*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Japanese versus N. American Streets: Differences

I read a great article in Grist this morning by Charles Marohn: "Confessions of a recovering engineer".  If you have an interest in urban spaces, you are probably familiar with how zoning requirements sterilize our cities and facilitate vehicle movement, rather than human pleasure or safety.  The long history of missed chances and plain idiocy in road zoning is better explained by Steve Munro than me, and in some of the links to the right.  There are arguments that the N. American attitude is romantic-pastoral, and that the people who plan cities do not like them.  The results would not differ much if it be true.

I can't help but compare two neighbourhoods I know with a similar demographic:  Tokyo's Shimokitazawa, and Toronto's Kensington Market.


So where would rather go?  Shimokitazawa of course.  Before we figure out why, I think it is interesting to see what is similar about them.  Primarily, they are both organic neighbourhoods such as Jane Jacobs championed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Kensington was a Jewish enclave, and Shimokita was a cheap student-ghetto.  Although their original histories differ, both have been taken over by a 'bohemian' element: usually young and often of student age.  As they have become popular, both have been under threat from gentrification.  There are a wealth of inexpensive places to eat and drink, or to shop, in each.  They have both survived by being ignored by city planners.  They are each one of the best pedestrian attractions their city has, and each a showcase of the value of urban environments.

So why do I find Shimokitazawa far more interesting?  You might think it is because it is 'foreign' to me, but though I'll never pretend fluency in Japanese I am a multi-year resident of Tokyo, not a visitor.  Is it because Shimokita is much bigger?  No, it is about 150% the size, as seen on a map.  However, there is a much greater number of establishments in Shimokita, both because Japanese shops often use a smaller floor area, and because more building space and less blacktop is used in Japan, and especially in this neighbourhood.  Cultural differences are subjective; the objective difference is density.

No, there is one more objective difference, but I wonder if you noticed it.  There was a big hint in the Kensington video from the 1:05 mark.  Yeah, it's the cars.  Kensington is cluttered with them, and the streets are designed for them.  Shimokita is not a designated car-free neighbourhood, nor do I know if they have any 'Pedestrian Sundays'.  Ginza and Shinjuku, and Kensington, have.  Shimokita does not have a designated car-free day, because it doesn't need one: it was designed before the car.  Shimokita is one of dozens of Tokyo neighbourhoods that are like the Dutch 'Woonerf'.  You can drive there, and deliveries are made by motorized transportation, but cars are lower on the pecking order than people: there's nowhere to park, and getting through by car is slower than on foot.  When cars are overwhelmed the pedestrian rules.  It also helps that there is a commuter rail station in the heart of Shimokita.

Jane Jacobs needed an entire book to address the fallacies of the urban planning of her time.  I am going to need another post to gloss several fallacies of ours: automobile prioritization and the intentional and unintentional preservation of low density.

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