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Why Neighborhoods And Small Businesses Thrive In Tokyo

The new book “Emergent Tokyo” looks at Tokyo was shaped by the intermingling of small choices that create spontaneous patterns.

Restaurants built under railway tracks. Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg
Restaurants built under railway tracks. Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

Tokyo is a city of two faces. Major central planning efforts have made Japan’s capital one of the safest, cleanest and most public-transit oriented cities in the world. Yet its labyrinthian network of streets, restaurants hidden in dark alleyways and entire buildings filled with a medley of shops reveal another side of the city that is more spontaneous and idiosyncratic. 

This paradox between centrally planned and chaotic Tokyo is one that Keio University associate professor and architect Jorge Almazan and co-author Joe McReynolds seek to tackle in their new book  Inspired by the science of complex systems, they demonstrate how Tokyo was shaped not solely by disorder or grand design but by the intermingling of daily small choices that create spontaneous patterns from the bottom up — and tips for how to consciously harness them.

The authors spoke to Bloomberg CityLab on what emergent urbanism is, how it can demystify Tokyo and the lessons cities around the world can take from its example. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is “emergence” and why did you decide to focus on it to explore Tokyo’s strengths as a city? 

Jorge Almazan: The general definition is the creation of order and functionality from the bottom up. So certain orders or functionalities can happen without the need for a central brain that organizes everything. It’s based on the idea that systems and phenomena, through local interactions of their parts, can create orders. The classic example would be the flocking behavior of birds, in which you can see clearly the formations but there is no bird leading it.

The main discourse has been until now describing Tokyo as a city of chaos. We are against that because it’s a bit of an Orientalist trope that we apply to only Tokyo. We wanted to emphasize the order of it, but without denying that it’s a very different kind from the one we see in cities like Paris or Barcelona with stronger top-down urban planning. 

The emergent order that we are proposing is based on complex adaptive systems. The configurations that we find in many places in Tokyo are accelerators of interactions and therefore of adaptations. 

The book presents a paradigm you’ve dubbed “corporate urbanism” as a foil to emergent urbanism in the book. Can you describe corporate urbanism and how it has impacted Tokyo as well as other cities around the world?

Commercial and residential buildings in Tokyo.Photographer: Toru Hanai/Bloomberg
Commercial and residential buildings in Tokyo.Photographer: Toru Hanai/Bloomberg

Joe McReynolds: I think most people who live in cities will have a sense of what we mean because you see it in every one around the world — these large scale, usually high-end developments that shape a whole district according to a grand corporate plan. But when you walk through them, you don’t really feel like you’re in a particular place. You’re in this generic place that’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

There is an economic logic to these developments. If you’re developing something at large scale, you want to get a high return. So you’re looking usually at luxury condos, stacked over high-end retail and restaurants, maybe with some anchoring project like an art gallery, and also what’s called POPS, privately owned public space. 

We’re not saying it’s all bad. There are reasons to have those kind of projects, but there are things that corporate urbanism can’t easily bring to your city like a sense of community, spontaneity, idiosyncrasy, surprise that really make our cities flourishing and exciting places to be. 

One feature of Tokyo’s most dynamic neighborhoods is the abundance of small businesses. How have these areas been able to foster and preserve small businesses?

JM: There are a number of reasons small business in Tokyo is so vibrant. A huge one that you can look at cities around the world and ask is how many flexible microspaces are available across your city. By microspaces, I mean small little nooks and crannies in the commercial or residential sectors of the city that you can do a lot of different things with and don’t need to pay a huge amount of money in rent.

This is going to sound wild to anyone who lives in the US, but for any two-story rowhouse in Tokyo, the owner can by right operate a bar, a restaurant, a boutique, a small workshop on the ground floor — even in the most residential zoned sections of the city. That means you have an incredible supply of potential microspaces. Any elderly homeowner could decide to rent out the bottom floor of their place to some young kid who wants to start a coffee shop, for example. When you look at what we call yokocho alleyways — charming, dingy alleyways that grew out of the black markets post-World War II, which are some of the the most iconic and beloved sections of the city now — it’s all of these tiny little bars and restaurants just crammed into every available space.

Bars in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai.Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg
Bars in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai.Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

Of course, regulation at all different levels figures into that. It’s this incredibly dry topic, but actually how you regulate small business and spaces changes everything about the emotional color palette that your city can paint with. In Tokyo, for example, small businesses get a lot of interesting tax incentives. Liquor licenses are extremely cheap and easy. A liquor license in an American city can sometimes run up to $500,000. You’re not going to have a little four-seat, mom-and-pop bar for the locals. So those regulatory and policy choices that we make fundamentally determine what our cities are going to feel like.

Japan is a country that faces frequent natural disasters, which has become a pretext for real estate companies to redevelop charming yet aging neighborhoods. How can these areas be protected from both the real threat of a major natural disaster and the pressures of corporate redevelopment?

JM: When you look at the most charming historically interesting neighborhoods and districts of Tokyo, they faced a lot of different threats over the years. Any of these districts that haven’t fallen to fires, earthquakes or property redevelopment usually have some resilient plan in place for how they don’t just get turned into luxury condos or Starbucks. That can mean putting all your land into a nonprofit trust and only renting it out to folks who are going to continue the sort of business the neighborhood is famous for. It can mean lobbying to get yourself declared a disaster-prone area so that developers are less likely to swoop in. It can mean upgrading as best you can without needing to completely redevelop the area and lose its charm. But a lot of these neighborhoods have over time been redeveloped.

I’ll also say that there are a lot of different places to build in Tokyo. It’s a very well-rail-networked city. If you’re a corporate developer looking to build something new, you could spend decades trying to get people with weird labyrinthine property rights to agree or you can just find a less developed area of the city where there’s an old government building. There are just easier methods than trying to force out these classic districts at this point.

How does homeownership fit into the picture of emergent Tokyo?JA: Traditionally, I would say that people were quite invested in their communities and probably consider the neighborhood as a whole more. There is a culture in which people are invited by the environment or institutions like neighborhood associations to think beyond their narrow interests.  This is changing, though. The neighborhood associations are getting weaker. 

JM: More generally speaking, in the US, debates about urban policy are skewed by the fact that homeowners’ property is the closest thing they have to a savings account. Usually for retirement, people are counting on their property values going up so they have a strong incentive to resist changes that might threaten them. A lot of the dynamism we see in the emergent urbanism of Tokyo are things that reduce predictability, which reduce property values. When it comes to, politically, how do we make Tokyo-esque urbanism feasible in America, the key is building a coalition of folks who are more interested in the dynamism of their cities than they are in the value of their particular property.

What have been some of the drawbacks of emergent urbanism in Tokyo, if any?

Restaurants built under railway tracks.Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg
Restaurants built under railway tracks.Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

JA: Not everything can or should be designed emergently. Obvious examples would be train infrastructure or disaster preparation. Parks is another, especially big parks. Many things need to be centrally designed and planned, not only in architecture but society as a whole.

One of the drawbacks in Tokyo is that emergent functionality was a bit unconscious until now. There were certain conditions that happened and it worked very well. But when the conditions change, people need to be aware. They need to be more active to keep the emergent functionality. Joe mentioned one example, which is how people create collective properties to be more resilient against redevelopment. This is what happened in many yokocho, the most famous example would be Shibuya’s Nonbei Yokocho, or “Drunkard’s alley.” Yokocho without that are in a very weak position. I think that vulnerability has increased because of corporate redevelopment. So if people want to keep things in this emergent condition, there is need to be more aware and active. You cannot leave it to chance. You need to be more conscious, mobilize and organized.

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