Planning and protest in central Tokyo

Tokyo is a constantly changing stew of styles and forms, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is just ‘organic’ change. The capital of Japan is a playground for capital, local and global, and there isn’t much in the way of planning law or practice to stop the developers doing exactly what they want. It’s worth reading Andre Sorensen’s The Making of Urban Japan for a good account in English of why this is.

Inasmuch as the traditional morphology of machi (neighbourhoods) survive, it is largely due to either the unfashionable character of the area putting off developers, temporary lulls in the property market, or the sheer stubbornness of residents in refusing to being intimidated into selling land or putting up with the serial replication of blocks of manshon (typical 5+ storey apartment complexes). Strong property rights and small traditional plots do at least mean that it is more difficult to put together the land in what is called tochi kukaku seiri (land readjusment) to make really large developments which, as a result, tends to be restricted to whole sites that come on the market through things like the privatisation of Japan Railways (although some private developers like Mori Building Co. have managed private massive land readjustment projects like Roppongi Hills that I have researched on previous visits).

Of course the building regulations that do exist tend to favour development too, as they regard any old building as inherently unsafe (because of susceptibility to fire and earthquake) and it is thus very difficult, for example, to get traditional wooden houses repaired let alone new ones built. In addition, since the Edo period regulations have sought to open fire-breaks in the urban structure and increase the width of roads and alleyways – and again, the traditional and wonderfully characterful narrow roji (lanes) are very difficult to maintain as any new building has to be set back to newer road standards. This in turn tends to make the backstreets more accessible to faster-moving traffic and thus gradually dehuamanize and desocialize these places.

So communities have a lot to contend with and, despite the 196os environmental movements and machizukuri (community development) and the 1980s craze for ‘amenity’ (which included the promulgation of a ‘sunlight ordinance’ that was supposed to stop the construction of taller buildings that would block out the sun from neighbouring plots), the developers continue to try to squeeze in unwanted and inappropriately massive structures wherever they can.

We came across this small example of a local neighbourhood campaign to stop a new manshon being built at the edge of the historic (but much damaged) Yanaka district. It might not loo very exciting but you add these developments up all over the city and it goes a long way to explaining why Tokyo is gradually losing the remaining historic and social character that makes it a surprisingly human place to live, despite its size…