Many things have changed since COVID-19 arrived in our lives. Our lifestyle has had a drastic shift. We are getting used to working from home, we go out less for dinner, we hardly travel abroad.
At the same time, many people have discovered the benefits of the quiet life in the suburbs, and the city centers are empty as they have never been before. From Tokyo to New York, passing through Milan, the big urban centers seem to have lost their appeal. The result is a trend of depopulation of big cities.
Data speaks clearly. Tokyo, one the most populated metropolises in the world, reached 14 million residents in 2019. But, since the onslaught of the COVID-19 crisis, it has registered a steady decrease of its population. Just in the four months since August 2020, the Japanese capital has seen 0.08% of its people leave the capital in favor of smaller towns and the countryside.
The same trend happened in New York, where, even before the pandemic, the United States Census Bureau registered a decrease in population. It is a trend which worsened as the coronavirus crisis began — from the beginning of the city’s state of emergency, almost half a million people left its richest quarters.
In Tokyo, to stem the new wave of infections, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pushed for more forceful policies on working from home, among other things, indirectly asking people not to come into the city center.
These points underpin one of the most important questions of our time: Once COVID is defeated and we direct ourselves toward a “new normal,” what will be the future of our big cities and urban spaces? How will our life and our lifestyle change?
We take a look at the work of world class architect and urban futurist Stefano Boeri (Italy), president of Triennale Milano, in an exclusive interview for JAPAN Forward. Boeri took the time to share his vision of how cities will change with the new normality.
He introduces concepts from one of his Japanese counterparts, Sou Fujimoto, whom we also look at to gain a better understanding of the options and answers available to metropolises around the world.
Both architects stand at the forefront of their fields in urban design for the future. Below is what we learned.
“The concept of a post-pandemic city accelerates the virtuous processes that would have occurred anyway. More generally, we must realize that we have probably reached the end of the paradigm of the modern city we know, based on a few great centers of aggregation of people, flows and collective life synchronized on home-work schedules, such as factories, general markets, railway stations, shopping centers,” said Boeri.
Boeri is the Italian architect who created the “Vertical Forest” in Milan — a new model of residential buildings that integrate nature into urban spaces, and that has become famous all over the world.
In particular, he commented on how neighborhoods would become the heart of life in the future city, rather than the larger metropolises that we know now.
“Coming to terms with the crises that climate change has caused, the time has come to rethink the concept of cities and metropolises in a completely different scenario,” he said.
“It is important now to return to experience urban spaces following the logic of the self-sufficient neighborhood — certainly not referring to the medieval village, but to a metropolitan reality able to connect the cities and small neighboring centers in a logical way, through autonomous areas. Cities must become transnational and archipelago metropolises,” he added.
Interestingly, Boeri points to how Tokyo already has this dimension of small centers inside a larger city.
“Tokyo is already an archipelago-metropolis. The goal will be to make its districts self-sufficient and introduce green surfaces as the ‘common sea’ of this archipelago,” he said.
“We can imagine, more than ever before, relocating to urban life in order to guarantee ourselves a strong relationship with nature. Nature is no longer a sphere that we think is out of the city, out of homes, out of our bodies. Rather, since a small virus has been able to realize an osmosis among all individuals of our species, [cities are] a vital sphere that have proven to be constitutive of our daily life,” Boeri concluded.
Green Energy and Smart Cities
From Boeri’s perspective as an Italian and European, respecting nature and the ecosystem and integrating them into urban spaces seems to be the new guideline for cities of the future.
In Japan, too, new models for urban development have been brought to light. The case of Toyota Motor Corporation’s “Woven City” is one such experiment. Toyota launched the idea to create a new type of modern city at the foot of Mount Fuji, powered by clean energy, like hydrogen fuel cells.
Toyota’s model is not an isolated case. In a recent study published by the National Institute for Environmental Studies, Japan is proposing a new city model called the “SolarEV City” that integrates rooftop PV photovoltaic solar energy technology with electric vehicles. The use of these two technologies could reduce the CO2 emission by 54-95% by 2030 and, at the same time, save costs.
Digitization has been the key point for a project developed in Aizuwakamatsu, a city in Fukushima Prefecture, which has become famous for a new model smart city designed with a digital platform. Called the Smart City “Digital Information Platform,” the system gathers information about utilization trends of local services. The data is then analyzed to improve service performance and find innovative solutions to social and economic problems, like cutting energy costs or to monitoring the progress of children in school.
‘Hybrid’ and ‘Choices’ are Keywords for New Interior Design
So what do exponents from Japan have to say about the next frontier of urban design?
Fujimoto speaks of the need for hybrid office-homes that have multi-functional uses with regards to work and daily lifestyle. “Architecture is a place for society, so we have to build spaces to affect our mindset and lifestyle,” he said, talking about how cities might be a cause of climate change.
He aptly summarized, “The future is choices.”
Currently, Fujimoto is involved in the design of the Torch Building in Tokyo, which is set to become the highest skyscraper in the city. He mentions how the design is changing to make less space for offices and more hybrid space that can accommodate different potential uses.
He is no stranger to making buildings with hybrid functions, including blending urbanity and greenery.
From trees that have started to inhabit buildings to a digitally integrated lifestyle, the borders between outside and inside are less and less clear or defined. The flexibility to mix different needs and spaces seems to be the way that will take us toward the future.
“Japan has a great tradition of integrating life with nature,” said Fujimoto in a webinar sponsored by the International House of Japan.
He continued: “We can see it in the small garden that exists in front of every building in Tokyo or the respect and integration between human beings and nature that is typical of Hokkaido’s architecture. What I see is a new design in which spaces are conceived as multifunctional and the new buildings have to be creative elements where people can live, meet, and work at the same time. Blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, giving light feeling to its inhabitants it’s my vision for a new interior design.”
Ultimately, Boeri believes nature and urban spaces must be integrated into each other. Fujimoto believes that architecture and society affect each other in a relationship of exchange. Together, they leave us reflecting on the fact we have changed from the pandemic and this will be reflected in our future urban spaces.
Mariko Azuma contributed to this article.
Author: Stefania Viti