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Sustainable city: is Tokyo ready to make peace with its rivers?

Many cities around the world are rediscovering their rivers. Vancouver, Hamburg and Chicago are emblematic examples where urban planning is being revitalised around rivers, lakes and ports.

A place at which 4 large rivers converge (Arakawa, Sumidagawa, Edogawa and Tamagawa), meshed by more than 100 rivers and canals under its asphalt and neon lights, Tokyo is built on water but has long ignored this natural heritage.

From a city of water to concrete everywhere


The economic development of the city, formerly called Edo (between 1603 and 1867), and its identity were built on water. The goods arrived in the city of Edo from all over Japan by sea. They were then transported to inland regions using the Ieyasu waterway network. Edo prospered along the waterways to become a vibrant city with more than one million inhabitants

But the role of the water gradually disappeared as it developed into a modern 20th century metropolis. The first rupture was the severe earthquake of 1923, when reconstruction was planned according to western building styles; the second was the destruction of the city during the Second World War. Above all, Tokyo definitively turned it back on water with the 1964 Olympic Games, by building highways directly over the rivers and through urban expansion, pollution, etc. Already degraded over the years by industrial and household waste, the quality of the city’s water suffered with the installation of concrete posts and construction fill, preventing the use of navigable waterways by many merchant boats. The only positive feature during this phase of modernisation was the installation of a sophisticated wastewater recovery system!

Toward the rebirth of rivers


The premises of the evolution  happened in the 1970’s when the effort was spent on ecological improvement of waterways. The Tama River, which is 168 km long and enters in the Tokyo Bay, has undergone a real but long metamorphosis. In 1969, it was classified as a protected natural area. Actions have been taken to improve water quality and sustain fish reproduction. A great number of species of fishes and birds have come back.

But, in the metropolis of Tokyo, the problem is not financial in fact. It lies in the indifference of a large number of the city’s 37 inhabitants and even the government for the aquatic environment. In the 1980s, the place of the rivers in the city is reconsidered, as much by the inhabitants as by the administration. The city has provided commercial tourist navigation service and the urban planners integrated Tokyo’s canals to their projects. Attempts have been made to reconnect Tokyo with its seafront, notably with the project to restore the land of Odaiba in the 1980s. Two artificial islands have been created in the bay of Tokyo.

New perspectives?


With the approach of the Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Tokyo in 2020, opinions in favour of giving water a better role are being heard. Among the emerging projects: there is an ambitious plan to demolish the elevated highway of Nihonbashi and transform it into a road tunnel under the river. The city also plans to increase river transport with certain environmental benefits.

The new Sea Forest Waterway created for the occasion is confronted by the problem of the poor water quality of the bay of Tokyo, and the heritage of centuries of polluted navigable waterways…

Source: The Guardian


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