In the past five years, Seoul has gone from one of East Asia’s ugliest mega-cities to one of its most livable and attractive. The transformation has been rapid. While I think Tokyo is often stunted by its autocratic government and urban planning, Seoul shows that East Asian cities can be dynamic and forward-looking.
On a visit last summer, I toured new city parks (the Cheonggyecheon river and Seonyudo island), visited art galleries, experienced the mix of old and cutting edge architecture, and met meta-designers, Seoul’s city brand manager, and a national environmental researcher.
The Japan Times published an interesting story about the lack of benches on Tokyo’s streets. From the official government and planning perspective, streets are for moving traffic and pedestrians. The idea of city streets as a community space is not a factor.
I am always struck by how retrograde city planning is in Tokyo. As an architect professor friend told me, Tokyo’s many narrow, single-grade small streets-which are now considered the “new” thing in the US and Europe for promoting walking and biking-are undoubtedly considered shameful relics by the city’s traffic planners, whose mission is to move auto traffic as rapidly as possible.
The most innovative ideas for using streets as community life seem to come from residents (see my previous posts about residents supplying their own bus stop seating), and from real estate corporations that own enough Tokyo land to motivate them to create unique and livable streets. I thought of the latter last week seeing the many public benches in the Marunouchi district’s wide, tree-lined streets. The district is largely owned by Mitsubishi Real Estate.
A recent New York Times story about vandalism of Paris’ visionary Velib bike-sharing program highlighted an enormous advantage that Tokyo has in creating great public spaces: the respect that citizens pay to shared space and to each other.
To mitigate climate change, reduce traffic and clean the city’s air, Paris created a remarkable bike sharing program, with over 20,000 bicycles available throughout Paris at a very low rental price. With 50,000 to 150,000 daily trips, this bike-sharing program created a real impact on how residents and tourists traversed the city. Since 2007, more than 80% of the sturdy bicycles have been stolen or vandalized beyond repair.
The New York Times quotes Parisian police and sociologists who blame the attacks on “resentful, angry or anarchic youth” in a “socially divide Paris.” Specific blame is given to suburban youth, the mostly poor immigrants who live in the outskirts of the city and view the bicycles as a symbol of urban privilege that they lack.
Compared to the extreme inequality in many global cities, Tokyo remains surprisingly safe and clean. This allows for some amazing new public spaces, from the wonderous Ginza Farm open to everyone and unguarded– disturbed in five months only by a raccoon hungry for one of its ducks (more on this later)– to the many common gardens and plants placed outside homes and shops.
Most Tokyo residents are unaware that their relative social harmony is unique. With public behavior the norm, there are unparalleled opportunities to create even more exciting new public spaces that revitalize human life connected to plants and wildlife. Public spaces open at night, habitats that require clean running water, valuable plants that require time and care to mature, the care that individuals and organizations invest in place-making are all more likely to be respected and allowed to thrive in Tokyo.