Saturday 31 October 2015

Drivers of liveability and places for fun

Despite the ancient status of Japan, the nation is certainly not stuck in time. Efficiency appears to be the primary ideal of the national psyche. This is especially evident in Japan’s ability to support a large population with dense housing options and an extensive public transport network. These successes portray an incredibly liveable city. However, many other factors which appear to drive liveability in Australia, are perhaps less important in Japan. The quality of urban design in many landscapes is one example.

A week in Japan presented a series of cities characterised by heavily engineered infrastructure and excessive signage displays despite an otherwise monotone colour scheme. In endeavouring to achieve efficiency on all fronts, the amenity of many public places seems to have been compromised. Heavily pruned street trees strongly exemplify this notion. Australian cities may plant trees to improve street aesthetics, however they also serve a practical function through the provision of shade. Conversely, the pruned form of street trees in Japan did not enable this luxury. Many Japanese cities also demonstrated a strong presence of exposed powerlines. Even in a newly built, post tsunami suburb, unsightly, overhead powerlines remained the norm. 

Elevated pedestrian bypasses were a common sight in Japan, even in rural Tsunami-devastated areas. More than anything, they were a great example of over-engineering, remaining unused and being situated on roads where traffic flow was not excessive 
A humble built environment did not only reflect an ambitious drive toward efficiency, furthermore, it also reflected the modesty of the Japanese people and their disciplined society. Japan’s efficiency may provide an environment where liveability is high, however the extent to which such modest environments can enable happiness is questionable. A complete lack of graffiti in Japan is one of the most prominent demonstrations of the nation’s cleanliness. First impressions of this cleanliness provide a sense of security. However, this can also be considered a demonstration of a lack diversity and vibrancy. This is in strong contrast to the street art scene in Melbourne, for instance. The ability for Melbourne residents to leave their mark on the city and explore streets as a centre of art, rather than a simple thoroughfare is much more evident in Melbourne as opposed to many of the cities which were explored in Japan.

Other centres visited throughout the tour, such as Nishi Shinjuku and Otemachi represented efforts to parallel the style of western cities. This was evident in tree canopies being allowed to grow less interrupted, powerlines being positioned below ground level, roadways being wide and car-dominated and buildings being much taller and sophisticated in their design. In these precincts, Kit explained the lack of compassion held toward heritage buildings. Intentions to implement high quality urban design measures were obvious in these precincts. However, a lack of vibrancy continued to prevail. Although these districts strongly resembled an American built form, even a short time in the United States has demonstrated that the way a space is used, is a strong reflection of culture. And the purity of the Japanese culture has barely surrendered to western uses of space. This is especially evident in a national lack of bins and street seating which could hold even the smallest possibility of encouraging lingering and fowl-play. Bob Hastings, of Portland’s public transport agency, TriMet, says that above all, it is important to have fun. It is questionable what place fun has in the Japanese context. A very stressed, Japanese train conductor did certainly not appear to be having fun as she rushed 35 Australians onto the Shinkansen, most likely terrified of destroying the national’s optimal average delay times.

Harry Bell


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