospects 2019 report projects that 68 percent of people will live in cities by 2050, up from 55 percent at present.
The impact of this shift is being seen daily. Increased energy use in these densely populated areas leads to more pollution. This, in turn, contributes to climate change and calamities such as the ongoing Australian bushfires and the stronger typhoons that impacted Japan in 2019.
With more people being drawn to cities, finding a way to restore equilibrium to the relationship between humans and the planet is critical—and its something that visionary real estate developers, architects, and urban planners very much have on their minds. Two proposals presented as part of the Mori Art Museum (MAM) exhibition Future and the Arts are of particular interest when it comes to reconnecting people with nature and coping with climate change.

Building Life
With more than 37 million residents in the metropolitan area, Tokyo is the ideal place to share ideas on how to do this. But it’s not just the Japanese capital’s position as the world’s most populated city that puts it at the epicenter of urban planning. One of the most influential schools of thought in architecture was developed 60 years ago by a group of Japanese architects that included Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, Masato Otaka, and Fumihiko Maki.
Their manifesto, entitled Metabolism 1960: Proposals for a New Urbanism, comprises four essays:

■ Ocean City
■ Space City
■ Towards the Group Form
■ Material and Man

At the heart is the idea that cities can grow and expand in the same way as biological organisms. The third essay, “Towards the Group Form,” focused on flexible urban planning that could quickly adapt to the ever-changing city and the unpredictable needs that arise.
Otaka and Maki presented a concept for a redeveloped Shinjuku Station to demonstrate their approach, and a number of buildings exist in Tokyo today that resulted from this movement. These include:

■ Hillside Terrace (Daikanyama, 1967)
■ Nakagin Capsule Tower (Ginza, 1972)
■ Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Tower (Ginza, 1966)

The Metabolists also played a huge role in the architecture of the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka.

Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza, built in 1972 Photo: Kakidai (CC 4.0)

New Life
Fast forward to 2020 and you’ll find an updated take on Metabolism in MAM’s Future and the Arts exhibition. The first two sections—“New Possibilities of Cities” and “Towards Neo-Metabolism Architecture”—present a range of innovative approaches to bringing together cities and nature, as well as show how our view of what constitutes a city is evolving as our environment changes.
It is a follow-up, in a sense, to MAM’s 2011 exhibition entitled Metabolism: The City of the Future, the theme of which even today sounds like something from science fiction: buildings that behave like organisms. But as the current exhibition shows, what once seemed fantastical may already be working its way into our cities.
Highlighted projects and concepts include:

■ Masdar City: futuristic complex in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, by London-based Foster + Partners
■ Shanshui City: concept that attempts to find balance between society, urbanism, and nature by Beijing-based MAD Architects
■ Pod Off-Grid: low-energy, self-sufficient, sustainable waterborne community by Singapore-based Pomeroy Studio
■ Paris Smart City 2050: merging of nature and urban structures with strong renewable energy elements by Paris-based Vincent Callebaut Architectures
■ Oceanix City: floating community based on the UN’s sustainable development goals by Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group

A thread running through all these is adaptation to and harmony with the environment. The last two are of particular interest for how they carry forward the greenery trend seen in current Tokyo projects and implement the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Paris Smart City 2050’s Bamboo Nest Towers
Image: Vincent Callebaut Architectures

Going Green
Callebaut Architecture’s Paris Smart City 2050 takes green to the extreme. The French capital is well known in the environmental debate as the site of the UN’s 2015 Climate Change Conference (COP 21). At the end of the gathering, which ran from November 30 to December 12, a landmark agreement to combat rising temperatures was reached by 197 nations. To date, 187 of the 197 parties have ratified the Paris Agreement, and there has been one notable withdrawal: the United States.
Ahead of COP 21, the city of Paris itself commissioned a smart city concept to imagine how architects and real estate developers could tackle the problem of the urban heat island, a term applied to metropolitan areas where the average temperature is higher than that of the surrounding rural areas. The difference can be as much as five degrees Celsius.
One proposed solution is to bring more greenery back into cities. Because plants take in carbon dioxide, they can help lower the overall temperature while also reducing pollutants in the atmosphere.
Bringing greenery into the city landscape is a key point of many projects completed in Tokyo in recent years and of those now underway. But few have reached the level of what Callebaut proposes.
The developer collaborated with engineering company Setec Bâtiment to create prototypes for eight self-sustaining, high-rise towers that merge greenery with building structure.
And it’s not just for looks—the biological elements are a key part of meeting Paris’ target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050 and represent innovative thinking in the area of renewable energy. For example:

■ Mangrove Towers has a photo-sensitive electrochemical shell that converts sunshine to electricity.
■ Photosynthesis Towers has a bio-façade made of green algae that can produce biofuel.
■ Bridge Towers, which would span the Seine River, is designed to generate wind power.

All the towers of Paris Smart City 2050 are mixed use, combining residential, business, and commercial functions, just as do those of major Tokyo developments such as Roppongi Hills, Toranomon Hills, and the massive transformation now underway near Tokyo Tower and the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan offices in Azabudai.
While the extent to which Callebaut has envisioned the fusion of buildings and nature may appear fantastical and may not come to pass, the core goal of restoring greenery to urban life is a large part of today’s real estate developments. Its importance has also made it a key indicator in the Mori Memorial Foundation Institute for Urban Strategies’ annual Global Power City Index.

Image: Mori Building Co., Ltd.

Mori Building Co., Ltd. has been remaking Tokyo’s Minato Ward for decades using its Vertical Garden City model, in which a super high-rise opens to lots of greenery at the ground level while integrating all city functions and facilities—offices, residences, hotels, cultural facilities, shops, and restaurants—into the complex. The importance of greenery is more evident than ever in their latest undertaking: the Toranomon–Azabudai project. Here, natural spaces play a central role in the compo­sition of the development.
“This is opposed to the usual practice of putting buildings in first and then filling the remaining space with greenery,” Mori President and CEO Shingo Tsuji said. “By focusing on the natural elements first, Mori will create a calming atmosphere full of nature—a seamless urban oasis filled with trees, flowers, and waterscapes—that stretches across the Azabudai area.”
Callebaut’s proposed Paris of the future takes this concept to a new level through Neo-Metabolism structures that practically live and breathe. Green algae bioreactors integrated into the Photosynthesis Towers produce energy in much the same way as plants, while turbines in the center of the Bamboo Nest Towers generate wind power.

Oceanix City
Image: Oceanix–BIG Bjarke ingels group

US researchers Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss made news in October with the publication of a paper in the journal Nature projecting that rising sea levels could displace more than 150 million people by 2050. That’s more that three times the previous forecast, and 90 percent of the world’s largest cities will be vulnerable to rising waters by mid century. Much of Southern Vietnam may become submerged, the heart of Shanghai could be completely flooded, and Mumbai might all but vanish.
Global mean sea levels rose 11–16 centimeters during the 20th century, and another 0.5 meters is projected for this century. Kulp and Strauss estimate that one billion people occupy land that is less than 10 meters above high tide lines. Some 230 million live where the clearance is a mere one meter.
Their paper, entitled “New Elevation Data Triple Estimates of Global Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Flooding,” warns that “coastal communities worldwide must prepare them­selves for much more difficult futures than may be currently anticipated.”
If we return to the original Metabolism manifesto, we find that Kikutake included in the first essay, “Ocean City,” a blueprint for an independent, self-sufficient, floating community called Marine City.


More than half a century later, Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group has updated the idea with Oceanix City. Based on the UN SDG, this is a potential solution to the growing scarcity of land expected to result from rising sea levels in the 21st century. The floating community provides an artificial ecosystem that can accommodate 10,000 residents and be positioned in areas where land has been overtaken by, or is under threat from, rising sea levels brought on by climate change—especially tropical and sub-tropical regions.
“We believe humanity can live in harmony with life below water. It is not a question of one versus the other,” Oceanix Ltd. says of its floating city concept. “The technology exists for us to live on water, while nature continues to thrive under. Oceanix is trailblazing a new industry with blue technologies that meet humanity’s shelter, energy, water, and food needs without killing marine ecosystems.”
Similar to the mixed-use approach of current developments, Oceanix combines all functions of life into compact communities. The modular approach starts small with a two-hectare neighbor­hood that is home to 300 residents. Six of these neighborhoods are clustered around a central harbor to create a 12-hectare village of 1,650 residents. And six villages can be brought together to form a vibrant 75-hectare city of 10,000 that includes public squares, marketplaces, and cultural venues, as well as facilities for learning, fitness, and sports.
Another important use of the Oceanix concept is to quickly deploy housing to flooded coastal cities in the event of envi­ronmental disaster.

Future Habitat
While these projects may be merely conceptual at present, the ideas they explore—in one form or another—can guide the evolution of cities in a way that allows us to adapt to climate change, restore balance in our relationship with the environment, and build stronger, more sustainable business opportunities across a range of industries. And they tie into UN goals such as SDG 11 “Sustainable Cities and Communities” and 13 “Climate Action.”
As Joan Clos, secretary-general of the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development said: “In this unpre­­cedented era of increasing urbanization, and in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement, and other global development agree­ments and frameworks, we have reached a critical point in understanding that cities can be the source of solutions to, rather than the cause of, the challenges that our world is facing today. If well-planned and well-managed, urbani­zation can be a powerful tool for sustainable development for both developing and developed countries.”

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.