December 16, 2007
Tokyo Inner City Project

Graduate students try to rebuild Tokyo.

Published in 2003 based on 2001 research, this bilingual English and Japanese collaboration between Harvard University and Keio University looks at four distinct locations, and provides tools and visions for the broader redevelopment of Tokyo.

The opening essays set the stage well for the student work. However, Hiroto Kobayashi's "Genius Loci of Edo/Tokyo" essay's overview of major events in shaping modern Tokyo reminded me of the light up maps for school kids at the Edo-Tokyo Museum: the perspective is almost juvenile and you're left wondering if Tokyo just needs a good disaster. Rowe's "Spatial Structure" article is basically a digest of the book "Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology," of which he wasn't the author. The "Green Space" essay by Ishikawa was interesting and reminded me of a presentation I sat in on a few years back by Chiba University's Sawako Ono.

Of the introductory essays, Masami Kobayashi's "What is the future model of Tokyo?" is by far the best, clearly - almost angrily - posing the questions that Tokyo needs to answer. The issues he raises are very real. Would you rather live in Yokohama, which features a fancy new waterfront business district and the tallest building in Kanto, yet is slashing residential bus service; or Mitaka, where you can still buy vegetables from farmers, yet boasts the lowest tax rate of any city in Japan? Models of youth entertainment from the last few decades have been decimated. Five, ten, twenty years ago young people were going to trendy shopping districts, going out to bowling or karaoke with friends, and taking trips to foreign countries. The stereotype now is buying online, checking friends' blogs, and visiting cafes. How does built Tokyo respond?

Six years later, the students' visions can already be contrasted to built realizations.

Two of the four spotlighted locations have already seen drastic change completed. The Roppongi site they reviewed has become Tokyo Midtown. The edges of the Akasaka valley in their study have been rebuilt as TBS' Akasaka Sakas to the east and Yagenzaka's office tower Akasaka Garden City and condominium tower Park Court Akasaka to the west.

Kyojima, the third site, neighbors the staging area for New Tokyo Tower and its massive construction zone. Certainly Kyojima will change drastically in the next decade.

The final neighborhood looked at was Nihonbashi, fueled by talk of burying the raised expressway in order to let light shine on the center of Japan for the first time in decades. However, their real study area includes Marunouchi and the placemaking Tokyo Station City project, which is now already half complete.

I sincerely hope that the students have a chance to revisit their project areas, talk with residents and workers, and consider not only how much of their vision was realized, but also where their vision was flawed and what constrained their impact.

Having myself taken a deep look at Akasaka and its hills, I think I can comment most effectively on the two teams' ideas there.

The Keio/Meiji students were most concerned about difficulty in automobile travel combined with heavy pedestrian traffic, as well as the poor access for valley residents to hilltop open space. Significantly, they specifically mention dissatisfaction with the "proposal at Yagenzaka," and suggest creation of a bridge from north to south, an elevator to a raised park area, and addition of a dentist and day care center. Apparently their feedback was heard and appreciated by the developers, because Akasaka Garden City already includes a dentist, elevator, and small park. Park Court Akasaka will include a much larger park stretching to the south end of Yagenzaka, and a bridge will be added to link the parks' raised edges. With just a couple of small connections, all of the major park space in the area could be linked: Takahashi Korekiyo Memorial Park; Yagenzaka; Akasaka Park Building and its memorial to WWII veterans; Akasaka Sakas' new park areas; Hitotsugi Park; and Hitotsugi Children's Park.

At that point Akasaka will be ready to pass my dog pee test. If you own a dog in the neighborhood, there will be enough contiguous space with grass or dirt that your dog can manage their territory, staying sane by not peeing on cement poles nor using the same patch of grass over and over and over.

It will be ready to pass, but in reality it will fail. The truth is that dogs will be forbidden from almost all of this space. Public parks in Minato Ward, like most of central Tokyo, are off-limits to dogs.

More significantly, all semi-private park space around buildings is off-limits - I've never seen a building that invited dogs. To me, this is a sign of the limitations of ornamental landscapes at the base of new developments. The government feels that trading height limits for open space will relieve psychological pressure from shoulder-to-shoulder neighborhoods, and remove physical fire danger. Personally, I'm not sure the public benefit is really so great. It would be interesting to see a comparison of Takahashi Park to the towers' open space. Measure the temperature and humidity in different seasons. Count bugs and birds. See how many people choose to eat lunch there or bring their kids or pets out for a walk. My pee test is a measure of psychological impact on dogs, but it carries over between species.

The Harvard students' take on Akasaka is tough to read. Particularly, I am a bit stumped by their first proposal, replacing an abandoned school and parking structure with a road, which supposedly will suddenly spark development. It seems like a very old-fashioned approach to development, and doesn't leverage any of the strategies they laid out previously. I believe the area that they're talking about is Akasaka 4-1, in which case the road would run straight through a temple and graveyard, a fact that should have been obvious in the site visit. I also think the parking belongs to the temple, so it would be tough to just lay claim to it. Significantly, this area is directly adjacent to Aoyama Boulevard, and pedestrians can already cut through the temple. I don't think access is the problem. Maybe I'm wrong about the location, though, or maybe they know something I don't. On aerial photos I can see a surface parking lot hidden in between bulidings, which might make a great spot for a park, maybe that's what they meant? Certainly they didn't explain themselves well.

Their second proposal aims to kill two birds with one stone: remove unsightly, combustible houses at the base of an embankment, and provide access from valley to hilltop. Unfortunately, TBS didn't expand their Akasaka Sakas project beyond the hillside, and the adjacent properties remain unchanged. Really, the idea and only suffers from the same problem of all of the Akasaka proposals: forced gentrification of both residents and workers.

I would have liked both groups to visit with nearby community associations and business assocations and understand the people's vision for the future, and how to keep current residents and shopowners present and involved in Akasaka tomorrow. On that note, I'd really like to read something about Akasaka Community Plaza, what works about it and what doesn't. Maybe something about the possibilities for the public housing adjacent to TBS. And considering that the neighboring Akasaka Police Station is being leveled right now to make way for a new one, it's too bad that wasn't included somewhere in the vision.

In all though, I was very impressed with the proposals, and the book stands well on its own, not just as a public display of graduate projects. Harvard's "timescape" toolset used in Nihonbashi, and the combined vision of a diverse neighborhood in Roppongi were very thought provoking and well presented.

For views of some of the mentioned developments, check out my article Skyscrapers of the Future. To read about Akasaka's spatial anthropology, read my series Akasaka on the Rise. For a peek at my dog pee theory, you can look through my Dog Doo Signs of Tokyo.

東京再生Tokyo Inner City Project―ハーバード・慶応義塾・明治大学プロジェクトチームによる合同提案 by 伊藤 滋, 東京インナーシティープロジェクト実行委員会

Written at December 16, 2007 11:38 PM
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