Dug out of my Instapaper queue was this very relevant article from Japan Times on the hard choices facing the Tokyo Metropolitan Government regarding traditional neighborhood forms. Neighborhoods built on the Edo street grid and in older shitamachi form, that is, densely clustered wooden homes, make up about 20 percent of Tokyo's building stock, and these neighborhoods in particular are highly susceptible to fire, earthquakes, and other disasters. The narrow, crooked streets make access by emergency vehicles difficult or impossible, and older buildings are exponentially more likely to collapse or burn.

The Japan Times article highlights how Japanese land-use laws are particularly ill-suited to modernizing these neighborhoods for better emergency response - eminent domain is largely out of the question, so the TMG enforces new setback laws when buildings are demolished or significantly altered. Since these changes have the effect of making already small lots even smaller, they perversely decentivize replacement of older buildings or even rehabilitation.

The law effectively acts as a disincentive for rebuilding, since most applicable plots are small to begin with. Homeowners can renovate or remodel their dwellings, but if they rebuild they may have to make the houses even smaller. The situation is even stricter for a house that is not along a road, but is simply boxed in by other houses. Those are designated as saikenchiku-fuka meaning structures that can't be rebuilt at all. Consequently, these properties aren't replaced, and the structures remain fire hazards. In November, a wooden apartment building in the Okubo district burned down, killing four residents. The structure was 50 years old and, due to its inaccessibility, it was designated as a saikenchiku-fuka. Firefighters couldn't reach it.

The set-back/saikenchiku-fuka law may prove to be the main obstacle to Tokyo's redevelopment plan. Property is a complex issue, especially in these densely populated neighborhoods where it isn't always clear who owns what and where one plot ends and another starts.

The article makes reference to Sumida, where we toured with the Mukojima machizukuri and witnessed firsthand the glacial widening of streets there. As New York City planners fond of density and narrow streets, the newly widened roads appeared much more sterile and uninviting than the traditional streets, and our gut instinct was that these traiditional forms should be preserved. However, knowing that Tokyo is about 98% likely to have a direct, major earthquake in the next 30 years, these neighborhoods will be the site of tragedy if nothing is done.

Can tradition and emergency planning coexist in areas like this?

As noted in the post below, our conversation at the Social Kitchen led us to believe that Kyoto may be experiencing a shortage of true public space as it is understood by New York City planners. According to our Kyoto contacts, Kyoto is fortunate that is has one true public space on a massive scale: the Kamo River.

The Kamo River, Kyoto

Diverted away from the city center at its founding, the river goes through the eastern side of central Kyoto, starting at the old imperial grounds. The river is shallow and bordered on both sides by wide walking paths for the entirety of its length through Kyoto. Restaurant decks line the upper banks, and greenery and a steep bank separate the river space from the noise of traffic on street level. 

At times natural and strikingly man-made, the river allows for a variety of uses and appears open to all segments of the population. Unlike many of the more intentional parks and public areas, we saw very few signs with rules of use or even recommendations. It was designed with a very light touch.

Megan's description of her year in Kyoto often involves the river - it appears to be a central gathering place for the entire city, year round. Sakiko told us in the Social Kitchen that as far as she was concerned, Kyoto could get by with just this river, and its public space needs would be met. 

I only wish we'd stayed in Kyoto longer, though our schedule didn't permit it - it's a complex issue and our whirlwind tour prevented us from exploring these issues more deeply.

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriestokyo

Park facing apartment block, Shirahige-Higashi

As part of our tour of Mukojima, we had the opportunity to see the incredible inhabited firewall of the Shirahige-Higashi park and apartment complex. Since Mukojima is considered highly susceptible to fires and seismic activity, this complex was designed in the 1970's to serve as a point of refuge for over 100,000 evacuees from the surrounding area. 

The buildings themselves are an 18-block complex of reinforced concrete, steel shutters, and fire cannons. A very unique response to an ongoing issue in Tokyo. I thought it was a strange enough place to warrant an entry in the Atlas Obscura, so I just made one today. Any Pratt students with something to add should feel free to edit my entry!

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categorieshousing, tokyo

While travelling in Kyoto, we continued exploring the idea of public space and how that activates a community. A few of us rode our rental bikes through the park up near Doshisha University to visit Social Kitchen, a community space and cafe which seeks to expand space for discussion and community building in Kyoto.

Talking in the 2nd floor community space at Social Kitchen

The project is run in part by Natalie's friend Sakiko, who was kind enough to sit and talk with us for a while about public space in Kyoto and Japan in general. We got to get a different perspective on the subject - for Sakiko, Japan has a large amount of public space, but very little of it of a quality suitable for the community. 

With the decline of the public bath house and less frequent time spent at temples and shrines, Sakiko felt that residents of Kyoto were left with consumer-oriented public spaces, and the poorly-maintained small parks erected by the government during the early postwar boom, neither of which provide opportunities for community members to come together. She said that Kyoto is lucky, at least, in that the river still provides one of the largest and most accessible true public spaces in the city, a place that has some connection for almost every resident of Kyoto.

A typical Kyoto koen

Our visit the Social Kitchen was really informative. Natalie is currently staying in Kyoto a little while longer, working with the staff there - she just recently made a post about it to our class blog

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AuthorChris Hamby

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We had the privelege of visiting the neighborhood of Mukojima in Sumida ward with some members of the local Machizukuri. We had attended a lecture on disaster planning and the pivotal role of fires in Tokyo planning history given by Nakai-sensei earlier in the day at Tokyo Institute of Technology, so we had fires on our mind. 

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Mukojima is a historic neighborhood which remains ordered by the historic Edo street pattern. It lies in the shadow of the newly completed Tokyo Sky Tree, and its historic pattern is vulnerable to new building and setback standards put forth by the city. Simply put, whenever a older style wooden house is demolished, the street is widened to meet the new standard.

 

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This new layout is safer - the risk of fire is lower (due to Japan's extreme seismologic activity and history of disaster, fires in Tokyo are a constant concern) and emergency access is easier. However, these new layouts permanently alter the character of this historic neighborhood - a tradeoff that the machizukuri is trying to balance.

We also got a chance to see the neighborhoods pocket parks - former residential lots developed into public space - partially to serve as firebreaks.

 

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AuthorChris Hamby

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I was under the impression that running was not as popular in Japan as it was in the United States, but I happened to see many runners while doing my morning jogs in Yoyogi Park, next to NOMYC. I was happy to see Yoyogi under very heavy use - passive users stroll and admire the rose garden, while more active users hit the cycle track, run, or excerise their dogs in the dog run. 

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Yoyogi for me contained most of the elements that make a successful park, and I hope I get the opportunity to visit a few more times before I go.

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriestokyo

We're on our way back from a short trip to Kamakura. It's surprisingly the first really touristy trip we've taken so far - we saw two wonderful sites. Unfortunately it was the peak of field trip season, and Kamakura was packed with school kids. The middle schoolers from Aoyama were apparently on assignment to practice their English with visiting Americans, and we each had our photos taken with about 15 groups of students.

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AuthorChris Hamby

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to view the Nakagin Capsule Tower, a landmark of the Metabolism movement, yesterday with Professor Julian Worrall of Waseda University.
As Dr. Worrell pointed out to us, the tower and its surroundings illustrate the somewhat confusing state of preservation in Tokyo. Just nearby, one may discover a recently constructed 1:1 replica of the original Shiodome station, the earliest in Tokyo, which hasn't stood for about eighty years. Meanwhile, an authentic architectural landmark, literally feet away, is slated for demolition.

At the end of a long first day of travelling, we were greeted with this wonderful small commercial street outside Sangubashi Station, our stop on the Odakyu Line. We're only two stops from Shinjuku station, a major hub on the inner ring of rail lines around Tokyo. 

The street has small restaurants and shops which appear to cater to residents at the end of their commute and people staying at NOMYC: convience stores, curry shops, and cleaners.

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriestokyo, transit

View from restaurant "Sakura" during breakfast this morning. Big day in Ginza ahead!

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AuthorChris Hamby

The entire class, very drowsy, has made it into Tokyo. I'm planning a short night tour of the neighborhood after we settle in at NOMYC.

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AuthorChris Hamby