Saturday 31 October 2015

A place for everything?

It didn’t take long for all the young, aspiring, keen LTU & RMIT planners to be mildly shocked (as we’d only like to admit) as soon as our train left from Osaka’s Kansai Airport. What could be forgiven for land to be filled with low density developments was being used as seemingly small-scale agricultural plots. In the areas that we saw, every square metre of land had a use, whether it be the cabbage fields that nestle in that small space between the rails, roads, and tiny towns… or the tiny towns themselves, with their small scale and compact nature. As Lea (2005) helped make clear, a larger than normal proportion of the farms in Japan were community supported, that being a farm that could entirely sustain customers from local orders.

Small Farming Plots between Osaka's Kansai Airport and the City itself

In Japan, this is probably not a planning issue; it’s simply just what they do. This mentality of living small and compact might scare a few people where I’m from, where the thought of using your land in the Farming Zone for farming is a bloody outrage, but for planners, seeing things run so efficiently and sustainably is like a utopia… kind of.
Everything is on time, clean, neat, and orderly, everything seems perfect. But for most people, our favourite cities are those that have character, those cities that are run-down in places, and healing in others. Not that anyone listens to the Economist’s opinions on cities anymore, but I don’t think Melbourne earned their most liveable city title with the punctuality of their high-speed transit network.
A glimpse of the colourful late night Japan

Japan had its character, but it was up to you to hunt it down. Hidden beyond the usual location of central business districts, underground bars in alleyways accommodated the drunken extroverted egos of the businessmen that we saw shuffle out of the central stations in the swarm of suits. Further precincts scattered the central core to act as characteristic land marks, Shibuya or Harajuku in Tokyo for example. However, on face value these cities lacked character. When I say this, I mean the public art, modern architecture, heritage buildings, and their general view towards mixed use.

A question that a member of our group asked that got stuck with me on a walking tour of Tokyo’s CBD was if anyone lived there. The property developer who was also our guide must have thought he made it pretty obvious that no one does, otherwise it wouldn’t be called the business district, it would be the business and high-density residential district, or something more specific like that. The central areas of Tokyo each had their roles, and they were obviously divided, perhaps for the reason of clarity. Makes sense, I guess.

One of Tokyo’s central districts: obviously intended for shopping and entertainment.

Another unusual trend that was explained to us was the replacement of heritage buildings. While the lack of heritage places in Japanese cities is understandable, the ones that remain just seem to get in the way of higher density developments. The solution of this is to demolish the heritage place, rebuild it a very similar appearance, and then chuck a skyscraper on top. Imagine trying to pull that off in Melbourne. This kind of thing was common, at least in Tokyo, where we had to be told which building was old and which was new. The traditionally creative elements in a city didn’t seem to matter to the Japanese; perhaps it could be seen as a threat to efficiency. Maybe they’re just not as shallow as I am.

Despite the differences on the visible level, we could all identify where Japanese planning got things right. In most cases, these were on the important issues such as sustainable transport, density and limiting sprawl, and taking advantage of productive agricultural land.

Brendan Aikman


Lea, E 2005, ‘Food, health, the environment and consumers’ dietary choices’, Nutrition & Dietetics, vol. 65, pp. 21-25

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