Tokyo Infill, a subdivided city - James Masman

After walking over 200km in 3 weeks, Byera Hadley Travelling Scholar James Masman shares his fresh insights about the unique character of Tokyo streets, and questions if innovative planning policy might be the secret behind these fascinating spaces.

Natural Wedge House by Masaki Endoh.jpg

On the 26th February I landed in Japan to begin fieldwork that would include visiting, photographing and documenting over 40 houses in the Greater Metropolitan Area of Tokyo. I visited the work of many contemporary residential architects including Atelier Tekuto, Atelier Bow-Wow, F.O.B.A., Go Hasegawa, Hiroshi Nakamura, Kazuyo Sejima, Mount Fuji Architects, Masaki Endoh, Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA, Shigeru Ban, Sou Fujimoto and more. I walked over 200km in 3 weeks, gaining a deeper understanding of Tokyo’s urban layout, street hierarchy and organised density.

For me, this project started with a question. How could Tokyo’s small scale residential architecture typologies be applied in Sydney’s middle ring suburbs? My approach was to investigate the relationship that small scale houses in Tokyo have with the street to better understand how this condition could be approached in Sydney. A part of this would also be to identify policy in Sydney that hinders affordable good design on a local and urban scale.

However, my travel experience led me to rethink my initial research question. I became more interested in discovering the fundamental aspects of urban planning driving Tokyo’s large number of small, sustainable, and affordable homes. Getting to the core of this question would allow both a broader comment on the effect of infrastructure planning policy in Tokyo and Sydney as well as a more narrow, detailed study of the houses I visited and their neighbourhoods. The products of Tokyo’s planning policy are the dense, diverse, complex, green, and walkable suburbs I saw during my travel - a genuine assortment of old and new, form and function, that genuinely engages with the street.

 House in a Plum Grove by Kazuyo Sejima

Having visited Japan and reflected on my experiences, my main argument is this: Housing that is small, affordable, sustainable, and abundant cannot be created while the ‘Australian Dream’ is ingrained in culture and legislation.

Based on what I’ve learned so far, there are five key attributes that explain Tokyo’s characteristics and qualities, and help translate to the Australian context.

The streets of Tokyo

Tokyo has a wide range of street types. From soaring expressways over 30m wide to local streets and pedestrian paths that zig-zag through the suburbs. My research examines this range in size and the effect fine grain street patterns have on the size and layout of individual housing lots. A suburb in Sydney where legislation prescribes dedicated 20m wide roads and 600m² lots will never result in small, affordable, and sustainable low to medium rise housing on suitably sized lots.

A walkable public city

Japan’s urban grid relies heavily on pedestrian access. Movement between adjacent suburbs is the crux of the economy. Everywhere I walked I found a common theme of beautification, simplification, and the unique nature of the pedestrian experience. This is absolutely not the case in a large portion of Sydney’s public realm. I plan to articulate the powerful effect of a good street made for walking, how this might be expressed in the character of a city, and the role this must take in Sydney’s future city planning.

Reflection of Mineral by Atelier Tekuto

The street interface

Houses in Tokyo generally turn their back to the street, shielded by a lush garden or solid wall, where interior life is the focus. This differs to the ‘norm’ in Sydney’s modern housing market which tends to produce oversized buildings that fill the site edge to edge, with unused ceremonial street-front entries, and unsustainable gardens filling leftover spaces. There are lessons to be learned in the way the street relates to the facade where housing density is high.

Local economy

Dense, walkable, and healthy suburbs in Tokyo provide opportunity for local economies to emerge and thrive. Hairdressers, chemists, pet shops, laundromats, restaurants, and clothing stores give streets and suburbs unique character. In Tokyo, it is difficult to walk one block without seeing a local resident providing a service at the street front of their residence. Local economies provide for local residents, encouraging intensive use of limited space.

Small houses, a byproduct of the city

Tokyo’s houses are derived from the city’s unique character. Tokyo’s character creates small houses - something Sydney should strive for. During my time in Tokyo, this thought occupied my mind most. Why are Tokyo’s small houses unique to Tokyo? What characteristics of a city produce small houses?

Answering these questions has the most far-reaching potential for application in Sydney. What began as a study of individual houses became one focused on the city in its entirety. Healthy density stems from infrastructure that encourages efficient and productive use of space.

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