Tokyo's Utopian suburb under threat
January 30, 2007
It is looking increasingly grim for residents hoping to save the rare character of Tokyo's "Utopian" suburb of Shimokitazawa. Despite concerted efforts to overturn plans that would tear the heart out of Shimokitazawa, no one in City Hall appears to be listening.
Shimokitazawa's glory days could well be numbered and the dream of retaining a zone that resists the dreary motorized blight of the rest of Tokyo are fading fast. The famed counter-culture suburb may be about to disappear unless planners and politicians are prepared to alter commitments that have angered many residents and provoked press articles around the globe.
Instead of a pedestrian paradise accompanied by low-level buildings where strollers can actually see the sky, the fear is that Shimokitazawa is about to get a hated make-over. Unpopular plans that would include new transport systems and the advent of yet more concrete towers appear to remain onstream, despite protest meetings and public disappointment at the intransigence of officialdom. The rigidity of the attitude that reckons that plans once announced should not be changed is proving mighty hard to shift.
Yet Shimokitazawa's opponents are not going down without a fight. Action groups have oiled a mighty publicity machine and still hope against hope that domestic and overseas voices may yet press the authorities to have a rare change of heart.
It's not difficult to understand why protesters are dismayed at the government's heavy-handed tactics. The argument that Shimokitazawa must change is far from convincing, though some of its wooden houses are indeed at risk from natural disasters and improved emergency evacuation structures may well be required. Narrow streets have their charm but at least some widening may be required for ambulances and fire trucks.
This need not lead, though, to the transformation of Shimokitazawa's legendary character. Given the scores of suburbs throughout Japan that have absolutely nothing but predictability and blandness in their favor, it is hard to credit the determination to impose new roads and train arrangements.
Shimokitazawa is a magnet for youth, foreign tourists and all curious about the existence of unusual urban. Instead of attempting to keep the place and its extraordinary reputation, officialdom is going to widen, pull down and generally wreck its atmosphere.
Those who dub contemporary Japan as little more than an archipelago built on concrete thanks to the orders of key ministries, politicos and interest groups, now have a brilliant illustration of what appears wrong with today's Japan. Shimokitazawa deserves better than to be turned into yet another high-rise development zone. At the very least, the government ought to listen to those who would like lower buildings, more piazzas and greater atmosphere in any revised planning schemes.
Perhaps if UNESCO could start a modern heritage award for Shimokitazawa, then City Hall would be obliged to listen. For the moment, though, it looks perilously like closing time for Tokyo's unusual and delightful Utopian space.