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?