October 24, 2008
Published in 10+1 magazine, Tokyo in December 15, 2006
Night Shot of Shimokitazawa. Narrow street and dense activity.
Shimokitazawa was preserved from destruction and redevelopment throughout the war right up to our days. As a result the town developed incrementally along its narrow streets retaining a village feel that contributed to making it one of Tokyo’s most popular neighborhoods. Shimokitazawa represents an alternative urban model characterized by low rise buildings, pedestrian space, bustling ground-level market activity, and tight social networks. This model is however challenged by a master plan of the Municipality of Setagaya envisioning a brave new world for Shimokitazawa. The official design is reminiscent of the global generic urbanism predominating in other parts of Tokyo, spreading to many cities around the world. Residents have responded by proposing alternatives to what we might call the “Ikebukurization” of Shimokitazawa, referring to Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo’s standardized, modern neighbourhoods
The case of Shimokitazawa illustrates the classic collision between two models of urbanization which do not have to be mutually exclusive: bottom-up development and top down planning. Emergent megacities in particular, are particularly affected by the increasingly aggressive development agenda of urban governments and the corporate world. Extremely fast economic growth and skyrocketing real estate value in Shanghai and Mumbai, for instance, are putting enormous pressure on the urban heritage. It is said that no historical neighborhood remains at the center of Shanghai. In Mumbai dreams of modernity are filled with high-rise buildings, and vernacular architecture is disregarded as an expression of backwardness. First world megacities such as New York, Paris and London however, have for long acknowledged the value of urban landmarks which has resulted in extensive historic preservation. Japan traditionally puts much less value on its urban heritage, prefering the new to the old. Historical preservation, however is not as much about architecture as it is about culture. Indeed, Shimokitazawa is a cultural landmark. It is a complex urban ecosystem where physical form and culture merge producing unique urban patterns. These patterns develop over time; they cannot be designed from scratch, but can be easily destroyed. What is sometimes described as urban mess and incoherence in Shimokitazawa, is actually an alternative order that should be recognized, respected, preserved and nurtured. In one of her most famous quote, Jane Jacobs states that there “is a quality meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” What is true for urban ghettos is also true for grown up neighborhoods like Shimokitazawa.
The urbanism of Shimokitazawa characterized by narrow pedestrian streets and dense commercial activity, gives the area a deep Tokyo feel. Newcomers, attracted by the relaxed character and communal atmosphere of Shimokitazawa, live alongside old-timers who have seen the neighborhood change throughout the years. In an interview recorded by Save the Shimokitazawa, a community group opposing the master plan, an African shop owner explains that what attracted him to Shimokitazawa was a feeling of “old-Japan” which he did not encounter in any other part of Tokyo. In Shimokitazawa the future meets the past. Shimokitazawa is an urban experience and a space of cultural expression enjoyed by a colorful crowd from Tokyo and the rest of the world. Countless speciality shops, restaurants and bars animate the area day and night. It is the favorite destination of sophisticated vintage shoppers, record collectors, musicians, artists, students, freelancers, lovers, and other creative types. The “Shimokitazawa experience” is a lifestyle rather than a fashion-style. Indeed the area has served as an “incubator” for many Japanese artists and musicians. Its famous residents include the musicians Keiichi Sokabe, Hiroto Khomoto, Mayumi Kojima, the writers Sakutaro Hagiwara, Ango Sakaguchi, Riichi Yokomitsu (as well as prime minister Eisaku Yoshida, and minister Noboru Takeshita).
Street market the anti-department store.
Shimokitazawa is 7 minutes away by train from Shibuya and Shinjuku, two of the most important hubs in Tokyo. Everyday, hundreds of thousands of people commute through Shimokitazawa. Around the commercial core spread upper-middle class residential neighborhoods. Shimokitazawa has become a brand-name and a very hot real estate market. Therefore, some investors see great opportunity in the development of new department stores and luxury residential buildings. The master plan of the Municipality of Setagaya accommodates this vision. In the plan, the station is turned into a multi-stories high building hosting stores and restaurants, like in so many other parts of Tokyo. Odakyu also plans on depressing the Odakyu line [i], freeing much needed space at the surface. More controversially, a section of the 1946 “War damage revival plan” envisioning a 26-meter wide road (originally 20 meters) passing through the North of Shimokitazawa was resurrected and expended. This road project is known as Route 54. The original planner, Hideaki Hishikawa, would probably be stunned to know that the plan he drafted under the American post-war administration 60 years ago is now being implemented in a completely different context.
Planned Route 54: The global generic vision for Shimokitazawa.
So what is the rationale behind Route 54? The Government of Setagaya gives two reasons for digging this plan out of the grave: safety and traffic congestion. Firstly, they argue, in case of earthquake or fire, Route 54 would provide an emergency lane. It is however not clear why this suddenly became a priority for Shimokitazawa, when hundreds of neighborhoods throughout Tokyo are under the same threat. Nonetheless, an access for evacuation and emergency vehicles can hardly be argued against, but does it really need to be 26 meters wide? The second reason, traffic congestion, is even less credible. The Government claims that according to a study it conducted, Route 54 is needed to improve traffic flow. The study however is not available to the public and its conclusions have been contested by independent planning and transportation experts. In any case, the refusal of the Municipal Government to open the discussion with the concerned population has raised serious doubts about the real motives behind the plan. This lead many people to feel that the master plan is serving the interests of the real estate and construction lobby, more than these of the residents. Indeed, according to the ‘Building Standard Law’, the building height is relative to the width of the road along which it is built. Route 54 will authorize developers to build 60 meter high buildings, which is about 4 to 6 times higher than the average building height in Shimokitazawa at present.
The Master Plan of Setagaya-ku.
The issue is not only the plan, but also the whole planning process. Residents’ groups say that that Government has systematically refused to meet them. One of them, Save the Shimokitazawa (STSK), points out that although a few public hearings were organized, (as required by the law) they only served as a venue for the Government to present its plan without even answering the residents’ questions [ii]. The community groups that emerged as a result of the government plan initiated a series of public consultations, produced a series of alternative plans and, in the process, innovated in the field of grassroots community participation. They sent letters, organized concerts, demonstrations, carnivals, candle light sittings, symposia, workshops, studios, and proposed alternative plans. STSK says that despite all their efforts, they were never heard by the mayor or any representative in Setagaya or Tokyo. Many urban experts and academics, including former senior members of the government, have said loud and clear that the Route 54 is not necessary and that it would be a cultural disaster for Tokyo[iii].
That doesn’t mean that Shimokitazawa should stop evolving. Quite on the contrary, to stay itself it has to adapt to the changing context of Tokyo. Even community groups strongly opposing the current master plan, recognize that things are not perfect as they are. The problem with the plan, they say, is that it does not actually acknowledge the community. They do not demand the status quo but rather a new plan involving the public. Shimokitazawa Forum, a resident group, distributed a questionnaire to thousands of residents. 81% of the respondents think that Setagaya-ku should have a roundtable with local people about the plan. More than ten alternative plans were drafted by various constituencies. For instance, in 2005, a Harvard Graduate School of Design plan proposed to combine Route 54 with the Odakyu line being depressed. The road would be below ground and thus preserve the area above. This would cost tax payers much less than buying prime real estate above ground, and the Shimokitazawa would be preserved. But it would not satisfy the people set to benefit directly from the road project in the form of construction contracts, real estate deals, political donations and so on.
Youth culture meets tradition in Shimokitazawa.
The complete opacity of the planning process makes it difficult to grasp where exactly the decision-making power rests. In any case the ultimate responsibility for the master plan weights on the shoulders of the Mayor of Setagaya, who claims not to know much about the plan, which is, sadly, probably true. In all likelihood, the plan was drafted by the central planners of the Metropolitan Government of Tokyo and sent for formal approval to the Municipal Government of Setagaya, which has ultimate authority on it. Setagaya then had to request funding and approval from the Metropolitan Government, which it just received in October 2006. The construction cost will probably be shared by the National Government, the Metropolitan Government, and the Municipality. The Municipality started buying the land along Route 54, a process which is likely to take a few years, especially since some landowners have made clear that they will refuse to sell their estate to the government. In plus of being opaque and unaccountable, it seems that both the Tokyo Government and the Setagaya Government are failing to fulfill their promises. In its 2025 Urban Development Plan the Metropolitan Government of Tokyo, set as a goal “Greater transparency of the process by which decisions are made by having the administration be more accountable from the initial planning stage, employing PI [Public Involvement] -type methods, strengthening resident participation, and so on”[iii]. The Municipality of Setagaya too, states as one of its five main goals for its 10 year plan a “community that the city’s residents create”, through “cooperative community development”[vi]. Reality could not be further away from rhetoric. In this grey landscape, the community groups represent a true source of hope. They have shown that residents can come together and think collectively about their urban environment. This stands in sharp contrast with the cynicism of political representatives and greed of the construction lobby. Recently for instance, two of the main community groups in Shimokitazawa, organized a design workshop called “Urban Typhoon” with the help of the University of Tokyo and students from various universities. It was attended by more than 130 participants from all over the world. Many ideas were generated and the material produced will be published as a book in the coming year. In Shimokitazawa, grassroots movements leads the way towards inclusive and responsible urban planning. It is time for urban authorities to recognize that involving residents is a great opportunity put collective intelligence at the service of planning.
The Urban Typhoon Workshop, which took place in June 2006 with more than 130 participants from all over the world.
[ii] Save the Shimokitazawa & Shimokitazawa Forum are two of the most active residents groups in Shimokitazawa.
[iii] Experts and academics who have denounced the master plan include Kei Minohara former official of the Planning Department of the Ministry of Construction, Masami Kobayashi, Professor of urban design at Meiji University and visiting Professor at Harvard University, Peter Rowe former Dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.