Saturday, September 2, 2017

Can Urban Design Combine the Practical and the Monumental?

Odaiba is a piece of reclaimed land in the middle of Tokyo Bay.  Given how new the land is, and the centralized nature of its original planning, despite being in the middle of the city, the neighborhood does not look like any other in Tokyo.  While the rest of the city is parsed up into millions of tiny plots occupied by houses, office buildings, and shops standing shoulder to shoulder, intersected with narrow two-lane roads, Odaiba is characterized by almost an excess of open space.  A massive concrete promenade runs through the neighborhood end to end, punctuated only by a few trees.

Along the major promenade are massive, uniquely designed shopping centers, office complex, museum, and residential buildings, each given enough open space on all sides to accentuate just how different-looking they are even from a fair distance away.  While in the rest of the city, walking to the nearest shop may take matter of minutes, out here in Odaiba, crossing those big open spaces to reach shopping centers could take up to half an hour.  It does not help that the neighborhood is surrounded by highways, giving it an isolated feel.  In a city that is noted for the sheer convenience of daily life, Odaiba is a glaring anomaly.

The reason Odaiba looks so different from the rest of the city comes down to the fact that it is largely a government-led enterprise.  Central planning rather than organic growth based on sale of land to private owners meant that bureaucrats can draw up the entire blueprint of the neighborhood before going out to build the place according to the design.  The result is a place that emphasizes a showcasing of modernity in the most visual ways.  Architectural monuments and geometrical symmetry together wow foreign tourists and local visitors, who come in droves to get away from the hectic bustle of Tokyo proper.

But while non-residents seem impressed by Odaiba on their short visits, the lives of residents in the neighborhood suffer because of the monumental design.  Daily tasks like going to school, cheap eateries, and even the post office not only takes much longer on foot but often require transport on tourist-filled trains.  The fact that the place is designed with big offices and tourist-oriented establishments mean that the daily lives of residents are put on the backburner in the minds of the original urban planners.  Unsurprisingly, few locals like in the neighborhood despite there being plenty of space for residence.

The failure of urban design to consider residential needs is not a problem unique to Odaiba.  All across the world, centrally planned cities often focus so much on aesthetics that the practicalities of everyday living are sacrificed.  Whether they be planned capitals like Canberra or Brasilia, financial bastions like Lujiazui in Shanghai, or even government strongholds in rural Africa, central design are prone to white elephant projects that look good and even be good for temporary use, but are relatively unsuitable for fulfilling mundane needs of people.  Empty space,wide roads, and large edifices kill off buzzing street life that define urban living.

How to prevent the "coldness" of central planned neighborhoods and cities should be a major concern for urban designers.  The new trendy lingo for urbanization today is, after all, "sustainability," and what can be more unsustainable than people having to travel major distances just to buy a carton of milk?  Mixed-use buildings that put residence, office, and shopping in one place ought to be the new norm, creating self-sustaining neighborhoods that together cut down on excess need for long-distance movement, traffic, and consequently, carbon footprint generated by ever-denser cities.

A neighborhood filled with monumental buildings like Odaiba may actually be quite suited for this sort of mixed-use urban design.  Its building complex are massive, multilayered, and far apart from one another.  There should be strong business incentive to convert each of them into mixed-use developments.  After all, each are big enough to host large number of residents who would have a collective purchasing power to sustain multiple businesses within the complex itself.  Sheer distances to other places mean that consumption are more likely to take place within the complex.

But to move in the direction of mixed-use developments, there needs to be significant changes in mentality toward urban design.  Places like Odaiba are often designed to be different from the urban norm, emphasizing a almost futuristic belief in controlling the living environment through clean symmetry and arranged order.  For people to live, work, and play in one place, urban designers need to accept that a certain disorder created by the hustle-bustle of everyday life visible to all is not only normal, but desirable for ideal urban living.  Only when such attitude holds can the monumental truly become practical.  

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