What Tokyo can teach us about local development

The world’s largest city grew largely incrementally and was retrofitted with state-of-the art infrastructure and urban management systems

Published - February 16, 2019 04:25 pm IST

Photo collage of a Tokyo street (Ikebukuro on the left) and a Mumbai street (Dharavi on right).

Photo collage of a Tokyo street (Ikebukuro on the left) and a Mumbai street (Dharavi on right).

Urban continuities across Asia reveal unexpected family resemblances. At first glance, one wonders what could possibly connect cities like Mumbai and Tokyo, except for their dense demography and the speed at which they grew? They are worlds apart in terms of technological and infrastructural standards.

Yet, there are also striking similarities. In contrast to other comparable planned cities in Europe and America, large parts of Tokyo appear messy at first sight. For better or worse, Tokyo’s planning rationalisers could never manage the city’s rapid demographic expansion and urban spread.

The city largely grew out of their control. The largest urban agglomeration in the world is not master planned. It grew largely incrementally and was retrofitted with state-of-the-art infrastructure and urban management systems.

Not illegitimate

The mixed use, low rise and high density of Tokyo’s neighbourhoods happened by default, not by design. Tokyo’s city planners do not see this ‘default’ model as ideal, but they do not consider it illegitimate either. Public works in sewage systems, piped water, electricity and road networks have been implemented over time in all parts of the city, without leaving any neighbourhood behind no matter how slummy it looked or and no matter who lived in them.

Even historically discriminated-against Burakumin (Japan’s own “untouchable” community) areas were eventually provided access to the same level of public services and amenities as any other part of the city. In fact, since 1969, Buraku districts were even given special treatment for public services by the state.

Private and public agencies negotiate labyrinthine inner roads and unexpected twists and turns, and nearly all neighbourhoods have state-of-the-art infrastructure. Tokyo’s administrators took for granted the notion that infrastructure must be adapted to the existing habitats rather than the other way around. This seems commonsensical but it is actually quite radical in the context of India where the provision of infrastructure is often used as an excuse to bulldoze and redevelop neighbourhoods. The universal provision of water systems, electricity and optical fibre in Tokyo is a proof that retrofitting is possible in virtually any urban environment, no matter how dense and convoluted.

Great variety

The ‘Tokyo model’ historically combines the construction of small houses at the neighbourhood level by artisans and contractors, a great number of small businesses operating from residential neighbourhoods, and the provision of good quality infrastructure by state agencies. This explains why Tokyo has some of the best urban infrastructure in the world and a housing stock of great variety.

While the buildings have been incrementally upgraded over time by their owners, the visual aspect of most residential neighbourhoods remains complex or ‘informal’. They often have extremely narrow and meandering streets that confuse the hell out of visitors, and are lined with tiny houses ranging from futuristic to shacky, made of concrete, steel, prefab materials, metal sheets and wood.

Positive outcomes

Historically, mixed-used zoning happened simply because there was no way of enforcing functional segregation in such a large and dense city. Jane Jacobs observed many positive outcomes of mixed-use urbanism — vibrant street life, a sense of safety provided by the presence of people in the street, and local economic activity.

In contemporary Tokyo, it is common to see small residential structures hosting businesses such as restaurants, shops, laundries, bakeries, public baths, martial art schools, massage clinics, bars, print shops, artisans, accounting firms, designers and architects’ studios, and so on. This is partly due to the fact that they have always been part of the fabric of neighbourhoods. Something we see in various degrees across Asia, and which is very much part of the reality of Indian cities.

When thinking about the future of Indian slums, should we not look East for inspiration?

The writers are co-founders of urbz.net, an urban network that’s active in Mumbai, Goa and beyond.

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