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November 4, 2009
Debating the shape of a neighborhood in Tokyo

Global Voices: The World is Talking, Are You Listening?

Tokyo’s neighborhoods straddle between the need for modern development and the desire to maintain historical buildings and structures.

For instance, Fujiizaka, affectionately named “the slope for seeing Mount Fuji,” in the Nippori neighborhood, has been increasingly blocked by tall buildings that obstruct its view. Residents have banded together to push for preservation. The neighborhood cause is slowly gaining support as a growing desire to preserve historical places takes hold in Tokyo, reported the New York Times.

The city of Tokyo is geographically complex, with 8.5 million people living in 23 districts that span 620 kilometers.  The history of the city’s development is characterized by a continual process of restructuring and growth. It is a city that is renewed on average every twenty years, with few buildings surviving from the past.

This is due in part because as the capital of Japan since 1868, it has been used as a showcase for the Japanese modern age. It has also seen major development because of the need for new construction after World War II, earthquakes and the Olympics, according to the Goethe-Institut.

Chris Salzberg, a writer/translator living in Tokyo, Japan discusses the reaction to the recent development plan for the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa for Global Voices Online.

Tokyo has no lack of small, winding streets. Shibuya has its maze of criss-crossing shōtengai, Roppongi its club-lined back alleyways, Ueno its open-air street markets. But no neighborhood in Tokyo packs more complexity per square foot than Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood whose layout bears closer resemblance to a ball of thread than to anything an urban planner would come up with.

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Shimokitazawa’s spaghetti-like mess of streets and train lines evoke passion among some, frustration among others. The area has earned a name for itself as a breeding ground for creative young artists with its dozens of small theaters, art galleries and music venues. While eccentric characters like Rikimaru Toho fit perfectly into this urban environment, others see the maze of narrow streets as a dangerous fire hazard and a giant urban congestion knot in need of unwinding.

The entire area happens to lie in the path of a would-be thoroughfare running through Shimokitazawa to Shibuya, originally set forth in a “War damage revival plan” drafted all the way back in 1946. After several changes, that plan was brought back to life in 2003 and demolition and construction work has been slated to start in 2010. Should it be executed, the plan will split Shimokitazawa apart with a 26-meter wide expressway, Subsidiary Route 54 (補助54号線).

While the basic shape of those redevelopment plans had been known for some time, it was only a few weeks ago that the first glimpses of the new design finally emerged on the blog of Kuniyoshi Yoshida, a local landowner and head of the Shimokitazawa South [ja] shopowners’ union. Comments which began to appear on the blog, blasting the new design for its failure to respect the Shimokitazawa atmosphere, were swiftly deleted, but hostility against the plans only grew.

See this video of the streets of Shimokitazawa neighborhood below:

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