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Lessons from Japan's first Eco-Town Project

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Kitakyushu is a 485-square kilometer city in the south of Japan with a population of under 1 million. The city is located in the northern part of the region of Kyushu and is within Fukuoka Prefecture.

To this end, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization is to exemplify Kitakyushu and the success it has had, in order to help developing countries learn important lessons regarding environmental management.

Birds’-Eye View of the Eco-Town Project

Eco-towns, in a nutshell, are places in which strict adherence to international clean standards is not only enforced, but is a way of life. This means that all citizens, enterprises and industries living and operating in these towns can be seen (and do in fact see themselves) as stakeholders - they see that it is in their personal and professional interest to ensure compliance with clean standards.

The Global Environment Center Foundation says that eco-towns in Japan were developed through the cooperation and coordination of regional industries and technologies. The concept of an eco-town came to be in 1997, itself based on the concept of zero emissions. The eco-town project was a key project of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and it originated through a system of subsidies that was first established by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Environment. The Japanese government established the eco-towns to counter the then-pervasive problem of waste management and to stimulate domestic growth in a sustainable manner that would not prove harmful to the environment.

Zero emissions has as its basic aims the reduction of waste produced, including greenhouse gases, to nearly zero; the promotion of energy-saving measures; and close collaboration between different industries and administrative districts. The facets of zero emissions that are incorporated into the eco-town concept include environmental management, resource recycling and urban planning, all of which can be carried out thanks to synergies between the aforementioned collaborative parties.

As such, the Foundation says that existing eco-towns have many key features in common. Some of these are an abiding focus on environmentally friendly technologies and methods such as integrated waste management, the 3R methods (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle), industrial ecology, green consumerism and energy conservation; location in and/or close linkages with a large and growing eco-business market that is well developed domestically and extends internationally; a strong focus on research and development that extends to both public and private sectors, and which is focused on crafting cutting-edge solutions for environmental problems; and the abiding interest of both local and national governmental bodies to craft policy in support of these initiatives.

Lastly, the establishment of eco-towns can also satisfy developmental objectives, as was touched on earlier. The establishment of eco-towns can aid in stimulating the economy - at both a local and a national level - as well as bring about significant research and development thrusts and provide employment for particular areas. Thus it can be seen that setting up eco-towns is truly an initiative that works for the benefit of all concerned - even from a pure policy perspective.

Kitakyushu: an Overview

Kitakyushu is a recognized pioneer in the worldwide environmental arena, having received key awards and distinctions for its environmental prowess, such as the Earth Summit 2002 Sustainable Development Award and inclusion in the U.N. Global 500. The key drivers behind the city’s success at its eco-town project are the unwavering focus of its leadership and administrators, its close ties and cooperation with research institutions, and similar ties with companies and industries.

The city aspires to become “Asia’s international resource-recycling and environmental industry base city.” In order to reach this goal, it has delineated several priority areas, including the creation of nextgeneration environmental industries that utilize such advanced technologies as nanotechnology; the further development of experimental study areas and R&D; and to strengthen capacity building among its various stakeholders.

The establishment of the eco-town proceeded along various phases. In the first phase, says the Global Environment Center Foundation, a regional development measure designed to integrate industrial activity with environmental conservation took place. In this phase, Kitakyushu’s Hibiki Recycling Complex, Eco-Town Center and Comprehensive Environmental Complex were the only sites targeted. In 2002, however, the city modified its plans to expand the coverage area to the 2,000-hectare Hibikinada area. Two years later, in 2004, the entire 48,500-hectare expanse of Kitakyushu City was formally covered by the project.

The Foundation says that Kitakyushu makes use of three distinct strategies through which it aims to promote environmental industries. The first is basic human resource development. The second is the organization of experimental studies. The third and last is commercialization. The foundation explains that these three thrusts are isolated at present, but collaboration between proponents of each thrust, as well as between concerned parties, is to materialize in the near future.

After Kitakyushu, several other cities have followed in its stead and have also become eco-towns , such as Kawasaki, Minamata and Naoshima. However, Kitakyushu’s approach and thrust set it apart from the other eco-Ttwns in several key respects. One of these areas is the clustering of recycling and environmental industries, initiatives and firms within the eco-town area. The complex, as a consequence, contains the largest number of the kinds of recycling projects among all Japanese eco-towns. Secondly, the importance of thorough information disclosure is emphasized. Kitakyushu companies are required to allow the public to access their facilities freely in order to build public confidence in the project. Lastly, Kitakyushu has excelled at getting its myriad commercial industries and research institutions to collaborate and synergize.

Lessons from Kitakyushu’s Experience

Given its exemplary experience and the success it has had in the environmental arena, the rest of the world has a great deal to learn from Kitakyushu. Here are some key lessons that cities and towns can benefit from should they wish to follow Kitakyushu’s example.

Firstly, prior to its declaration as the first eco-town, Kitakyushu, similarly to many of its sister Japanese eco-towns, has boasted not only of an established system for the promotion of industrial infrastructure, but has also focused on capacity building. Kitakyushu has an established history as a base of production, and as such it has had industrial-level infrastructural elements in place for decades. However, it has also engaged in significant capacity building due to its clustering of industries to achieve synergies, its focus on the partnership between stakeholders, its aim to increase its citizens’ environmental awareness, and so on. As a matter of fact, says the Global Environment Center Foundation, this capacity building served as the foundation for the formation of the eco-town.

Secondly, Kitakyushu’s drive to ensure that its stakeholders synergize via joint research and development initiatives, and that they would all significantly benefit from their commitments to one another - from the national government down to the citizens themselves— - ave ensured that these stakeholders have remained committed to the eco-town project since its inception. Other countries that seek to establish eco-towns - or cities that wish to try to replicate Kitakyushu’s successes - must be able to engage their local enterprises and citizens in such a manner in order to be successful. They cannot merely be interested parties; they must have either a professional or a personal stake in the success of such initiatives.

Thirdly, and in conjunction with the second point, the project had significant policy-level support from both local and national Japanese government, which came about in response to the recognized need to stimulate the local economy as well as initiate cleaner and greener industrial methods.

Lastly, it must be said that the prevailing conditions that bolstered and gave rise to the establishment of the Kitakyushu eco-town, as well as the resources available in Japan which made the formation and success of this eco-town possible, might not be shared by other nations, most especially developing nations. It may thus be hard to adopt the Kitakyushu process wholesale to another locale. However, developing countries can still benefit very significantly from Kitakyushu’s example, and may thus be able to pinpoint problem areas and work around them.

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