August 16, 2011


Japan's Eco-City Contest -- Review of its Ten-Year History

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.107 (July 2011)

Minamata City Wins First "Eco-City Capital" Prize on Contest's 10th Anniversary

Japan's Eco-City Capital title was awarded to Minamata City, Kumamoto Precture at the 10th Top Eco-City Contest. Minamata City has been an active participant in the contest for 10 consecutive years since its start in 2001. The aim of the contest is to produce sustainable local communities, and as a way of celebrating its 10th anniversary, it designated Minamata as Japan's first "Eco-City Capital."

This issue of the JFS newsletter looks back over the 10 years of the contest's history, describes the aims of the contest and explores how it has helped create sustainable communities in Japan.

"Top Eco-City" Contest -- Its Progress over 10 Years

Japan's Top Eco-City Contest was first held in 2001, modeled on a German Eco-city Contest. For reference, please see JFS-Newsletter: The 3rd 'Top Eco-City' Contest Held in Japan by the National Eco-City Contest Network

The purpose of Japan's Top Eco-City contest is to create sustainable communities in Japan. In setting it up, the Japanese contest organizer, "The National Eco-City Contest Network" (hereinafter 'the Network') also intended to accelerate the comprehensive promotion of environmental measures and policies by creating a system among municipalities to study and work together. The Network also aimed to influence other municipalities in Japan by providing models of a top eco-city.

The contest screening process starts by collecting responses from candidate municipalities to a series of questionnaires divided into 15 categories that cover the various measures and policies needed by a top eco-city. Designing this questionnaire as a tool to determine if candidates meet criteria that reflect the contest's purpose was the hardest part for the Network, because it did not want the contest to end up ranking local governments simply on the basis of what environmental protection programs they had been implementing. Rather, the Network wanted the questions to function as an evaluation of efforts by each local government to promote a sustainable community.

The questionnaire initially had 60 pages, however, this increased to more than 200 pages consisting of 15 categories and 80 questions. The questionnaire itself represents a list of measures and policies recommended for municipalities by the Network.

Also unique has been the process of determining the content of the answers as it involves cooperation between the Network and candidate municipalities. The participating municipalities first answer the questionnaire, and then a total of more than 50 staff members of the Network conduct hearing surveys -- sometimes direct interviews -- with each local government after the answers have been submitted. The Network spends about two months thoroughly examining and grading the returned papers, while carefully picking up local communities' pioneering projects. The Network has now continued this evaluation process for ten years.

Seven Requirements to Create a Sustainable Community

As for the word "sustainable," the concept of sustainable development first appeared as a key word in the World Conservation Strategy compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other organizations in 1980. Also, "Sustainable Community" became a globally recognized term after being included as a main concept in Agenda 21, a declaration adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the Earth Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992.

Whereas central governments are obviously expected to play a leading role in creating a sustainable society, the basic idea of Agenda 21 highlights the way local authorities' autonomous initiatives can move the central government forward. This process was clearly apparent in Japan's history of environmental pollution. When people across Japan suffered serious damage caused by industrial and traffic pollution, it was local municipalities that first started to address the issues. They faced the pollution victims directly and took the initiative in setting regulations, concluding agreements and providing guidance in various ways and to various degrees, and this stimulated the central government to act.

According to the Network, the average total score of participating municipalities rose from 100 in the first contest to 317.5 in the 10th contest. The top 10 municipalities have consistently attained higher average scores.

Based on its years of experience in the Top Eco-City Contest, the Network tried to identify the necessary factors for creating an affluent and sustainable society as an initiative of the local community, and came up with the following seven requirements.

1. Having leaders in each sector and fostering human resources through such leadership 2. Creating and sharing with others a vision of a bright and sustainable future that puts local characteristics to use 3. Making partnership, participation and dialogue the basis of municipal governance 4. Prioritizing projects and activities balancing the three elements of environment, economy and social equity 5. Eliminating vertically segmented administrative structures to achieve these goals and integrate measures and policies 6. Establishing and implementing strategic plans such as comprehensive plans, local Agenda 21 plans, and environmental basic plans which integrate related measures and activities 7. Developing concrete and innovative activities that make people aware of steady progress in their region

The Network has also identified two common factors among top ranking municipalities in the contest. One is an effort to remove the negative effects of bureaucratic sectionalism, and the other is active promotion of citizen participation in projects by reflecting citizens' suggestions in the municipality's budgets. The Network affirms that, in addition to the seven points listed above, these two factors are the keys to helping municipalities grow into sustainable communities.

Hoping to Spread Initiatives of Eco-City Contest Nationwide

Minamata City was the first municipality chosen as Japan's Top Eco-City; Back in the 1950s, Minamata experienced the suffering of nation-shaking Minamata disease caused by serious industrial pollution. Having had this experience, Minamata declared its intention to become a model environmental city in 1992, and has been making various efforts to that end. In July 2008, it was selected by the national government as an Eco-Model City under a separate programme.

Shinya Osaki at the Eco-model City Promotion Division of Minamata City spoke about the Top Eco-City Contest in the following interview.

"Minamata City participated in the contest because its basic concept was an excellent match with the city's vision of where we are heading. We have participated every year from the outset because we wanted our efforts toward environmental protection evaluated objectively by a third party as a reference for further improvement. We could compete and improve continuously through exchanging information and working with other participating municipalities and citizen groups."

"What we gained from the contest was a greater synergy between citizens and the local government, and higher levels of environmental effort. This was achieved as a result of the contest's objective evaluations, which worked for us as a driving force to improve. Winning the Eco City Capital prize greatly helped restore the honor of Minamata City, long known as the city of environmental pollution."

"It is certainly a great honor for us to have the title of the Eco-City Capital. However, this was not the goal of our participation. From now on, Minamata is going to draw more attention as the Eco-City Capital of Japan. So, our city needs to take a leadership role in Japan by promoting further environmental efforts and acting as a role model for other cities nationwide by transmitting information from Minamata. We'd like to carry out environmental activities on a wider scale in cooperation with NGOs and municipalities across Japan. Our goal is to create a sustainable and affluent community in the true sense, where people live comfortably in coexistence with the environment and all living things. We will continue our efforts toward this as our goal."

As one indication of how the city and citizens felt about being chosen as the Eco-City Capital, about 100 residents joined the award ceremony in Minamata although it was on a weekday. After the ceremony, a party was also held to celebrate the award and a great time was had by all. Osaki says, "Looking back on our path since we started to work on environmental measures, I have to say we share this great honor with the people of Minamata; we've had fun and feel grateful to everyone. At the same time, we feel the pressure of our responsibility and mission for the future as Japan's Eco-City Capital."

Ikumi Hara of Environmental Network Kumamoto, who has been involved in organizing the Top Eco-City Contest for 10 years, recalls "Answering all the questions on the questionnaire is a lot of work for these municipalities, but we can see that continuously participating cities have been making progress. Looking at their cobweb charts, which show their performance in the 15 categories, every category score has increased and therefore the star-shaped figures on the charts have been getting rounder. I think they were stimulated by the questionnaires and information about advanced case studies, and worked harder to improve their own measures from a cross-cutting standpoint. Thus, they could establish structures and systems to plan environmental measures comprehensively and prepare sound budgets." She expressed praise for Minamata City and its achievement of a balanced score by conquering its six weak areas within a year.

At the same time, there remain challenges to overcome. For example, the contest did not catch on nationwide during the past 10 years. Still, it has on the whole gained ground thanks to the challenges, insights and cases of visionary initiatives by the total of 668 participating municipalities.

These outcomes will be the very beginning of true progress toward a sustainable society in Japan, led by Minamata City, Japan's Eco-City Capital chosen in this contest involving other competing municipalities, NGOs and contributors.

Written by Nobuko Saigusa