Planning in a land of extremes

May 27, 2013
Author: James Lloyd – City and Regional Planning

Our foci today were disaster planning and community-based planning within the Mukojima neighborhood of Sumida Ward. Prior to addressing this topic, however, a quick word on the trains of Tokyo: even the saltiest New Yorkers who navigate Gotham’s subway and commuter rail systems are rank amateurs compared with the millions of Tokyoites that navigate the city’s three major types of trains on a daily basis (Tokyo Metro, Japanese Railways, and the many private commuter railways). Every morning our entire class traverses Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest transport hub of any kind; merely changing trains requires several swipes of one’s transit pass, on which it is necessary to place many thousands of yen at a time. The white-gloved attendants that keep the system moving number in the hundreds. I find it useful to hold my hat high above my head just to give my classmates a visual sign of where the class is heading given the intensity of the flow of people.

After one of these high-intensity public transit experiences, we arrived at the Tokyo Institute of Technology to hear a lecture on Tokyo’s urban development and disaster planning by Prof. Nakai Norihiro. Nakai-sensei provided context for what we were to see that afternoon by showing how Tokyo, particularly after the 1923 earthquake and the 1945 firebombing, had attempted to rationalize its street plan, but due to budget shortfalls had only partial success. While post-modern planners might problematize such rationalist planning, such critiques would be quickly blunted by the brutal fact that of the over 100,000 people that died in the Kanto Great Earthquake of 1923, the vast majority were burned alive because they could not escape the hundreds of fires that erupted when wooden homes collapsed upon charcoal cooking fires. Nakai-sensei then, in a devastatingly matter-of-fact manner, described how the Tokyo government, in its simulations of possible earthquakes, is anticipating that 10,000 may die in an earthquake within the next few decades.

Following this sobering talk, and a delicious lunch, we went on a walking tour of the Mukojima neighborhood of Sumida Ward, which is located just north of the Skytree (the second tallest structure in the world). The neighborhood is mixed use, with residential, commercial, and small-scale industrial activities located side by side and above/below each other (even a knife factory under an apartment).


Students and machizakuri members observing backyard dyeing operation in Mukojima. James Lloyd, 27 May 2013.

Our tour was led by members of the Mukojima Machizakuri, the local community-based organization that is working with Sumida Ward to plan for street widening and parcel by parcel home demolition with residents moved to adjacent newly built low-rise council housing. While, again, post-modernists might object to such activity, the roads previously were only a few meters wide with no sidewalks (a common characteristic of Tokyo back blocks), and the new housing represents a significant upgrade for the inhabitants.


Old and new development patterns in Mukojima. James Lloyd, 27 May 2013.

The climax of the tour was seeing and discussing a one-kilometer long apartment building that has been constructed as a firebreak; the building lies between Mukojima and the Sumida River and in the event of a major fire residents are to flee to the park that lies between the apartment building and the river. In the case of this eventuality, on the landward side of the building metal shutters will close to form a steel wall and a massive sprinkler system will drench the building and the nearby land, keeping the fire at bay. The basement of the building stores emergency supplies for thousands.

Not to be annoyingly philosophic, but the battles between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses seem somewhat insignificant in the face of hazards so severe that conservative civil servants estimate 10,000 dead as a realistic (and likely) possibility, and a kilometer-long apartment building cum firewall has already been constructed as a mitigating measure.


Skytree. James Lloyd, 27 May 2013.


4 thoughts on “Planning in a land of extremes

  1. A very thought-provoking and evocative blog post, Jamie! I wonder if/how Tokyo’s public transportation system has been designed to accommodate earthquakes, other disasters, and evacuations.

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