Les modèles de micro-urbanisme spontané ou l’émergence de Tokyo

Retranscription de la conférence du 18 janvier 2024 à l’Institut de France (Paris)
Colloque Organic Cities


Université de Keio

Date de publication

18 janvier 2024


20 mars 2024

Today’s presentation relates to the book Emergent Tokyo, Designing the Spontaneous City published in 2022 in English and Japanese. This book summarizes about ten years of research on Tokyo and some of my professional experience as an architect for almost 20 years in Japan.

As an architect, I’ve worked in regional areas with a shrinking population, often renovating abandoned wooden buildings and in more central areas of Tokyo. I have been able to glimpse the particularities of architectural practice in Japan, including issues not obvious only from reading texts, like several legal loopholes in renovating buildings or the actual challenges when implementing projects in public spaces. The book reflects theoretical knowledge, urban fieldwork, data analysis, and lessons from actual practical work.

Seen from the sky, we can easily recognize that Tokyo is a pixelated city. It’s a city with very tiny buildings and only some taller exceptions. Super high-rise buildings are clustered in front of the Imperial Palace (the Marunouchi district), along Tokyo Bay, and on the western side of Shinjuku Station. But most of these skyscrapers are new: they appeared around the 2000s. Tokyo is mainly a small-scale city. What makes the city so vibrant and attractive is precisely these smaller and pixelated areas rather than the new large-scale redevelopments.

I will give snapshots of specific examples of the most clear patterns, giving us clues about what this kind of emergent city could be. In this symposium, we use the term “organic,” which is significantly related to the word “emergent.” The concept of emergence originates from complexity science and means creating order and functionality from the bottom up. It’s a phenomenon that we can see in the organic world, for example, in the flocking behavior of birds. Birds create amazingly synchronized formations, but no leading bird is giving orders. Without hierarchies, birds create flocking formations through local interactions. Each bird only follows local rules, like keeping its distance from its neighbors and keeping its speed. Many urban spaces emerge like flocks. They create amazingly functional and visually striking spaces without any strong master planning. Many spaces in Tokyo, often superficially described as chaotic, also develop a surprising functionality through this bottom-up, emergent urbanism.

Let’s start with one of Tokyo’s purest types of urban space that would fit the principles of emergent urbanism: the Yokocho alleyways. One clear example of this type is Golden Gai, which has recently become a tourist hotspot (Fig. 1). It is very close to Shinjuku Station, one of Japan’s biggest train stations, but its alleyways, mainly created after the war, have a minuscule scale containing equally tiny bars and restaurants. Golden Gai, with about half a soccer field of surface, hosts over 250 restaurants and bars. It’s probably the world’s densest bar district. And everything is about the tiny scale. In some places, if you extend your hands, you can touch both sides of the street. But the most exciting thing from my viewpoint - and the book is filled with graphic illustrations of our fieldwork proving it - is the minuscule scale of the bars themselves. Most of them just have room for five or ten people maximum. Everything is about smallness, and our research shows that owners and operators are happy about that smallness.

Figure 1: Figure 1 - Golden Gai

Why is this so? Most of us would probably enjoy bigger spaces. However, many yokocho operators defend the advantage of being small-scale. It allows them to operate their businesses by themselves. Their rents are cheap. Community is easily created through spontaneous interactions within the bars since it is natural for people to communicate in these very tiny environments. It allows owners to experiment, too. Each bar is completely different, with different music, atmosphere, and different kinds of drinks. Operators feel free to experiment because the risks are relatively low, thanks to the small scale.

What happens when we create a cluster of tiny small businesses with complete freedom, like the yokocho alleyways? When analyzed as a whole (Fig. 2), our interviews with operators and users reflect an overall sense of community encompassing the whole yokocho compound. Also, we can identify the overall positive effects of creating what we can call a micro-economy of agglomeration. The economy of agglomeration refers to the economic benefits of having many small businesses concentrated in one area so that they can compete with each other, but also cooperate. The opposite concept would be the economy of scale, which means creating larger businesses that can compete by its sheer production volume. Translated to urbanism, obtaining economic benefits with an economy-of-scale approach would encompass building more standardized, taller, and bigger buildings. Under the right conditions, economies of agglomeration create informal communities of businesses cooperating and creating a situation of creativity and freedom due to the lack of standardization and hierarchical control within that community. If you happen to be in Tokyo, I recommend you go to a Yokocho alleyway to dive in and have a sense of one of Tokyo’s most amazing places.

Figure 2: Figure 2 - Urban section through Golden Gai

I want to address the zakkyo buildings. Zakyo means “coexisting mixture.” They are slender constructions covered by advertisements that many movies have shown (Fig. 3). Of course, these buildings would be the nightmare of any European urbanist, but many films show them because of their iconic, characteristic image. However, the exciting thing is what is happening inside the buildings. Zakkyo buildings work almost like a verticalized Yokocho. Each floor hosts small businesses connected to the street through an elevator, actually verticalizing the street. At the same time, they create an active edge, a permeable interface to the street, with multiple doors, stairs, elevators, shop windows, and shops on the ground floor. By doing so, they don’t destroy the city’s vibrancy, a problem that often happens when the commercial use of one area intensifies, and plots are merged to make place for shopping centers or department stores.

Figure 3: Figure 3 - Zakkyo buildings along Yasukuni Avenue

Zakkyo buildings are also highly adaptable. If we analyze municipal registers and check what was going on in these streets from the 1950s up to now, we can see that plot sizes haven’t changed. However, buildings have grown upwards. Initially, most of them were offices, but they were slowly taken up for recreational use. They can change and adapt to each circumstance without needing an overall redevelopment, which is often the case in other places in Tokyo (Fig 4).

Figure 4: Figure 4 - Use evolution of the zakkyo buildings along the north side of Yasukuni Avenue

As the last example, I would like to concentrate on one of the most relevant patterns from the viewpoint of housing: the dense low-rise neighborhoods. These neighborhoods use low-rise building types and achieve a high population density thanks to a high land-coverage. In other words, there are few large open spaces, and most streets are relatively narrow (Fig. 5). When I first came to Japan, I thought this landscape revealed a failed urbanism. A low-rise typology in a situation that differed from its classical location in suburbs of large plots with ample gardens, but instead was located in compact, dense mazes with a high land coverage. They also contain some dispersed higher buildings, but most are less than three floors. Another significant difference from the typical suburban car-dependent suburb and one reason for these neighborhoods’ appeal is that they are well served by metropolitan infrastructure like arterial roads and railways.

Figure 5: Figure 5 - Higashi Nakanobu in Shinagawa Ward

There is no official definition of “dense low-rise neighborhoods.” However, we can have an idea of their clearest examples by mapping them. We can have an idea if we map exclusively residential buildings with a maximum of 3 floors inside neighborhoods with a population density of 20’000 persons per square kilometer (Fig 6). This population density is still lower than that of central Paris but denser than most suburbs in Western cities.

Figure 6: Figure 6 - Location of dense low-rise neighborhoods

Let’s focus now on one example: Higashi Nakanobu, in Shinagawa Ward. This area has all the features that characterize these neighborhoods: they are crossed by transit infrastructure (arterial roads and railways that connect them to the whole metropolitan area), a local shotengai or shopping promenade, and the rest is a labyrinthic low-rise area.

These areas appeared organically. Most of them were bamboo forests or agricultural fields a hundred years ago. The introduction of railways in the 1920s accelerated their development, partially along pre-existing agricultural paths and without imposing an overall grid trying to organize the whole territory. After the war, authorities widened some streets, but most of the urban fabric was kept the way it was before. Buildings were rebuilt after the war and then gradually updated in subsequent rebuildings. Some streets were widened, but the overall organic, incremental character has been maintained until today.

If we walk in the neighborhood, we see urban scenery that is probably not particularly remarkable at first glance. We can notice the intimate scale. We see people taking care of their plants outside. We will be surprised by strange building additions, like makeshift verandas and porches. It is a scenery that allows the inhabitants’ desires to modify their living spaces to be reflected directly (Fig. 7). If we stay longer than a simple walk, we will understand the overall positive effects on the neighborhood. Remarkably, their walkability. Bicycles, pedestrians, and cars organically share space. Fast, through traffic does not venture into the labyrinthic neighborhood, keeping their inner streets and alleys safe and pleasant.

Figure 7: Figure 7 - Everyday scenery in Higashi Nakanobu

What lessons can we get from these areas? Through maps, we can observe patterns that can be extrapolated to other cities (Fig. 8). All buildings are detached and isolated, creating many gap spaces (top left map). This is the result of the Japanese regulation. But people actively use these gaps to put greenery, bicycles, and all sorts of domestic objects. Gap spaces can be actively used as buffer zones where people’s desires to customize their spaces can unfold.

Figure 8: Figure 8 - Urban mapping of Higashi Nakanobu

We can see the extreme diversity of street widths (middle, left map), from the arterial fast roads to a slow, almost labyrinthic web of local alleys. The through traffic remains on the main arterial roads since the street configuration prevents fast cars from entering those more intimate communities. Achieved without any explicit prohibition of cars, this kind of urban configuration is now discussed and partially implemented in Europe, like Barcelona’s super blocks. However, it has happened in many Tokyo neighborhoods since the postwar.

Another characteristic is the diversity of land uses. Japan has a light approach to zoning that allows small businesses and shops, even in exclusively residential areas. On the other hand, commercial districts allow all types of housing. As a result, diverse uses emerge organically according to the demand of each location, and neighborhoods tend to become highly diverse. This can also be observed in our study case (see bottom left map).

We can mention many more mappable, small elements collectively creating urban qualities. For example, the custom of cultivating private small micro gardens, as a whole, creates a general sense of greenery. The detached and small-scale buildings offer multiple entrances and windows along the street. One feels the presence of people, even if they are not necessarily visible from the street, contributing to a sense of safety. Parking spaces are distributed across the area and do not overwhelm public space. Street parking is common in European and American cities but is a rarity in Japan since car buyers need to have a private parking space. As parking disperses across the area in the multiple small plots, the result is a car-free public realm.

To summarize, Tokyo is an example of an “organic city.” Top-down, centralized planning is applied to large infrastructure such as railways, arterial roads, and disaster prevention facilities. But the rest is, to a considerable extent, the result of a relatively light approach to planning, allowing many urban qualities to emerge, allowing citizens to modify their houses, and lowering the legal hurdles to entrepreneurship through light zoning. The result is a situation of dynamism from the bottom combined with light planning from the top, creating the urban vibrancy that anyone can experience in Tokyo.

This description of Tokyo might raise a question among planners, designers, and architects: What is our role if everything consists of allowing organic forces from the bottom to create urban vibrancy? Indeed, we should not try to design how the results of an emergent process should look. Instead, we should be aware of the preconditions allowing that emergence and find opportunities to foster them through design.

For the case of Tokyo, we can at least mention five preconditions. Firstly, the presence of numerous owners and operators. Even though many large-scale Tokyo developers complain about the smallness of plots, having many plots can be positive, as our cases showed. Second, allowing economies of agglomeration to emerge, understanding how they support individuals and small communities to operate their own businesses, and avoiding the standardization and homogenization that diminish visual and economic diversity. Third, permeable and inclusive building boundaries allow inhabitants and shop owners to have a synergetic relationship with the public space. Lastly, the most important takeaway is the positive outcome of an approach that helps cities to evolve from the pre-existing urban fabric in a bottom-up incremental way rather than depending on new developments. These five preconditions can take different shapes in each context. Some might not even apply, depending on the city. But even though each city is a world in itself, we can always compare cities and learn from each other. Tokyo stands out as an excellent practical guide on how to bring intimacy, adaptability, and spontaneity to other cities around the world.



  author = {Almazán, Jorge},
  publisher = {Sciences Po \& Villes Vivantes},
  title = {Les modèles de micro-urbanisme spontané ou l’émergence de
  date = {2024-01-18},
  url = {https://papers.organiccities.co/les-modeles-de-micro-urbanisme-spontane-ou-l-emergence-de-tokyo.html},
  langid = {fr}
Veuillez citer ce travail comme suit :
Almazán, J. (2024, January 18). Les modèles de micro-urbanisme spontané ou l’émergence de Tokyo . Organic Cities, Paris. Sciences Po & Villes Vivantes. https://papers.organiccities.co/les-modeles-de-micro-urbanisme-spontane-ou-l-emergence-de-tokyo.html