Archives for posts with tag: economics

Cross-posted from Volume 

The Cycle of Japan is an ongoing lecture series at the Academy of Architecture in Amsterdam that is exploring what the Netherlands can learn from Japanese urban practice. Edwin Gardner kicked off the series with a talk on February 14th. His lecture was a deeply poetic and psychogeographic meditation on the nature of cyclical time in Tokyo, and its effect on the city’s built environment.

Tokyo

Edwin Gardner is a theorist, architect and cofounder of Monnik, a Dutch research collective. He was in Tokyo to put together Still City, an alternative guide to the city. There, he met and did workshops with various artists, designers, and other urban explorers during a mentally stimulating and physically exhausting two-month stay.

Gardner presented his thoughts in the style of retrospective diary entries. Like his meditations on Tokyo, the entries were presented non-chronologically. He began by establishing the familiar. In the Netherlands, and the West in general, there is a notion that progress is equal to growth: an increase of buildings, of cities, of developed square metres. This means that in crisis, expansion mechanisms come to a halt, and the economy is effectively paralyzed.

Standard linear growth scenario

In Japan there is more of a cyclic notion of growth. Construction and demolition, growth and non-growth are essential elements of the same structure. As its economy has not experienced growth for two decades, Japan is indeed a post-growth urban society. The country is in fact demographically shrinking.

The idea of cyclic time in Japan versus linear in the West is conceptually clear, but is hard to grasp and apply to the realm of the pragmatic. Instead, we quickly get to deep philosophical meditations on space and time that are very interesting, but not too useful. Gardner puts it straight: “Tokyo doesn’t grow or shrink. But what does that mean?”

Japan GDP Growth Rate

Before delving into Tokyo, Gardner brought us back to the Netherlands, where space and time are more stable. Generally, Western cities are essentially timelines. The progression of medieval, organic and compact centres, followed by more organized expansions of inner city suburbs, with newer ones surrounding those, followed by 1960s modernist towers and American-style suburbs in the periphery root us in a linear progression of stable time as expressed in space.

This type of stability is not present in cyclical Tokyo, as reflected in the city’s built form.

Using a variety of examples, Gardner demonstrated instances of cyclical time in Japan’s biggest city. For one, the average age of a person in Tokyo is 40, while the average age of a building is 26: people live to see their city change. Gardner explains that this is because the Japanese put more emphasis on the land itself, rather than the buildings on the land. Houses are treated like cars. The newer they are, the more valuable. With use, their value depreciates. Houses are built with their demolition written into their contracts. Therefore, there is constant re-building. In Tokyo, there are temples that are younger than communications towers. This recurrence of things, rather than a linear progression in space, provides stability.

Tokyo Megalopolis

Gardner’s lecture was enhanced by the simultaneous presentation of large-format aerial footage of Tokyo. The footage is hypnotic, panning over the city’s endless horizons and periodically focusing on specific buildings, monuments, and intersections. Tokyo is enormous. A city within a metropolitan region of 35 million, 4 hour commutes are common. The undulating aerial views illustrated both the enormity of the place, and the difficulty of grasping the concept of a city that is constantly rebuilding itself in endless growth and decay. Tokyo, abuzz with traffic, appears otherwise motionless. It is a city that is simultaneously still and dynamic, “a starry sky, twinkling/a city of continuously regenerating cells”.

In terms of cyclical time’s application to economic and architectural pragmatism, Tokyo’s low average building age and constant de/re-construction translates to a housing market that can quickly react to demographic shifts. Recently, there has been a rise in households comprised of singles and couples with no children. These two categories currently make up 40% of Tokyo’s population. As a result, the demand for apartments under 20 square metres has risen. The city of simultaneous growth and decay provides a built environment that can quickly adapt to reflect this new demographic reality.

Tokyo

While the lecture was a deeply engaging, poetic and psychogeographic meditation on time and space in Japan, it provided relatively few practical examples of how the Netherlands can learn from Japanese urban practice.

Gardner’s talk, however, provided the space for a deep (re)consideration of how our notions of time and space effect our cities and our economies. To widely acknowledge the possibility of simultaneous growth and non-growth is the first step in include it into our consciousness and practices as we continue to build and densify cities in the Netherlands. The notion of a functioning economy, despite crisis, is also powerful. (Despite official positions, you’ll know this intuitively in cultural scenes’ abilities to thrive within times of economic trouble.)

Gardner also referenced the concept of the ‘circular economy’, and the challenge of our society’s transition toward that model. The circular economy reflects a natural system that reuses its waste and values diversity. There is no “end” of a product’s life cycle, rather a constant reuse of materials – the cradle to cradle model.

Tokyo Subway control room

To be clear, establishing a circular economy would not be a case of simply adopting the Japanese notion of cyclical time. It is a radical economic transformation that would mean a shift from dependence on fossil fuels toward renewable energy, a transition that Japan, despite its cyclical notion of time, has also not made huge advancements with.

Be sure to join us at the next installment of the Capita Selecta Cycle of Japan Series on February 21st for Moriko Kira’s lecture and more in-depth investigations of Japanese urbanism and its application to the Netherlands. The lectures are open to the public and take place at the Academy of Architecture in Amsterdam, Waterlooplein 213. All lectures are in English and start at 20:00. Admission is free.

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One thing that I really learnt on my last-Autumn travels to north-west Europe was that cities are inescapably market-places.

That is their primary function and social purpose, manifested in their built form. They are gathering spots where people can exchange goods and services. We can look at the history of cities, and in their DNA see that the world’s biggest are river- or ocean-side ports, a phenomenon geographers refer to as “break and bulk points”.  Modern cities are often at the shores of rivers of a different sort: highways and traffic corridors, where routes between several major cities converge.

Of course, the magical elements of unpredictable urbanity follow from market-cities, but these are only happy coincidences. A city is about dollars and cents. There is no town without a money-town. $ $ $ and all that.

This sort of irked me on my travels. I grew frustrated that the only thing I could do in each European city I visited was buy things and food, essentially. This is probably an obvious fact to most — but my romantic notions of the city and urbanity fogged the economic realities of the places I visited. I grew tired of only interacting with people over dollar exchanges — it felt inauthentic, ungenuine, not conducive to real connections.

The Really Really Free Market is perhaps a solution to the modern $$$-City.

It can be stripped down to its tagline: “No money. No barter. No trade. Try a new economic model: sharing!”

And, according to its organizers, it is “basically, its a bazaar, a celebration, and a community space for sharing- where people bring what they have to give, and take what they need. Kind of like a potluck, but for goods, services, skills, ideas, smiles”.

I love this concept.

There is an idea circulating these days that there is in fact abundance in the world, and it’s the political/social/economic structures that cause inequality and poverty, not a lack of resources.

Simply put, there is no real need to buy everything. There are so many goods and services lying fallow in our city’s neighbourhoods — there just needs to be a place, a system, to activate this surplus, and re-distribute that abundance.

The third iteration of the Really Free Market in Halifax (following successful stints at the Khyber and George Dixon Centre), is planned for August 12, from 11am to 3pm at the Bloomfield Centre. It’s great that it’s become a semi-regular thing, but, for this “revolutionary” economic model (i.e., sharing) to really change the way we interact with our cities — making them less of a money-market, and more of a social gathering place — is to make this a regular thing, dedicate space to it, rely on it more and more while buying less and less. We already have channels of communication that are facilitating this movement: craigslist and kijiji free sections, free-cycle websites – this is great, and we can build on it: such as a city officially accepting this economic model into its planning, its bureaucracy and systems.

It’s a fantastic idea that will undoubtedly spread throughout the world as we face the realities of depleting resources and the inevitable consequences  of years of social-environmental neglect.

Plus — I designed the flyer for the event ! I based the type on the beautiful, old and rusty Bloomfield Centre sign, and the building featured on the front is the iconic view of the Centre from Agricola and Bloomfield streets.


See you there!

August 15, 2012,  UPDATE!

Turns out, there’s now a weekly Really Really Free Market, in Toronto! Every first Saturday of the month, at Campbell Park, in Toronto’s west-end. This is surely the first steps toward permanent Free city infrastructure.

See you there, when I’m there!

Though the concept of a ‘global city’ is debated, there undoubtedly exists a group of ‘alpha‘ cities that exert a certain cultural and economic influence over the rest of the world.

The world holds these first-order cities, London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, etc, to a certain set of cultural expectations. Famous for hundreds of years, they evoke a very established and clearly defined image, even to those that have never visited them. Through famous depictions in literature, film, photography and visual art, these cities exist as strong identifiable images in the consciousness of the global public.

But what about the second order cities? Cities like Lyon and Manchester? Compared to their alpha-neighbours Paris and London, these cities evoke a much weaker image. Paris’ Eiffel tower and grand boulevards, London’s Big Ben and rainy, winding streets lack an equivalent in Lyon and Manchester in the global consciousness. The lack of an international identity, however, by no means indicates that these cities lack culture. You can be sure that Lyon, Manchester and other ‘second order’ cities have their own extremely rich histories, architectural traditions, urban lifestyles, cultural atmospheres and approaches to planning and transportation management – equally as rich as their first-order counterparts.

I want to suggest that since nobody is holding them to any expectations, ‘second order’ cities allow for a more authentic form of experience for visitors. These cities can speak for themselves, as opposed to having to live up to an identity that precedes them in literature and film.

Obviously, this phenomenon depends on one’s own geography. Those from France, UK and surrounding countries probably know more about Lyon and Manchester than folk from North America, and would thus be able to speak meaningfully about their culture: lifestyle, urban form and architecture. Montreal, itself a second order city, is surrounded by many other second order cities: Toronto, Chicago, Halifax, etc. Despite their lack of global identity, these cities evoke extremely rich images of culture and urban form in our (people from Montreal, Toronto and the Eastern seaboard in general) minds. To the global audience, however, these cities evoke no image at all.

I look forward, and encourage you all, to visiting these second-order cities. With no expectations, I will be able to truly experience these cities as they reveal themselves.