“Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City” by Jorge Almazán

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How can one design a city to be more like Tokyo? This is the challenge that Jorge Almazan and Studiolab have set themselves in studying what they describe as “one of the most vibrant and liveable cities on the planet”. Their method involves categorizing Tokyo’s subparts into different types of development, and charting the emergence over the last 150 years of a series of distinctive styles of urban space. By doing this, they not only hope to explore the city for the interested reader and traveler, but also to draw out a series of practical lessons for the urban planners of the future.

The authors examine fifteen examples of Tokyo development, grouped into five different archetypes. These five are: Dense Low-Rise Neighborhoods, Ankyo Streets, Yokocho Alleyways, Zakkyo Buildings, and Undertrack Infills. These patterns of meandering streets and residential areas, tightly packed micro-bars and restaurants and multi-level commercial buildings are repeated in different variations across the city. Each archetype is examined in detail, with a discussion of their historical development and planning considerations, before the concrete examples are explored, complete with photographs, maps, and bird’s-eye cut-away perspectives.

The examples are drawn from the 23 central wards of Tokyo (which account for some 2/3 of the population of the city proper, or between ½ to 1/3 of the metropolitan area once places such as Yokohama and Kanagawa are included). Nevertheless, alongside familiar locations such as Shinjuku and Ginza, the book visits Shirokane, Kuhombutsu, and Nakanobu, otherwise unremarkable Tokyo suburbs. In doing so, they seek to offer more than the impressions of a first-time visitor, and to explore the deeper perspectives of everyday life in the capital.

 

Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City, Jorge Almazán, Studiolab, Joe McReynolds (Oro Editions, April 2022)
Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City, Jorge Almazán, Studiolab, Joe McReynolds (Oro Editions, April 2022)

There’s much to learn from this book, even if you don’t necessarily agree with the authors’ highly positive assessment of Tokyo as a city (indeed, a more concrete definition of what makes for “human scale liveability” might help make their case more convincing).

Central to the book’s argument is the interplay between history and planning in allowing new types of development to emerge spontaneously. Tokyo’s origins as the Tokugawa capital Edo, split between the high city of the samurai and the shitamachi of the merchants and artisans, is fairly well known, but the 20th-century also had a profound impact on the capital’s current shape. The earthquake of 1923 destroyed buildings across the region, sparking a period of rebuilding and expansion beyond the circular Yamanote railway. Indeed, some of the small, low rise residential areas (particularly in the south) which retain a sense of community despite Tokyo’s vast sprawl date from this era, rather than the Tokugawa period.

Then, the decades following World War Two also saw transformations. Temporary constructions such as black markets that were thrown up once the American bombing stopped had to be replaced and the city rebuilt. Emergent Tokyo demonstrates that the decision to relocate many of the temporary markets (rather than to eliminate them outright) laid the ground for some of the most iconic areas of bars and restaurants which persist in the city today. The final period of rapid change was the preparation for the 1964 Olympics. The construction of elevated road and rail sections exposed spaces beneath the tracks and highways which were colonized by another series of micro-shops and bars.

It is notable that the forms of urban development which the book celebrates are not the ones for which 21st-century Tokyo is perhaps most famous: no Roppongi Hills-style projects, no high-profile sights like the Tokyo Skytree, and not even any of the extensive redesigns which have been going on around the major rail terminals. Rather, the focus is on “emergence”: the process by which small-scale developers and individual landowners or businesspeople have responded to historical circumstance and planning rules to develop idiosyncratic and spontaneous forms of development. Whilst often these were decisions made on the fly, they nevertheless led to some of the most characteristic forms of the city, ones which continue to shape the lives of Tokyo residents. For the urban designer, this might be a note of optimism or perhaps pessimism: their decisions do matter, but likely not in the ways in which they anticipate.

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The authors are keen to challenge an existing scholarship (“Tokyology”) which they see as explaining the city with reference to some essential Japanese character. However (largely because of this existing scholarship?) the point of comparison for Tokyo’s development is often a category of “Western cities”. This both omits the likes of Beijing and Seoul and Hong Kong, and lumps together London and Los Angeles and Houston and Berlin to name but four – cities with very different histories and patterns of development. For residents of some cities, with uniform and tight planning rules, the concept of emergence may seem surprising and distinctive, but for others, with longer histories of more haphazard development, it likely seems more familiar.

Finally, the authors sound a note of caution for Tokyo’s future. The macro-scale projects which marked the run-up to the 2020 Olympics, they argue, have not retained the space for individual creativity that were integral to the rise of the archetypes considered in this book. The risk, therefore, is that mega-finance, ever in search of a return, and central planners, keen to upgrade the city’s resilience to natural disasters, may be in the process of eroding the very features which make Tokyo distinctive. The owners of bars and restaurants in some of the districts Emergent Tokyo studies have gathered together to form collectives in order to resist pressure to rebuild, but most of these owners are ageing, and so the future is uncertain. For now, however, the opportunity remains to grab some yakitori under the railway tracks, or to take a walk through a residential district of homes and shops, and in doing so, to participate in Tokyo’s rich urban history.


Ian Rapley is a lecturer in modern Japanese history at Cardiff University.