by Matthew Williams, UD/MH Fellow
An inviting city has specific characteristics of its built environment which make us feel good. Its most salient characteristic is its (literally built-in) invitation to stop, observe, mingle, interact, and strengthen our social bonds. The great project of a city is, after all, to bring strangers together. Solitude is necessary for contemplation, reflection, and grounding, but it is the connections which cities make possible – everyday prosaic, romantic, and/or professional - that often generate better versions of ourselves and who we can be as a society.
The way we lay out our cities from the micro to the macro determines the nature of the invitation. Do we want to invite more cars? Then build more roads and they’ll surely come. But, isn’t it more lively streets and public spaces that makes us feel alive? Then the city's invitation to us is contingent on one imperative: it must nourish our senses and obey our human scale, not the scale of the automobile. It must give us fine-grained detail, not Brutalist-style monoliths, nor vast swathes of ashphalt for cars and their parking spaces.
Tokyo is, for the most part, very inviting. That's why I choose to live here. Contrary to the “Lost in Translation” stereotype, the city is not alienating. Tokyo combines density and detail in walkable human-scaled streets and public spaces. Its detail includes, for example, engaging multiple small-scale signage and displays of blossoms at shop entrances, noren (a printed fabric hanging in restaurant entrances, much like a curtain but with a vertical split to allow patrons to enter) and even ceramic bowls of carp in front of a hairdresser.
Signage and blossoms at a shop entrance and bowl of carp in front of a hair salon, Tokyo
There are scattered parking lots, but their propinquity to the rich detail elsewhere renders their sensory impact even more jarring. They are spaces of nothingness and desolation. They don't uplift. They diminish us.
Parking lot, Tokyo
Tokyo’s detail can only be perceived because it falls within our ‘social field of vision’ in numerous walkable human-scale streets. That is, within a range of up to 100 metres, our our senses are activated enough to engage meaningfully with our surroundings: to recognize the local okonomiyaki (Japanese seafood pancake) restaurant owner taking a break in his shopfront so as to stop and chat; to smell flowers; to notice the hanging noren printed with vegetables signaling a tempura restaurant inside. Tokyo’s predominant ‘architectural speed’ matches this social field of vision. That is, the architecture and the details amassed around it (the intricate woodwork and bamboo arrangement of the shop entrance and the flowers, signs, menus amassed in front) are at a walking (5km per hour) and cycling speed (average 15-20km per hour), not the speed of the automobile (average 60km per hour). This human mobility speed, and even the cycling speed, is visually stimulating and mentally nourishing because we can sense and engage with its details up close as we walk or cycle. Jan Gehl notes with ringing lucidity: “at its core, walking is a special form of communion between people who share public space as a platform and framework”.
Restaurant owner resting outside his shop, and a noren curtain signaling a vegetable tempura restaurant.
Medieval cities configured around central town squares and based on human mobility (architecture at walking speed were designed so people could walk in their daily commercial routines. Who hasn’t beamed at the pleasure of walking in a town square in Italy? Tokyo does this superbly in many of its neighbourhoods. It offers abundant ‘experience space’ in small-scale streets, pocket parks, and informal and formal squares, while its major thoroughfares provide the ‘movement space’ for private automobiles, buses, and trucks. And it has vast ‘movement space’ underground in its ubiquitous labyrinthe subway system, which carries workers, students, and the upper middle class.
Pocket park, Tokyo
This is not the case in many cities where modernism has ignored the ‘life in between buildings’, as Jan Gehl refers to it, and focused on discreet stand-alone buildings intersected by vast networks of roads to accommodate (and ‘invite’) the car invasion of the 20th century. Until that time, as Jane Jacobs opined, city space was primarily ‘experience space’, designed to facilitate social interaction. The automobile upended this paradigm, to the detriment of our social capital and well-being by streamlining city space for the utilitarian purpose of allowing cars fast passage. The automobile radically disrupted human scale because cars take up more space than people, both when driving and parked (a parking lot for 20 to 30 cars and their owners denies a whole metropolitan citizenry a nice-sized town square). In a city of cars, all spatial dimensions increase to accommodate the car’s speed, and we are left with the impoverished experience of the 60 km per hour architecture (‘fast architecture’) of a busy road. Its monochrome blandness ignores human scale precisely because it is not built for humans and their mobility speed. That's the regrettable legacy of the 20th century: we built cities for cars, not for humans.
Cities designed for the spatial dimensions and speed of cars, not people
People love to watch other people. They will stop, observe, mingle, sometimes make a new friend, and even occasionally fall in love if there is an appropriate ‘invitation’. The invitation works if it obeys human scale, is designed at a walking or cycling speed, is rich in visual detail such as in Tokyo’s small streets, and pushes cars onto main roads. Tokyo is not perfect but it is a very good touchstone of an ‘inviting’ human-scale city. Monocle magazine ranked Tokyo No. 1 in this years’ annual livability survey. Not undeserving.
The open design invites people to stop and listen to the pianist at a community music centre
All photographs by Matthew Williams
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: