Melbourne UDFers were ‘taken’ on a brief tour of Japan at their November luncheon meeting. Urban Initiatives principal, Bruce Echberg, recently returned from a two week visit to Japan and shared his experience with UDF members and staff from his Melbourne office. Although he has travelled widely in Europe and the U.S., Bruce had never been to Japan, and went to visit the famous traditional gardens and to experience and learn urban design lessons from Japanese cities.
Bruce provided an overview of the country, understanding it was small and rugged, with a population of nearly 127 million – and yet with almost the same breakdown of urban/rural populations as Australia. Like Australia, Japan is an island nation with most of the population located in limited, flatter areas close to the ocean. A remarkable point of difference from Australia is Japan’s mono-cultural society and the strong trend of a declining population, projected to be half it present number by the end of the century. This raises a very different set of planning issues to those we face in Australia.
It is intriguing how well the dense cities appears to operate, with large areas of most cities developed with a grid pattern of small streets that are mixed use and largely car-free. Open space as we know it seems limited, but temples with small gardens and the networks of small streets, which are primarily the domain of pedestrians and cyclists, are effective as open space.
Some new shopping centres are being developed as privately-provided open space in the form of roof-top gardens, and they appear to be appreciated and well used by customers. The roofing of narrow traditional strip shopping streets seems to be quite common in Japan, creating car free shopping and social space that supports local business and serve local neighbourhoods with all their daily needs.
Bruce was impressed by the public transport infrastructure in that it is tightly networked through the cities he visited: it is clean, timely and provides an amazingly efficient service. Rail services within and between Japanese cities put them decades ahead of Australian cities.
Also surprising is the level of walking and cycling within local neighbourhoods which seems to put Japanese cities up with the best northern European cities – and way ahead of Australian and North American cities – as far as liveability, health and sustainability goes.
At the luncheon meeting, the question of governance was raised and Barrie Shelton, who teaches urban design at the University of Melbourne and regularly takes students to Japan. He said it arose from the intersection of two forces: one from the top down and the other being a comprehensive grass-roots endeavour. They combined, he explained, to produce the Japan of today that appeared cohesive and well adapted to the rather dense living style that its sheer numbers and small geographical size demanded.
Barrie’s book ‘Learning from the Japanese city – looking east in urban design’ (published by Routledge) is in its second edition, and is a good source of information and theory for those curious about Japanese cities.