The DNA of a Japanese Suburb

“In many new office buildings the windows don’t open. In especially bad buildings, like the average Wal-Mart, windows are dispensed with nearly altogether. This process of disconnection from the past and the future, and from the organic patterns of weather and light, done for the sake of expedience, ends up diminishing us spiritually, impoverishing us socially, and degrading the aggregate set of cultural patterns that we call civilization.” – James Howard Kunstler, “Home from Nowhere.”

Kunstler is writing about American cities, back in 1996. His article, linked above, is an analysis of where urban planning went wrong. Reading Kunstler in Japan, I decided to apply this “new urbanism” to the town and city where I live.

The Neighborhood
Each Japanese neighborhood is named for its train station, which is more recognizable than the real town. The train station is 30 minutes away or less, by foot, from the next, so there is never more than a 15 minute walk to a train and, therefore, the rest of Japan.

Homes and apartments are spread like spiral staircases around the train station. Straight roads are reserved for commerce. The roads in the older towns are small enough that you can cross the street without a stoplight, if you wanted to, despite moving traffic.

The Japanese Sidewalk.

Sidewalks are narrow. In my city, they are slabs of stone set over a drainage system. They make a satisfying clunking sound when you walk on them. Bikes and people share space away from cars in an agitating spectacle of a good idea gone horribly wrong, but most of that can be summed up to poor teaching of right-of-way (The problem is much worse in denser cities).

There is a “street wall” almost haphazardly built to accommodate the Japanese desire for privacy; this wall is usually made of stone, tall trees, or both. Sometimes these trees bear fruit: I can grab persimmon, oranges and pears every day as I walk home. The walls make me feel like I am wandering through a real map, with thick black lines on either side of me. It’s disorienting at first – especially since streets don’t have names, or buildings numbers – but soon you feel like the walls are a guide, and not a hindrance to free movement.

Yards are rare, but the unrelenting force of nature makes up for that. With volcanic soil and resilient, hyperlocalized species, any unplanned space quickly becomes a refuge for a thriving miniature ecosystem. It is not manufactured or landscaped. It is wild and leafy.

By comparison, America’s lawns and parking lots tend to be prohibitively unrestrictive. There is no sense of continuity between spaces; everything becomes a disjointed monument and the wide, open fields are unnatural and environmentally unsupportable. Which is ironic, because Japan actually is a collection of disjointed monuments.

Because residential areas wind like DNA around rods of commerce, you can shop, eat and play just outside of home. Within walking distance I have an enormous outdoor running track surrounding a pond, three udon shops, two grocery stores, two photo labs, a book/CD store and 300,000 conbinis. There are two banks, a cell phone retailer, a community center and a shrine. None of this effects my home, which, on the arc, looks to the side of a mountain and the lake.

Because of the spiral, and the direct routes to the center of the spiral, you have many ways to move from point A to B. This is great for walking dogs, jogging, biking or simply changing the route to work. As Kunstler points out, varied routes also means decreased traffic.

On Cars
The structure of Japanese suburbs is unchanged since the 1500’s, based on the connections between farms or access to the sea. This changed with the advent of the railway, which ushered in the era of commuting.

But cars are still rare. Parking lots are underground or stand in narrow strips between rows of buildings, essentially hidden by the buildings they offer space for. This inversion is the simplest and most ingenious method I’ve seen for the elimination of urban sprawl. Americans have it backwards – “parking lots are considered to be a welcome sign to motorists,” writes Kunstler.

Cars are not welcomed in Japan. Drivers end up being penalized by long waiting times in tiny parking lots, heavy tolls and an enormous gas tax. Trains are somewhat expensive as well, but you get what you pay for, including seat warmers in winter, air conditioning in the summer and wi-fi on subways (even in tunnels, though allegedly this is only because my city’s baseball team and stadium is owned by a cell phone and internet service provider).

The roads in the suburbs are narrow. They are winding inlets that make drivers dizzy, keeping all but the craziest drivers at low speeds, which is perfect for residents.

On The Rise of Japanese Sprawl
Most of the urban sprawl I see – the stuff you can only get to by car – feels hostile, on the verge of collapse. Likely these are the result of the boom at the end of the 1980’s that collapsed along with the housing and spending bubbles (see Sekia Hills, the resort that never should have been).

Or they could just be dying as more people abandon the American ideal of driving everywhere. The local Costco, which replicates its American counterpart down to the last ugly roof beam, is accessible only by car. It is a store designed for cars, after all – you can’t take four tubs of salsa and a year’s supply of Cocoa Krispies home on the subway. The parking lot is an endless sea of SUV’s, the only collection I have ever seen outside of America.

If there is an American influence on Japanese urban planning, it seems to be on the wane. We’ll see if America decides to learn anything from Japan.

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