Limits of urban infrastructure have started appearing
In recent years, as symbolized by huge tide embankments against tsunami and sand control dams against landslide disasters, we have committed to creating more robust and stronger cities. The underlying idea is that human beings can control nature, or that controlling nature is good for human beings.
For example, in Japan, in the high economic growth period after the Second World War, development of infrastructure such as electricity, water supply systems, and sewage treatment systems has reached every corner of the country, and we have enjoyed its convenience.
Actually, such infrastructure is a system that allows us to live without interacting with nature. Moreover, we have tried to protect ourselves from nature by enhancing the system in a more robust and stronger manner.
It was believed that such technologies and development would secure urban sustainability.
However, as symbolized by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the associated nuclear power plant accident, we were made aware that, in reality, it is difficult for us to assume and control the power of nature.
In fact, urban infrastructure has been disabled by the many large scale natural disasters that have occurred in recent years. If such a situation is thrust upon the residents, it becomes difficult for them to survive.
Moreover, maintaining infrastructure, which was possible when the population was increasing and the economy was growing, has been becoming more difficult since we have entered the era of low economic growth and fewer children. This tendency is particularly noticeable in rural and depopulated areas. This could be seen as a representation of the limits of urban infrastructure.
Are human beings destined to be tossed about by nature in the end? I think that that idea itself is the problem. Nature is supposed to be something we can rely on.
In fact, people before the modern era had techniques to live in connection with, or coexist with, nature. Not only in ancient times, but even today, such techniques can be seen in communities in areas between mountains and plains or remote islands.
I believe that refocusing on and learning from wisdom to live in connection with nature, that is, traditional wisdom, will lead to genuine sustainability in cities today.
Traditional wisdom that remains in rural areas
For example, the sun and wind are surprisingly not taken into account in urban housing today. This is because all that is required is the use of lighting apparatus and air conditioning equipment.
As a result, more people think that lighting that stays stable all day long is more convenient than sunlight that comes in differently depending on the time of the day. This means that we tend to live in an artificial and compact space, instead of being connected with nature.
On the other hand, in communities in areas where traditional buildings remain, you can see that houses and farms are arranged by taking into account sunlight and airflow, and based upon them the direction a house faces, room layout, and locations of windows are decided.
In addition, there is a structure in which the boundary between inside and outside the house is vague and the outside environment is connected to the inside of the house.
Of course, nature is not always tender. In a fishing village where strong sea breezes blow and in areas close to mountains where gusty winds blow along valleys, in order to prevent such winds, trees are planted in the community or there are fences around each house.
This is wisdom used for flexibly blocking the wind instead of completely shielding the wind with a concrete retaining wall.
Moreover, there is a system not only for people to benefit from nature, but also for people to give back to nature.
For example, in the present era, kitchen waste is incinerated and excreta are treated and released to rivers and the sea. However, in earlier times, people used to return kitchen waste and human excreta to the earth as compost. There was a cycle in which people grew crops on land nourished with compost.
In addition, in present-day cities covered with concrete, rainwater passes through artificial pipes and is carried away without moistening the land. However, there used to be the traditional wisdom of letting rainwater return to and moisten the land, and of creating a water vein that people can use.
This means that the cycles of the sun, wind, nutrients, water, and the like that used to be naturally maintained have been lost today.
It is true that the system of modern society provides people with some kind of efficiency and convenience, but is an environment without cycles sustainable? Is it really efficient and convenient that, in order to maintain such an environment, we use electricity, chemical products, and concrete?
I think that we can learn a lot from traditional wisdom.
It is important to change our way of thinking and values
Of course, I am not saying that we, living in today’s world, should go back to the lifestyle of the Edo period or that the innovation of digital technologies is unnecessary.
In fact, we, the researchers who study traditional wisdom, use point cloud scanners combined with drones for environmental measurement and perform environmental simulation with computers based on various data for analysis.
As a result, we can easily visualize and model the traditional wisdom that has become tacit knowledge and has not been put into words even by local residents.
This means that it becomes possible to learn and understand, in a short time, the wisdom and systems cultivated by our predecessors over thousands of years. Knowledge and data acquired in this manner can be utilized for future urban development.
In this sense, technologies are leveraged by people and, depending on the orientation of our desire, the way technologies are developed will change.
On the other hand, no matter how many buildings we make that connect with nature, if the meaning and values of such buildings are not understood, an urban environment in which we connect with nature cannot expand.
For example, even in a house that was built taking into account day lighting and airflow learned from traditional wisdom, if you let the blinds down and leave the electric lights on all day long, or close all the windows and leave the air conditioner turned on, the traditional wisdom that has been learned cannot be enjoyed.
We tend to feel good about consuming energy and find value in a condition of remaining unchanged or unbroken.
I think, however, that genuine richness lies in enjoying changes in nature, finding beauty in aging, finding joy and curiosity in doing repairs and upcycles.
Such a sense of value will lead to resilience and sustainability of the city. In this sense, it is important for each of us to change our way of thinking and sense of values.
Actually, this should not be so difficult.
For example, since more people started working from home due to COVID-19 pandemic and people cannot endure the enclosed and stressful situation in the city, moving to rural areas and engaging in leisure activities such as camping in nature are becoming popular. After all, it is difficult for us to live in an environment where we are isolated from nature.
Compared to rural areas, infrastructure in the city will probably be continuously maintained and convenience will be continuously provided. Still, we will not abandon our way of living a life connected with nature.
Since we once thought that we could control nature by developing science and technology, it has seemed as though our desire to live lives connected with nature has been covered and concealed. However, in a sense, it is very possible that we will become more clearly aware of that desire and place value in it.
Rural areas will then play a major role.
First, rural areas will be one option of how to live for those residing in the city. For example, in the near future, it is highly likely that we will naturally have multiple residences in various locations, instead of moving.
In rural areas, we are more likely to regain an environment connected with nature, which is practically difficult in the cities.
For example, there is a strong possibility of realizing an off-grid system, not relying on urban infrastructure, in a rural area which has vast land, mountains, valleys and the sea, by utilizing natural energy such as solar and wind energy.
It will then be highly possible to create a cyclical environment like the one described above while using minimum energy.
It has been argued that areas which were depopulated due to the declining birthrate and concentration of the population in urban areas will be made compact for aggregation of infrastructure. However, leaving a land where people used to live and returning the land to nature will actually unbalance the natural ecological system.
The role played by virgin forest is completely different from that of forest which is located near a village and local people are involved in. From the perspective of supporting the richness of mountains, forests, and the sea, continuous and appropriate involvement of people in nature plays a major role.
I believe that, rethinking traditional wisdom, which is an accumulation of wisdom that connects us with nature, reconsidering our awareness, then constructing a new society will lead to sustainability of towns and cities where we live.
* The information contained herein is current as of February 2022.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.
Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.