Our Streetscape Future: Turning Japanese?

The following is a dramatization of actual events. Actual dialog and concepts presented have been compressed and highlighted for loggification purposes:

So I’m sitting there at the sushi bar with Portland’s Consul General from Japan, asking him for advice on my upcoming fellowship study (which isn’t easy to do in Japanese – especially as the sake starts to take effect).

“So – the Architectural Foundation of Oregon has given you a grant to go to my country to study… what exactly?” he asks.

“Urban Design issues” I tell him. “I’m fascinated by all the activity that takes place in the pedestrian zones along street edges in Japan. The built environment seems so chaotic, no one seems to be following any rules, and yet it all works so beautifully. I really want to study this.”

The Consul General, an urbane, westernized diplomat to his toes, pauses for a second, sake cup halfway to his lips. “BAKA!!” (you idiot!) he exclaims, slaming the table and almost upsetting the sake. “My country has nothing to teach the West about urban design! We can only learn from you! Go to Europe!” He then launches into a monlogue about how much he hates walking on the street in Tokyo.

Hmmm. At this moment I have the realization — it’s going to be even more difficult than I thought. Before I can learn from my hosts, I may have to convince them they have something worth studying.

And yet – despite the GC’s extolling the “order” of European streets — the latest, hotest transportation design theory coming out of Europe is “shared space”, the concept of creating roadway anarchy – no directions, no grade separations, no signalized interstections – to promote harmonious use of transportation infrastructure. Can you imagine anything more threatening to a classically trained traffic engineer?

“Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People have to find their own way, negotiatie for themselves, use their own brains” says Hans Monderman, an avante garde Dutch traffic engineer (not at the sushi bar with us, but talking w/a NYT reporter earlier this year).

As some of you know, selected towns in Europe have actually done it – ripped out all their traffic signage, their traffic lights and their sidewalks – and found that it works great. An intersection in the Dutch town of Drachten, reconfigured by Mr. Monderman, handles 20,000 cars a day without signage, traffic lights or sidewalks.

But Japanese urban design (or lack thereof) and streetscape environment goes far beyond this. The most common word used by Westerners to describe it is “chaos”. The most common reaction: paralysis due to total sensory overload. Do Japanese streets work in spite of it? or because of it?

How different is Portland with it’s minutely detailed design review directives for buildings (this architect knows full well), its heavily regulated streets and it’s draconian laws against any type of two or three dimensional information display! Portland’s goal is to create an urban environment where human activity can flourish and transportation via all modes is encouraged. But if that is the case – how much better the “chaos” of urban Japan accomplishes this than does Portland!
Bike/ped/transit splits in the cities I will be visiting (some no bigger than Portland) must be 80% or more. Shop densities and sales volumes put NW 23rd Ave. to shame.

We have certainly made immense progress in turning Portland into a liveable 24 hour city, but I think most would acknowledge we still have a long way to go. Have we reached a plateau, or even a state of diminishing returns where more and more design and traffic regulation is bringing about less and less desirable change and increased vitality?

All questions I am looking to – not answer, but to think more about during my travels in Japan. Please get me any ideas, questions, hot spots, etc.
you may have for my study. And stand by for future postings from the land of the rising sun. I leave next Monday for seven(!) weeks.

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