A floating forest to bring a cool breeze to Tokyo Bay

December 02, 2011

By SOPHIE KNIGHT / Staff Writer

Imagine a lush forest: silent but for the chirping of birds flying through a dense canopy overhead, and damp, aromatic earth underfoot.

Now picture a mountain of incinerated trash, 12 million tons of what was once a toxic heap of rotting fish and vegetables, old clothes, broken furniture, diapers and all manner of discarded items.

In today's world it might be easier to imagine the former being razed to make room for the latter.

Yet, along the shore of Tokyo Bay, precisely the opposite is happening, courtesy of a greening project led by architect Tadao Ando.

The "Sea Forest," or "Umi no Mori," will transform 88 hectares of reclaimed land, a 30-meter deep mound of alternating layers of landfill, into a dense forest of nearly half a million trees.

The 12.3 million tons of waste from Tokyo's households was collected between 1973 and 1987.

"Umi-no-Mori (Sea Forest) will become a symbol of our recycling-oriented society through which Japan, a country that has a tradition of living hand-in-hand with nature, can make an appeal to the world about the importance of living in harmony with the environment," says Ando.

Transforming effluent into an ecological wonderland is no simple task. It will be a community-wide effort, one that is intended to teach people the value of greenery in an urban environment, as well as giving them a sense of ownership and responsibility for public space.

Not only is Ando asking for 1,000-yen ($12.80) donations from 500,000 individuals to help fund the project, he is also asking them to get their hands dirty.

Since 2007, around 10,000 volunteers have planted saplings cultivated from seeds by elementary school children.

Some of those who applied to help out this year lined up at Tokyo Teleport Station early on Nov. 13, an unusually warm day for this time of year.

After a short bus ride to the Inner Central Breakwater Reclamation Area, as the plot is known, the group was greeted by energetic volunteers, among them the appropriately named Yozo Wakabayashi, whose surname translates as "young forest."

After Wakabayashi demonstrated how to use one's body weight to shovel holes in a slope and stamp down the earth to keep the saplings stable, the volunteers got down to work with planting pine, oak and camphor. With 19 people, they made quick work of planting the 200 saplings. Having finished within an hour, they had plenty of time to soak up some rays and admire the views of Tokyo across the bay.

Although this year's session is over, there is still time to take part, since the planting process will continue into 2016. It will then take 30 years for the trees to mature. By that time, there will well and truly be a forest.

Publicized with the slogan, "Not for us, but for our children," it is a project with unusual foresight for Tokyo, where market-based land use means that buildings stand for an average of just 20 years before being torn down.

The Sea Forest, however, was originally planned as part of Tokyo's bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, which also involved solar-powered stadiums and zero-waste ambitions. Although the bid failed, the forest project was too compelling to give up on.

Ironically, the Olympic complex was to be built on one of the least "green" places in Tokyo: the bay. Once an open stretch of water, it is now cluttered with islands of reclaimed land that were created as early as 1910, the most famous of which is now the recreational district of Odaiba. The grass that covers many of the islands belies the fact that they are literally trash heaps.

Yet, rather than seeing the islands as simply garbage disposal sites, Ando sees them as an opportunity to reclaim Japan's traditionally symbiotic relationship to nature: "The Sea Forest will become a symbol of our recycling-oriented society, through which Japan can make an appeal to the world about the importance of living in harmony with the environment."

The architect also emphasizes that citizens will be rewarded for their contribution to the forest: not only will it become a refreshing retreat for stressed out city workers, it will also create a cool ocean breeze to sweep through the capital and cool its sweaty denizens in summer.

This oxygenated "wind tunnel," as the planners call it, should blow over to the fish market in Tsukiji, from where it will pass through Hibiya and Shinjuku parks via the Imperial Palace.

As part of Tokyo's ongoing reinvention as a green city, the planners also mention that an increase in tree-lined streets will help to further reduce the "heat island effect" that turns the capital into a furnace in late July through September.

Made by the people, for the people, this is one low-cost greening project that Tokyoites can be really proud of.

By SOPHIE KNIGHT / Staff Writer
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From left to right: Volunteers Yozo Wakabayashi, Eijiro Hayashi, Kyoko Takeshi, Naomi Hassaki and Tomoko Masuda pose after planting trees at the "Sea Forest" in Tokyo Bay on Nov. 13. (Sophie Knight)

From left to right: Volunteers Yozo Wakabayashi, Eijiro Hayashi, Kyoko Takeshi, Naomi Hassaki and Tomoko Masuda pose after planting trees at the "Sea Forest" in Tokyo Bay on Nov. 13. (Sophie Knight)

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  • From left to right: Volunteers Yozo Wakabayashi, Eijiro Hayashi, Kyoko Takeshi, Naomi Hassaki and Tomoko Masuda pose after planting trees at the "Sea Forest" in Tokyo Bay on Nov. 13. (Sophie Knight)
  • Volunteer Taeko Dotou demonstrates how to stamp down soil around freshly planted saplings. (Sophie Knight)
  • A satellite photograph of Tokyo Bay, with the "Sea Forest" plot highlighted in red. (Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

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