November 30, 2007


Japan's 'Top Eco-City' Contest Providing a Path to a Sustainable Communities

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.63 (November 2007)

Every year since 2001, municipalities and cities have been competing for the title of Japan's Top Eco-City. The aim of the contest, which is scheduled to continue for ten years, is to encourage the creation of sustainable local communities in the country. Japan's contest was modeled on an eco-city contest in Germany, with a view to creating a Japanese version of Freiburg, the German city that was awarded title of the "Top Eco-City" in 1992.

See also: The 3rd 'Top Eco-City' Contest Held in Japan by the National Eco-City Contest Network

Background and Goal of Japan's Top Eco-City Contest

The Top Eco-City Contest is sponsored by the National Eco-City Contest Network, which consists of 12 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations (NPOs), and two cooperating organizations. The Network is led by an incorporated NPO, the Citizens Environmental Foundation (CEF), which acts as the Network's secretariat.

In 1996, the CEF set up the Eco City Study Group and launched the project to start a contest in Japan. And in 2000, at CEF's suggestion, the National Eco-City Contest Network was formed, then composed of ten Japanese NGOs and NPOs. In the same year, the Network held seminars at six locations across Japan with the organizer of the German Eco-City contest and officials from two German cities that won the Top Eco-City award, Hamm and Eckernfoerde. With the cooperation of 45 municipal governments, a tentative pre-Top Eco-City contest was held in the spring of 2001, and the first official Top Eco-City Contest was held in November that year.

The objective of the contest is to encourage the building of sustainable local communities. By having municipalities compete for the prize, the contest organizers hope to create more models of a top eco-city for local communities in Japan. It is also expected to have ripple effects, such as providing NGOs and local communities more opportunities to exchange information, encouraging residents to be involved in environmental activities in their regions, and promoting partnership among NGOs and municipalities.

How the Contest Works

The contest is targeted at all cities, towns, villages, and Tokyo's 23 wards in Japan. Participating municipalities answer a questionnaire on their environmental status and activities, and then are interviewed, if required. Based on these results, final evaluations are made.

The questionnaire consists of the following 15 evaluation items (about 80 questions):

  1. Local government Agenda 21, basic environmental statutes and ordinances, basic environmental plan
  2. Establishment of an environmental management system
  3. Information disclosure
  4. Initiatives for environmental activities
  5. Exchanges with other local governments
  6. Programs for improving policy-making ability and integration of environmental departments
  7. Citizen empowerment and partnerships
  8. Education to build eco-towns
  9. Conservation and restoration of natural environments
  10. Healthy water environments
  11. Creation of landscapes and parks that match the natural climate and terrain
  12. Ecological transportation policy
  13. Global warming prevention
  14. Waste reduction
  15. Promotion of environment-friendly industries.

The title of the Top Eco-City is awarded to any municipality that satisfies the following requirements:

  1. Its total score is the highest of all participating municipalities.
  2. Its total score is at least 70 percent of the maximum score.
  3. At least three items of the above 15 items are scored 90 percent or higher of the maximum score.
  4. Less than three of the above 15 items score 50 percent or lower of the maximum score.

The method in which participating municipalities fill out the questionnaire is an efficient way to collect best practices and analyze results, as well as to grasp the cross-regional picture of the environmental administration of municipalities. After the contest, the organizers send participating municipalities a compilation of the advanced cases and a report in which scores, rankings, and analysis results are summarized, and also awards municipalities with excellent achievements and advanced projects.

Municipalities can benefit from participating in this contest, because they learn about other municipalities' activities, effectively publicize their own efforts that are recognized in the contest, and create opportunities to exchange information with local NGOs. Also, regional exchange meetings are held nationwide with the aim of sharing information and knowledge obtained through the Top Eco-City Contest in order to study the most effective environmental policies employed by municipalities, and also establish strong partnerships among municipalities and NGOs.

Efforts by the City of Tajimi

Tajimi is a city with a population of about 110,000, located in the south of Gifu Prefecture. The city has participated in the contest from the beginning, ranked top in the third contest, and occupies a spot among the top rankings every year. Let's take a close look at the city's efforts.

The city's system of holding policy-making hearings was highly evaluated in the contest. Under this system, the officials of divisions in charge of the projects and programs included in the city's master plan for the coming year meet with representatives of the planning, personnel, finance, and environment divisions before finalizing the annual budget.

Also, each division prepares a checklist to assess the environmental impacts of projects and programs using a scoring method. Based on the results of the completed checklist, hearings are conducted regarding questions such as, "Are there any missing items related to the environment?" "Can the project be improved to be more environment-friendly?" "Would it be possible to include this kind of activities?" The checklist is based on 16 items described in the city's basic environmental plan, including items about forest preservation, waste reduction, the preservation of cultural assets, the prevention of global warming, and environmental education. In addition to assessing the environmental impacts of projects, advice and suggestions are offered to make them more environmentally friendly.

In the City of Tajimi, major projects are checked cross-sectionally in meetings where officials from the environment, personnel, and other divisions attend. In most municipalities in Japan, environment-related programs and projects are considered as the jobs of the environment division only. Tajimi, however, developed a system to promote improved environmental administration through the daily activities of all divisions by regarding environment-related activities as the challenge for the entire municipality. This kind of system was highly praised in the contest evaluation.

Joint projects with citizens are now held regularly in the form of workshops as part of the routine in the system of policy-making hearings prior to the actual implementation of any new activity, and environmental considerations are systematically incorporated into the city's policy-making process by conducting the hearings.

Let's look closer at one of Tajimi's project, Medaka School. (Medaka is a rice paddy fish that can only live in clean water; Medaka School is the title of a popular Japanese children's song.) This project was proposed by a group of city employees in 1999 to improve the water environment in the city. In this project, activities related to regenerating biotopes (natural habitats) have been conducted with the participation of citizens, using medaka as an indicator of ecological quality. The Medaka School project was applied in the district of Ikeda, where rapid urbanization contributed to leaving its agricultural waterway a mess, littered with garbage and grass growing wild. From fiscal 2000 through 2002, Ikeda was designated as the project's model district, and its waterway was cleaned up with the cooperation of local residents. Before renovation work of the waterway was started, policy-making hearings were conducted, resulting in elements such as interactions between people and water, biotope creation, and resident participation in the process being incorporated in the project design. The waterway, now called the Medaka Waterway, is a popular recreational area for many citizens.

Other projects that used the system of policy-making hearings and considering environmental aspects from the design phase include the ones at Ikeda Kindergarten and Tajimi Junior High School. Ikeda Kindergarten was constructed with the participation of residents in the design process, and it ended up incorporating nine eco-friendly features, including solar panels, a rooftop garden, rainwater use, and measures to protect against "sick building" syndrome. At Tajimi Junior High School, when its buildings needed renovating, ecological factors were also incorporated, including solar panels, a rooftop garden, and biotope ponds, in response to the requests of local residents and students.

Since fiscal 2004, the city of Tajimi has been participating in the CEF's five-year project, called "Creation of a Sustainable Society: Collaborative Research with a Model City." The aim of the project is to examine municipal challenges and solutions, or strategies, for the sustainable development of society. Tajimi was selected as a partner city of the CEF, recognized mainly for the strong leadership of its city officials and the policy-making hearing system.

Future of the Top Eco-City Contest

CEF member Muneto Kazaoka said, "In 2007, we will hold the 7th Top Eco-City Contest of Japan. Now it's time for us to summarize the past achievements to go on to the next step. We have to consider how to assess the achievements and effectively use them for the next step."

Starting in fiscal 2007, the CEF started a project to propose how to create a sustainable society, starting with the involvement of leading experts in Japan. In this project, the CEF reviews the achievements of its contests and other projects, proposes a vision of a sustainable society, and then recommends specific measures to achieve the vision.

Although no city has won the title of Top Eco-City in any of the past six contests (2001-2006), the average scores in the contest have risen every year, which shows an overall improvement in the environmental measures of participating cities.

Considering the active efforts of municipalities that promote environmental projects to create a sustainable society, it's only a matter of time before a growing number of cities win the title of Japan's Top Eco-City.

(Written by Yuriko Yoneda)