This is a guest Post by Rob Mayo
My background is in marketing, advertising and customer experience development. Since the 80s, with an MA in Japanese under my belt, I have lived and worked in the Tokyo/Yokohama area as well as in a number of cities in the Asia region. From 2009, I’ve been working on transit network-oriented customer marketing and service delivery initiatives in Japan, part of that time running the country’s largest cross-media marketing agency.
Over the years I’ve seen the result of a Japanese variant of the urban phenomenon known as ‘inversion’ – a term made popular by Alan Ehrenhalt in his 2013 book ‘The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City’.
Inversion has been shaping cities and towns all over Japan since the 1950s and it is very much tied in with the growth in commuter rail services.
One area of Tokyo that I lived in, is a product of that inversion process – a process that in fact took place there from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. In the picture below, the red Google marker point is the house my family and I lived in. Near it are three rail lines – the Ikegami Line running roughly east-west, the Yokosuka Line running roughly north-south and a third east-west line following the Tama River – the Mekama Line, now called the Tamagawa Line.
The large green patches dotted around the area towards the river that is about a kilometre from our house, are the residences of the landowners who still own the large tracts of subdivided land within a 5-10km radius of their ancestral homes.
After the Ikegami and Mekama Lines were opened in the 1920s, land subdivision all along each line took place in the 1930s and by the early 1960s, inversion in suburbs such as ours (Ontakesan / Kugahara) was well underway, because at that point, the Ikegami and Mekama Lines were connected up to the nearby Toyoko Line between Tokyo and Yokohama which in turn was linked into the Tokyo subway system and the overground Yamanote loop line.
All land area north of the Tama River quickly became sought after due to the number of rail lines criss-crossing the area, their seamless integration into the overall rail network and the ability for large numbers of people to reach any part of the Tokyo metropolis with ease.
The density and property size diversity as shown in this Google map picture of 2014, has been pretty much in the same state since the mid 1960s. Ancestral homes dating back to the 1800s and earlier, sit alongside ‘new money’ homes from the 1900s-1930s and thousands of middle class homes and government housing built in the same area from the 1940s onwards – all properties coexisting either cheek by jowl or in clusters by housing type, yet all still within cooee of each other.
Urban Inversion in Tokyo has happened in this manner in waves over the years from when rail lines were put in or existing lines extended/interconnected. The inversion processes in various parts of the Tokyo metropolis have occurred over a comparatively short period of time – on average each taking place during a 15-20 year period, sometime even faster.
Yes, Tokyo has sprawled like any other city and when you go from Tokyo through Kawasaki to Yokohama for example, it doesn’t feel like three separate cities you’re moving between but through one large sea of concrete. However, as much as people have spread out over a 20-30 year period, they have also spread back in at the same time and this is due to the rail system that became fully interconnected and interwoven into the social fabric from a very early stage.
The other reason that inversion has happened in Japanese cities so quickly, is societal. Japanese society places much emphasis on respect for elders and the importance of maintaining an overall social cohesiveness. This means that there has never been the kind of housing / social segregation that is so common in North America, the UK and Oceania. Although their children may go to schools outside the area, families from all social classes share the same suburbs, shop daily at the same local outlets, eat out at the same local restaurants and attend the same local festivals throughout the year. That level of social interaction is reflected in the development of commuter rail services and those commuter rail services have in turn directly influenced where/how people live and the speed at which urban density has developed.
Over the years, the urban density / rail service interlinks that Japan has home-grown, have been replicated consciously or subconsciously in Seoul, Shanghai and Hong Kong since the 1970s and in a highly planned/ordered variant deployed in Singapore throughout the 80s and 90s.
What I believe Japan can teach us here ‘Downunder’ in 2014, is how rail lines facilitate ‘positive density’ quickly through retail and amenities placed right next to, above or below stations…and how narrowing of streets makes cycling to school, work and local amenities easy and makes societal interactions necessary and ‘compelling’. Direct-connect retail at stations need only be a small supermarket or a convenience store, a florist and a bakery to be immediately successful and that is not anything particularly Japanese…it is common to all of us humans – we are attracted to places where we can easily see others obtaining food and drink.
Japan can show us how we can make inversion happen / continue to happen in a number of places city-wide in Auckland and how it can break down societal / class barriers, rejuvenate, reconnect and interconnect communities.