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
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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

Tokyo032

 

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.

Tokyo034 Tokyo039

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriestokyo

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

Japanese cities (right) tend to have multiple "centers" spread out over wide distances. The traditional Western city (left) tends to have a more dominant central coreIn understanding Japanese cities, we carry Western preconceptions of how cities are shaped and read. Barrie Shelton explores changing perceptions of cities like Tokyo through Western eyes over the course of the twentieth century. 

We see a shift, both in Western and Japanese planners and architects, from condemnation of the "chaos" of Japanese cities to a more subtle understanding of how these cities function. 

Western cities tend to have skylines which concentrate towards a central business district or downtown. In cities like Tokyo, smaller, quieter residential areas are bordered by high rise buildings on busy streets. These 'shells', rather than peripheral location, give these neighborhoods relative tranquilityIn particular, there are key distinctions in the way space is organized. Gunther Nitschke, in 1966, noted that space in Japan is not formed by compositional elements, as in the West, but more often through signs and symbols, and the current human use of the space. 

Jinnai writes that the open spaces of a bridge crossing often formed central public space in traditional Edo, and these spaces are often still in existence today. These open spaces were places for gathering, as opposed to the often closed and sharply defined squares of old European towns.This leads towards a more flexible urban space. Kisho Kurakawa uses the metaphor of tree versus rhizome when comparing Western and Japanese cities. Fumihiko Maki creates the useful dichotomy of 'clock' versus 'cloud.' The clock may be represented by a traditional Western city: the relation of parts to the whole are systematic - the buildings relate to the street which relates to the neighborhood which relates to local landmarks - and so on. The cloud may be represented by cities like Tokyo (Maki simply defines them as modern cities) where individual pieces of the city find an unstable equilibrium. For Maki, the cloud city is extremely adaptable and constantly changing. The clock city, while perhaps more beautiful, will be locked in stasis and have much more difficulty adapting to changes demanded of a modern city.

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriesreadings, tokyo

While the previous readings downplayed the influence of the local community on the city development process,Tanaka points out that, at least in her case study, participatory planning in Tokyo is lacking because it leaves out important community groups, the machizukuri, who already consider and take action on wider planning issues.

In her study of Komae City, a suburban city just outside the 23 wards, the city government took action in the early nineties to include citizens in the planning process, part of a larger change in the Japanese planning code enacted in 1992. While it was an early attempt at participatory planning, it is noteworthy that existing community groups are largely not consulted, rather the planning agency reached out to individuals. 

While community groups may not be entirely representative (Tanaka acknowledges that chounaikai, or traditional neighborhood groups, skewed toward the elderly and landowners), machizukuri, which are a relatively new phenomenon, grapple with larger planning issues and are ideal community members for planning outreach.

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriesreadings, tokyo

The Tokyo region experienced massive growth during the twentieth century, and Okata and Murayama explore some of the consequences of rapid expansion without strong planning. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government did not enact strong planning laws until the 1960's, and even afterward development was haphazard and very often under served by urban infrastructure. It's important to recall that while sprawl poses a large problem for Tokyo, the framework of sprawl used by North American planners should not be employed. 

Most new construction was transit-oriented development - Tokyo's new suburbs were largely not populated by automobile commuters. And unlike the United States, Tokyo (and Japan overall) is currently undergoing a rapid retraction as the population begins to shrink and younger people move closer to the inner city. This puts pressure on the older single family homes in the inner wards to develop high-rise manshons which strain the already thin layer of infrastructure and open space of the neighborhood.

This type of vertical sprawl (for lack of a better term) appeared to pose a significant issue for inner-city Tokyo residents, as neighborhood groups found themselves ill-equipped to take on the real-estate industry. Battles over new developments go beyond simple NIMBY-ism, as lax planning laws and recent deregulation allowed for construction that was not only out of scale, but which would definitively change the neighborhood's population and living conditions. This, at least, seemed clear from Fuji, Okata, and Sorenson's study.

While these new high-rise developments are disruptive, it appears that the problem stems from these issues of lax planning in the past. It is because development occurs lot-by-lot and that new neighborhoods were built almost informally that we see these conflicts today. It is because neighborhoods are so under served by open space and other community facilities that an influx of young residents may be a concern. 

I liked Okata and Murayama's conclusion to their work:

Mixed use and vibrant looking vernacular urban places, often praised by European and American planners and urban designers, are merely incidental results of market economy and loose land use/building regulations and are actually vulnerable in many ways.

So while the Tokyo Metropolitan Government appears to be ahead of the national government in planning issues, neighborhoods in Tokyo will continue to be subject to the whims of the real estate industry. I'll try to suppress my own USA-centric understandings of planning while I'm in Tokyo, but these readings gave me the impression that planning as a profession has its work cut out for it in Japan.

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriestokyo

While I found myself disagreeing with much of Roland Barthes' Empire of Signs (it appears to come at the beginning of the height of Western fascination with the "Japanese Way"), I very much enjoyed the essay.

In particular, I was interested Barthes' notion that Tokyo resists printed interpretation, instead relying on orientation on the ground and continual experience. Just coming off of the fantastic Seeing Like a State, I wonder about how a large city, the capital of a wealthy and highly organized country, could resist the simplifying and codifying that one would expect to take place during periods of intense modernization. I imagine that the Japanese state has devised its own, less obvious system of control and information gathering that serves its needs in this city. I'm inclined to believe that the apparent chaos of a "city without addresses" is a superficial gloss on what is in reality a well organized system.

All the same, it does appear that neighborhoods in Tokyo support and rely on local expertise, and this quotation from the essay captured my imagination:

The inhabitants excel in these impromptu drawings, where we see being sketched, right on the scrap of paper, a street, an apartment house, a canal, a railroad line, a shop sign, making the exchange of addresses into a delicate communication in which a life of the body, an art of the graphic gesture recurs: it is always enjoyable to watch someone write, all the more so to watch someone draw: from each occasion when someone has given me an address in this way, I retain the gesture of my interlocutor reversing his pencil to rub out, with the eraser at its other end, the excessive curve of an avenue, the intersection of a viaduct...

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriestokyo

Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, in Void Metabolism, asserts that in order to understand the current condition of the Tokyo neighborhood, one must understand the cycle of housing. Due to various economic, legal, and social forces, houses grow smaller as lots become subdivided and land prices rise. 

Neighborhoods may then be made more readable by attempting to discern the "generation" of a site. This applies to commercial neighborhoods as well as residential. What at first appears a jumble of styles and sizes becomes more clear.

This pressure, he continues, forces buildings to completely fill their potential envelopes, stifling outdoor life and creating buildings which simply "fill in the gaps." For the next generation of housing, Japanese architects should strive for three conditions:

 

  • Bringing people from outside of the family back inside the house
  • Increasing opportunities to dwell outside the house
  • Redefining the gaps

 

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AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriestokyo