Townscape conservation through community participation in Japan

Japanese cities are composed of neighbourhoods that combine like organic cells to form urban organisms that are quite different from most of their European or American counterparts, which are characterized by comprehensive infrastructural networks and grid designs. This strong emphasis on the neighborhood in Japan has long-standing roots. - Carola Heins

Japan has always been famous for its cities. They gain reputable worldwide recognition such as the safest city in the world, Tokyo, and also the infamous historic city of Kyoto. Thirty nine years since the officiation of policy "Dasar Pandang Ke Timur" by the then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on the 8th February 1982, I think it's about time to deconstruct one of Japan's effort in their pursuit for better Urban Design through community participation.

The medley between traditional and modern areas is what makes Japanese cities unique. Modern economic zones with skyscrapers, public spaces surrounded by traditional neighbourhoods with a mixture of apartments and houses.

Think of a city and what comes to mind? It is streets. If a city's streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull - Jane Jacobs

The interrelatedness between streets and cities can be easily identified due to its fundamental function as a space where the people usually are. In similarity to Japanese cities, in which the idea of the street to be the main living room of the neighbourhoods (Carola, 2002). Though Japan has never focused on aesthetics in the design of cities according to Carola. In fact, she explained that even the concept of a "beautiful city" is difficult to be translated into Japanese.


The traditional design of most Japanese cities consists of two aspects which are Toshikeikaku (Urban Planning) and Machizukuri (Community Building). According to Nishiyama Uzô, a 20th-century Japanese planner and theoretician, Machizukuri is a form of urban design exercised by the inhabitants that concern the ongoing progress of neighbourhood building socially and physically, synergizing within the framework given by government urban planning whilst Toshikeikaku is the administration initiatives that focus on overall physical structure and layout, a more traditional view of urban planning to make it plain. In Machizukuri, the community tends to be responsible with the help of consultants in designing the streetscapes. They develop a committee to work with local authorities on local projects such as street design, townscape conservation or land readjustment. From the 1960s until the present, Japanese urban conservation using machizukuri is known as “processes with the partnerships among local residents, investment sectors, and the government authorities”.


The streets of Hida Furukawa. Source www.ambassadors-japan.com


What started out as special-area-focused community participation, expanding to become something else entirely. In 1973, local governments with similar goals of townscape conservation stand together giving birth to the Japanese Association of Towns with Historic Townscapes. Then later in 1974, the local townscape conservation groups formed the Japanese Association for Townscape Conservation (Denkenchiku) previously consists of local societies such as Friends of Tsumago Society, the Imai-Cho Preservation Society, and the Arimatsu Town-making Society.


The cooperation between local governments and citizen's group help paved the way for the amendment of Japan's Cultural Properties Law of 1950 into designative special areas such as Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings in 1975. Protection of urban areas as well as individual buildings is what makes the implementation of Denkenchiku unique. Though the law is under the jurisdiction of the national government, the implementation is carried out by municipalities and local townscape conservation groups.


Local citizens, architects and planners need to find innovative methods to work together. Creating alliances between individuals, groups, and authorities with similar goals in creating livable and vibrant townscapes is necessary to achieve the sustainability of our cities and neighbourhood.



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Level 5, Razak Faculty of Technology and Informatics, Menara Razak, Jalan Sultan Yahya Petra, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, 54100 Kuala Lumpur.Level 5,