Haiti Viewed from Asia

January 17, 2010

Tokyo_1945
Tokyo in 1945 after being flattened by USA Air Force firebombs.

The standard approach to residential redevelopment projects is to take ground zero as a starting point — even if it means creating it. This often translates into shifting people from substandard but incrementally developing environments into apartment blocks that cut them off from their social networks and livelihoods. These projects often become housing-centric and blind to the relationship between neighborhoods and economic development. They end up benefiting the construction industry much more than the population they are supposed to serve.

Haiti’s shattered urban landscapes were about communities, street life, resourcefulness, aspirations and dynamic local exchanges. As we have seen in the Dharavi area of Mumbai (the setting of “Slumdog Millionaire”), poverty often generates creative responses and initiatives. Local actors tend to produce piecemeal development that directly supports neighborhood-level activity.

As we consider how to rebuild Port-au-Prince, we can find an alternative to the usual top-down redevelopment model in postwar Tokyo. The Japanese government didn’t have the money to rebuild housing and so focused instead on roads, sewage and rail transportation. It also encouraged lenders to give families money to build homes. A decentralized and highly participatory urban redevelopment process produced areas of low-rise, high-density structures built with local skills and material. This not only strengthened communities but also stimulated the local economies. Tokyo today has a landscape that is futuristic and yet retains many traditional Asian urban features including street markets, small-scale businesses and family enterprises. The incremental redevelopment of Tokyo was thus intricately connected to the rise of its middle class.

If aid in Haiti aims specifically at regenerating local economies, if it promotes existing skills and collective initiatives, if it consults with grassroots groups and residents directly, it may well bring about a real transformation.

Published in the New York Times on January 16, 2010.

Urban Ecology & Man-Made Disaster in Shimokitazawa

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.


Urban mess and incoherence or alternative order?

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.

[i]  http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/INET/OSHIRASE/2004/03/20e3n400.htm
[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.
[vi] http://www.toshiseibi.metro.tokyo.jp
[v] http://www.city.setagaya.tokyo.jp/topics/bunkoku/outline/plan.pdf

more info:

www.stsk.net
www.urbantyphoon.com
www.shimokitazawa-forum.net

The S… Word

We are all children of Mike Davis. The publication of his City of Quartz was an inspiring moment when we realized that we can and should talk about cities not just as architects and urbanists but also as engaged citizens, critics and activists, allowing ourselves to be confused by an urban experience of infinite depth. He introduced us to a perverted aesthetic where urban dreadfulness became attractive and fascinating. A camera on a street corner, a homeless-proof bench, defensive walls were all turned into iconic expressions of the paranoid urbanity of a city living in fear of itself.

The simple act of taking a picture of a surveillance camera and walking these supposedly dangerous streets came across as gesture of defiance, a direct engagement with the urban realm, and a kind of cure to the city’s neurosis. The idea that anyone can be an urbanist stayed on our minds . All we really need is to explore our environment, critically assess it and let our imagination drift. We don’t need to be urbanists to have ideas about space, what we need is a direct engagement.

Mike Davis’ intimate relationship with Los Angeles is what made City of Quartz a great read, and it is what is terribly lacking in his Planet of Slums, which at times reads more like a UN report than anything else. The intention was noble and the topic is obviously of critical relevance, but a direct form of engagement with the topic was missing. Not that Mike Davis never stepped in a slum before. No doubt he has many friends in many parts of the world. The problem was rather that he tried to say too much about slums, putting an enormously varied bunch of habitats in one very problematic and ill defined category. In fact slums around the world share little in common, apart from a vague definition born from the uncreative minds of bureaucrats and academics. According to the United Nation Task Force in Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers, a slum is “a group of individuals living under the same roof lacking one or more of the following necessities: access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area, structural quality and durability of dwellings, and security of tenure.”

Oh my God, my Tokyo apartment is a slum!

This type of broad amalgamation and labeling opens the way to all kinds of man-made urban disasters. The well-intentioned UN Millennium project targets to “Have achieved by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.” How do you realistically make a difference on such a scale? Just to get an idea of the extent of the project, 100 million is anything between 100 and 200 Dharavi, which as a settlement definitively fits in the UN definition of a slum -although many of the residents do not conceive of it as such. 100 million is a third of the US population. How can you invent a program that can impact the living conditions of so many people at once?

Lets imagine a best case scenario; an UN officer’s dream: An enlightened new US president gets elected and says: “No more war, we will give instead all these billions to the UN so it can accomplish its target of improving the life of 100 million slum dwellers.” The UN officer smiles in his sleep and his dream flies to the near-by bedroom of a real-estate developer: Mass housing construction for 100 million people throughout the world. His smile is twice as large as that of the UN bureaucrat. What a project!


“I will make world-class townships and improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers!…”

That would translate in the redevelopment of hundreds of thousands settlements throughout the world. And everyone would ride on a great feeling of social justice. Except that Redevelopment is not development. Development is what is happening all the time in so-called slums throughout the world and it is not just urban, but also economic, political, social and cultural. Redevelopment plans do much less for the concerned population and much more for private developers and financial institutions than is often believed. They actually often do more harm than good, especially large scale ones.

The main problem with large scale development projects, such as the Dharavi Redevelopment Project is that they usually have no consideration for the neighborhoods they are set to redevelop. After all, these are slums and slums can only be seen in negative terms. Most middle-class people sincerely conceive of slum as urban junk. And anyone pointing out to that the settlements in questions cannot be reduced to their depressed appearance, but are also complex economies with intricate social webs and vibrant cultural life, will immediately be called “romantic”. By the way, this generic “romantic” label put on anyone questioning the dominant logic of urban development ought to be the theme of a future post on this blog.

Moving people from their makeshift homes to a mass-produced concrete building won’t turn them into middle-class citizens by magic. If anything is truly “romantic” it is this crazy idea and conviction. Just as the idea that middle-class pity and paternalism will help the poor in any way. As our good friend Bhau, who was born in Dharavi and lived there his whole life, often reminds us:

“They say they will redevelop Dharavi, but look at what they’re doing! These high-rise buildings mushrooming all round us. Families who are given a flat are soon selling and leaving. They need money because they cannot continue with their livelihoods in these buildings. People living in these high-rises don’t know their neighbours anymore. This street activity will be gone. Where will my people go now? They say it is development but it’s just the opposite.”

So Mike, if by any chance you come across this blog and are reading these lines: We love you as a street-wise urban prophet, but not so much as a proxy UN reporter. The real-life vision and direct engagement that we liked so much in City of Quartz was missing from your Planet of Slums. Please stop reading statistics and come join us in Koliwada-Dharavi!

More on that theme here.

The Metabolic City


Satellite image of North Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

According to Kisho Kurokawa – a proponent of the metabolist architectural movement – “Western Culture…based on modernism, cannot be discussed without reference to its… [reliance on] dualism and binominal opposition … Dualism is the fundamental base of rationalism of the modern West. Spirit and form, freedom and necessity, good and evil, reaction and reform, art and science, intellect and emotion, humanity and nature, tradition and technology, capitalism and socialism, the individual and the whole…” (1998).

To this list of oppositions we can add city and village, modern and primitive, formal and informal, order and mess or “noise”, as Kurokawa calls it in reference to Edgar Morin’s theory of noise. According to Kurokawa, in Japan, order includes noise. This is why Japanese cities are so tolerant to those forms of urbanism that Western notions of planning and urban order would call “irrational”, “messy” or even “slummy”.

A city, says Kurokawa, “is also composed of complex and multilayered relations between an organized structure and the multivalent, heterogeneous elements that can be called noise. The city is always changing dynamically as it continually incorporates new elements. The open structure, or receptivity, is a special feature of the Japanese city and one it shares with other Asian cities.”

Japanese cities have largely evolved as unplanned habitats in a gradual, incremental manner, which blurred many of the dichotomies at the root of Western conceptions of urban planning, including those between urban and rural. Greater Tokyo was developed over the small patches of farm land surrounding the ancient capital of Edo. This “pattern gives continuity with the past, [it is a] kind of patchwork [that] is the main urban replacement of an agricultural … landscape” (Shelton 1999).


Mixed-used, unplanned and crowded streets in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo.

Observers of Tokyo have for long admired its fluidity, its capacity to constantly reinvent itself and its ability of multiplying, juxtaposing, and overlaying functions. The history of Tokyo’s urban development in the past century is mainly one of incremental and spontaneous development of the parts assembling to form a whole. Modernizers have for long attempted to “rationalize” Tokyo, but were ultimately unable to cope with the extremely rapid demographic and urban expansion.

What made this process quite distinctive (from other Asian urban histories) is that official policies did not dismiss the city’s organic evolution. The mixed-use habitats, the village like social foundations of the urban neighbourhoods and the low-rise high density landscape emerged as a default urban model. A model that was not seen as an ideal one by planners, but which also was not considered illegitimate. In fact the government engineered projects related to sewage, water supply, electricity and roads to reach every corner of these neighbourhoods through private agencies. These agencies had to negotiate labyrinthine inner roads and unexpected twists and turns, an inevitable feature of such habitats, but eventually succeeded with ingenious and innovative use of technological inputs.

The “metabolist” approach theorized by Kisho Kurokawa describes the city as a living organism, an evolving system that is being produced from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. Each part of the city has its functions and sense of locality, and it integrates the whole in its own terms. We believe that there is much to be learned from the Tokyo “default” model, especially at a time when emergent cities throughout the world – facing unprecedented rates of urbanization – are battling with the idea of “modern urban form”. Broadening their conception of what a city can be would be the single biggest step central planners, bureaucrats, and policy-makers could make in the direction of improving the life of slum dwellers in developing cities, since it would allow for more sensible planning interventions.


From a local commercial lane to a tiny community pathway. A fractal pattern that repeats itself all over Tokyo. Photos taken in Ikebukuro, seconds away from 4 lanes roads and high rise buildings.

An interview with SANAA

October 5, 2008


New Museum, New York City which opened in December 2007

SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa) is one of the most en vogue architecture office in Tokyo. They recently designed the New Museum in Manhattan. They also designed the Learning Center at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Here is an excerpt from an interview we made for the Taiwanese magazine EGG, which published a special issue on SANAA in Summer 2007. For the full interview click here.


Gallery space in the New Museum

How does the New Museum project in New York relate to the city?

N: New Museum was a difficult project. It is difficult for a museum to be so open to the outside. It needs walls to hang up the paintings. An enclosed space is necessary. One of the striking features of the New Museum is that it is right in the middle of the city. It is not in the outskirts like many museums. Also it doesn’t exhibit classical art, it is very contemporary. This is why they wanted to be in the middle of the city. So the question for us was how to open up the museum in this context.

So how did you manage?

N: We opened up the ground floor, people can get in and out for free, go to the cafe or the bookstore.

S: The design of the New Museum is based on the concept of shifting box, which allows us to create an open skyline. The building literally opens up to the sky. The shifting boxes create terraces allowing people to go in and out in the middle of the building.

N: As people go up the atmosphere changes. Each floor has a different relationship to the city and offers a different experience. The ground level is very messy, in direct contact with street life. From the top we can see the skyline of New York and the Chrysler building. Of course the clients wanted walls to exhibit art, but we wanted windows because the view is so interesting!

In Japan buildings are typically not built to last more than 20 or 30 years, whereas in Europe architects don’t usually think about their work as temporary. How do you view your work in time?

N: Most of the Roman buildings are gone, except for a few bridges and the Pantheon which are still standing. In Japan some ancient temples remain thanks to maintenance. We expect our buildings to stand for a really long time, but I cannot say forever. Maybe a hundred years at the maximum. But the city has a longer life span. The city lives through many generations.

S: With many changes.

N: Yes, I feel nothing changes in European cities. The notion is that the city must preserve the same form forever. I go to Asian cities and I see everything changed since the last time. The population is growing. The life of the people is changing and the city is changing with it. In China and Tokyo I see many things happening, many changes. This is like moving with the life. This is a very different viewpoint. In Europe the idea is that cities must stay the same, in Asia cities must change. I cannot say which one is the good view.

Tokyo is the biggest city in the world and yet it is often described as a collection of small villages. What is your idea of Tokyo, thinking specifically about the notion of scale from very small to extremely big?

S: I use a very limited part of Tokyo, so in this sense Tokyo feels like a village. I cannot say I have an overall image of Tokyo. Physically I cannot tell what are the boundaries of Tokyo.

N: Tokyo appears to be very much disorganized but actually it is a city which works really well. There is no train delay. Every morning huge crowds are moved in a very orderly way from one point to the other. Very few crimes are committed in Tokyo. It is actually very orderly, even if the landscape looks disorderly. Some Westerners come to Tokyo and say this is chaos! Maybe it is true but people manage it very well.

S: It is a chaotic but also extremely dynamic place. Somehow it looks generic and not well organized but so many things happen in Tokyo. One bad aspect of Tokyo is that people cannot spend time without money, which is also related to the physical reality of the city. But since the economy was bad for so long, we gradually learned how to enjoy the city without much money!

Dharavikitazawa

October 1, 2008


Structures from Dharavi (Mumbai) are inserted in this Tokyo landscape.

Here are a few collages showing how strikingly similar are the urban typologies of Dharavi (Mumbai) and many neighborhoods of Tokyo, in this case Shimokitazawa.

Shimokitazawa was preserved from destruction and redevelopment throughout the war, up to the present. As a result, the town developed incrementally along its narrow streets, retaining a village-like feel that contributes to its popularity. Characterized by low rise buildings, pedestrian space, bustling ground-level market activity, and tight community networks, Shimokitazawa represents an alternative model of urban development: the informal, unplanned city that consolidated through time.

These two neighborhoods shave many similarities despite evolving radically different contexts. Their common characteristics are indicative of some important global urban dynamics usually ignored by planning authorities.


Dharavi, left and Shimokitazawa, right.

Both neighborhoods are seen as “messy”, non-functional, irrationally laid out, hard to navigate, even harder to map out, nearly impossible to access by car, not zoned, mixed-use, full of narrow pedestrian streets with crowded storefronts, mobile vendors and groups of people hanging out. Moreover, they are havens for marginal groups and informal (or illegal) activities, and breeding grounds for all types of anti-conformist attitudes, subversive activities and movements of resistance.

In fact, there is nothing rational about denouncing them as messy. It says more about the ideology or phobia of whom is pointing the finger than anything. Indeed, this “mess” hides a different order. In the case of Shimokitazawa and Dharavi, we witness the emergence of new cultural, social, and economic patterns, which might well be some type of a global edge; an early adaptation to deep transformations in our ways of working, socializing, interacting and thinking.


Shimokitazawa streetscape with Dharavi house on the right.

Both neighborhoods are populated by creative, highly mobile, and entrepreneurial people who generate economic opportunities for themselves. They have developed sophisticated social networks, relying on the most intensive used of available technologies. Mobile phone stands can be found at every corner of Dharavi. Shimokitazawa’s youth working on wirelessly networked laptops convert small living spaces into creative offices. The distinction between living space and working space is also blurred in Dharavi with residents using their apartments, for instance, as daytime workshops, storage place and by the hour rental rooms. In both neighborhoods, commercial activity at the street level is dominated by a web of flea-market type specialty shops, representing a de facto alternative to the mainstream department store-office-factory model of commercial development.


The old Black Market in Shimokitwazawa (right) and Dharavi (left).

There is nothing surprising about the fact that real-estate developers ignore the richness of what they are willing to destroy in the pursuit of profit. What is chocking however is to see governments buying (or should I say selling?) into that tabula raza urban development approach. Especially since they claim, loud and clear, to be committed to the involvement of communities into the planning of their habitats.

Both Shimokitazawa and Dharavi are threatened by redevelopment plans from the government, acting on behalf of powerful real estate interests.

The Tokyo “default” model

August 26, 2008


This photo, taken on higher ground and looking across a valley, gives an idea of the extent of Tokyo’s destruction caused by the Allied B-29 fire bombing of the city. Ohio State University – Archives

Tokyo represents a default model of development for developing cities around the world. An alternative vision can be generated by the study of the “shadow history” of Tokyo’s urban development. That is, by looking not at the history of urban planning in Tokyo, but rather at what developed outside the plan.

Greater Tokyo developed gradually from the Edo period onwards. The central area of Tokyo was very much planned from the start. The periphery however largely grew spontaneously. Villages surrounding the city were swallowed up by the sprawling city and small lots of farming land were gradually converted to residential, commercial and industrial uses.


Tokyo hut dwellers 1955, photo by Horace Bristol/Three Lions/Getty Images

During the Second World War firebombs dropped by the Allied air force destroyed most of Tokyo. The Ministry of City Planning had been producing ambitious urban plans based on modern planning theory since the 1920s. However, for a number of reasons, including the pressing needs for economic redevelopment and shelter, the lack of financial resources, and the absence of legal mechanisms for land acquisition by the state, the plans were never implemented . The government focused instead on industrial and infrastructure development to support the economy, leaving the reconstruction of residential and commercial areas to local actors, who rebuilt the city from scratch.

In the suburbs therefore planning was usually limited to water supply and railway transport system. For a long time “traditional Japanese urban development and management strategies were still wide still practiced and quite effective” (Sorensen 2002, p.149). Moreover, the government relied extensively on local self-reliance before and particularly during the war, and to a lesser extends afterwards. All these factors contributed to create strong neighborhood organizations and a sense of community and local identity.


Shibuya: The shoppers wear the wartime period heavy winter garments. The seated lady is selling lottery tickets, a device encouraged by the Occupation as a stimulus to the domestic economy. Ohio State University – Archives

This pattern of development has basically been maintained even till today. This explains why Tokyo has both; one of the best infrastructures in the world and a housing stock of great variety. The residential urbanism of Tokyo is characterized by low rise buildings and high population density. “In spite of some deliberate planning attempts to widen major streets and introduce reinforce concrete buildings the majority of neighborhoods were characterized by flimsy wooden constructions, and slum-type housing dominated many areas until the 1960s” (Carola Hein et al 2003, p. 26).

While the architecture has incrementally been upgraded, the urban typology is still very much informal and messy-looking, with extremely narrow and labyrinthine streets, shack type structures built with metal sheets and wood. What can be mistaken for urban mess by the casual observer (especially if that observer happens to be a classically trained planner or architect), is actually a highly efficient and complex urban organization. As Ryue Nishizawa of Sanaa put it in a recent interview, “this is not master planning in a Western way. The city is developing without a master plan, in a natural way… Tokyo appears to be very much disorganized but actually it is a city which works really well. There is no train delay. Every morning huge crowds are moved in a very orderly way from one point to the other. Very few crimes are committed in Tokyo. It is actually very orderly, even if the landscape looks disorderly. Some Westerners come to Tokyo and say this is chaos! Maybe it is true but people manage it very well.” (Nishizawa [SANAA] 2007).


Neighborhood retailer in Shimokitazawa. Photo by Save the Shimokitazawa.

An important characteristic of the “Tokyo default model” is mixed-used zoning. This was, again, not a planning choice, in fact, it could happen only because there was no central plan. Many positive outcomes mixed-use have been observed – such as safety and continuing liveliness of central city areas. In spite of being the largest metropolitan area in the world (32 million people), Tokyo is also one of the safest cities in the world. (This is clearly the case in Dharavi as well as many writers – including Kalpana Sharma in ‘Re-discovering Dharavi’ – have pointed out). Small-scale industrial activity, such as printing, wood work, textile manufacturing, and so on can been seen all over Tokyo’s neighborhoods. This leniency towards mixed-use has permitted to preserve small-scale family type businesses in one of the most advanced economy in the world. It also prevent the high degree of residential segregation along income lines that one finds in the US.

The Tokyo model suggests that it is possible to upgrade informal settlements in situ, by focusing on infrastructure development and relying on community self-determination. Master plans are needed for infrastructure development (roads, water, electricity, sewage), but local urban development is better determined at community level, with the help of experts and the technical and financial assistance of the government and the private sector.


Low-rise high density in Shimokitazawa. Photo by Save the Shimokitazawa.

The accidental Tokyo model for the organic city can liberate thousands of urban neighborhoods in Asia, Africa and Latin America from otherwise being condemned to being referred to and treated as slums. It can break through Mike Davis’s apocalyptic vision that weighs under its own predictions because of a weak conceptualizing of the category ‘slum’ itself, which reflects a devastatingly circular logic that traps millions of the urban poor into a situation of forced victimization.

Tokyo challenges this. It connects the raw material of traditional urbanism (resident-authored, socially and economically enmeshed in local contexts) to the most high-tech, almost futuristic experience of urban life. Its railway network inter-weaves thousands of neighborhoods into a large metropolis without violating inner-urban worlds too much. While its high-rise pockets and neon-lights may blind one into believing that it is an evolution of Manhattan and Singapore, a deeper look at Tokyo (escaping the large avenues and getting lost in the narrow streets hiding behind) reveals a city that is gloriously untidy and medieval in its essence. This untidiness is really an expression of its human scale, fidelity to low-rise high-density structures and dynamic neighborhoods that are experienced as organized spaces even if they do not look it.

However, Tokyo too has long being victimized by a “global urban design style”, that we could refer to as the generic city, which completely dominates the mind of city planners and developers in cities all over the world. The resistance underway in Shimokitazawa epitomizes the struggle between that vision and the desire of local communities to preserve the urban character of their neighborhoods. After all, before we decide otherwise for the future, Tokyo is only a “default” model born as much out of the capacity of central planners to develop an outstanding infrastructure as by their incapability of master planning the biggest megacity in the world and the consequent necessity to defer urban development to local actors.


Local actors taking over in Shimokitazawa. Photo by Save the Shimokitazawa.

Tokyo Future Slum

Half of Tokyo was flattened during World War II. It was then rebuilt in haste to accommodate people’s need for shelter and livelihood. There were big master plans for Tokyo, but because of budgetary and time constraints the central government instead focused on infrastructure, leaving residential and commercial development to local actors.

This pattern of development has basically been maintained even till today and explains why Tokyo has both; one of the best infrastructures in the world and a housing stock of great variety. Typical low rent flats in Tokyo, such as mine, get very cold in the winter and very hot in the Summer

The residential urbanism of Tokyo is characterized by low rise buildings and high density. “In spite of some deliberate planning attempts to widen major streets and introduce reinforce concrete buildings the majority of neighborhoods were characterized by flimsy wooden constructions, and slum-type housing dominated many areas until the 1960s” (Carola Hein 2003).

While the architecture has incrementally been upgraded, the urban typology is still very much informal and slummy-looking, with extremely narrow and labyrinthine streets, self-made looking houses, often with parts added-on, made of material such as metal sheets and wood. Moreover most neighborhoods are very much mixed-use. Walking through the countless residential streets of Tokyo always leads to fascinating findings. Below are some shots of a recent walk in the historical streets of Yanaka.

What I find fascinating is that we can clearly see the past of Tokyo as a slum. How much of a good thing it was that these slummy areas were not master planned and “redeveloped” but rather left to develop on their own and retrofitted with modern infrastructure. Tokyo is a model of development for developing cities which are so often ashamed of their slums and dream of vertical modernity. Slum is vernacular architecture. This is history and culture. Don’t destroy it, develop it!


What a beautiful shack, even the electric pole is bent.


Step inside and it is a wonderful mess.


This is NOT Brazil. This Tokyo!


Metal sheets, the characteristic material of slums around the world…


Informal add-on to the house. Incrementally developing.


What about building a deck on the roof?

And if you need wood or a ladder you can get it from the neighbor

Below a sento, traditional Japanese public bath.

Below, my favorite wood house. Is it traditional architecture or a slum-type house? And what’s the difference anyways?

For more on the Tokyo model of urban development, from slum to future city, you can take a look at a memo Rahul and I prepared for the “Slum Rehabilitation Authority” (SRA) in Mumbai. This is the government agency in charge of the “Dharavi Redevelopment Project”.

Memo: The Tokyo Model of Urban Development