Saturday 31 October 2015

Confounding expectations

Before visiting Japan, I had little understanding of planning outside of an Australian context. I will use examples from Kyoto, Sendai, Tokyo and Natori to explain my observations.

I held some very specific and generalised expectations of Japanese cities, particularly regarding density and public open spaces. Due to Japan’s vast cultural differences, I expected the use and function of public open spaces to vary greatly from those in Australia and that medium and high density housing would only be present in urban and suburban areas. Yet I was surprised to discover on the train ride to Shin-Osaka, the high density of housing in rural areas of the Kansai region. I also did not expect the reverse feature of large gardens in urban areas. These gardens were abundant in Kyoto, particularly at the foothills of the mountains. In Yurigaoka; Natori, a housing area which had hints of a western style estate with winding roads and cul-de-sacs, maintained many aspects of traditional Japanese housing such as the positioning and style of houses. These findings demonstrated how cultural differences, particularly perceptions of land use, privacy and community can impact housing. Japanese planning seems to reflect this aspect of the culture, as development is dense, buildings are quite interactive with the street and block sizes are small and relatively uniform.

Since the end of WW2, Japan has experienced rapid economic growth which is evident in all cities but I found this most apparent in Tokyo. Japan has a long and eventful history, yet do not seem to prioritise the preservation of historically significant buildings. I believe this is also a reflection of the Japanese culture which places an importance on a natural features such as mountains or lakes more than the built environment. In Tokyo Central, many buildings around the train station were no older than 50 years old. Some were imitations or homages to the previous building, indicating very different design controls than those in Australia. In Shinjuku, the push for innovation sees the continuous upgrading and renewal of office towers. The government have defined this area as a future world business and economic hub. I have concluded from my time in Tokyo that the city will continue to strive for a highly modernised and innovative image. Despite the human centred layout of most Japanese cities, environmental sustainability has not previously been a major issue in Japan in recent years due to a booming economy and a large amount of land available for development. I noticed what seemed to be a more recent concern for environmental sustainability in Japanese planning, particularly as it continues to grow as a global city.

My final observation concerns the similarities between Japan and western cities or Australian cities. I am unaware whether this expectation was due to my lack of planning knowledge or limited experience in foreign countries, however I noticed a few small parallels. Large shopping malls such as the Aeon Mall in Sendai, seemed like exact copies of what is seen in Australia. The rehousing estate for tsunami devastated communities closely resembles designs of 10 minute neighbourhoods and estates in Australia. I have realised that what I perceive as western style development are more so features of global urban development.

Observing Japanese cities has enabled me to understand that planning is highly dependent on culture and context. I realise that each individual city’s history and identity has direct implications on its form and growth. 

Tess Coates 

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