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Home » Archives » September 2005 » Kyoto's Grid is Bad for City

Kyoto's Grid is Bad for City

Tuesday, September 20, 2005 Posted: 03:30 PM JST

Oregon, USA based architect Rick Browning is on an extended architectural discovery tour through Japan. He is visiting Osaka, Kyoto, Kyushu and Tokyo. Today a report of his very interesting observations of Kyoto's street grid. Americans swear by the grid and most American cities are based on it. Browning however, compares Kyoto with Osaka, and finds that the grid doesn't seem to be working very well.

(by Rick D. Browning) - Kyoto is of course all about venerable temples and imperial sites. I confess I did a smidgen of this conventional sightseeing, surprisingly enlightening in terms of illuminating the typological roots of Japanese streetscapes.

Just as interesting was Kyoto’s very atypical grid of streets. This city, which most consider the quintessential representation of Japan, is literally “unjapanese” in it’s macro scale urban form. A logical, right angle grid of streets was laid out in the early 8th c. and has remained to this day. But it was imported from China, then the model of sophistication and high technology that Japan aspired to. Despite lingering on in Kyoto, the grid layout never took hold in Japan and to my knowledge Kyoto is the only major city where it can be found.

So our American New Urbanist theory would predict that Kyoto would be an especially delightful pedestrian environment. Less disorienting and easier to navigate than the megamaze of Osaka - right? Much to my surprise I found...wrong!! On my very first walk - from train station to traditional little inn where I stayed - I found several dismaying things:

1. The grid like streets are wider and straighter, which allows for greater volumes and speeds of traffic. It turns out that Kyoto drivers are the fastest and least respectful of pedestrians I have seen (still much more so than in the US, but relatively speaking). It seemed to me this was in large part because the wide, straight roads made for less decision points and in general facilitated driving fast.

2. The relative volume of cars compared to cyclists and pedestrians appears to be greater. I don’t have statistics yet, but it seems as if more people drive cars in downtown Kyoto than other cities I have visited.

3. The proportion of sidewalk space relative to roadway space for cars was the worst I have seen in a Japanese city so far. Sidewalks tended to be narrow and jammed with peds and bikes while cars seemed to have more width than they needed. Again, allowing them to drive faster.

4. Distances between ped crossings on major streets was unbelievably great. The historic coarse grain of big right angle streets seems to have overwhelmed the finer grain narrow mixed use streets (which tend to be less straight, even though they are bounded by a right angle network of
streets). In some instances distance between crosswalks was almost 1/4 mile. High speeds and volumes made jaywalking difficult (not to mention the Japanese habit of driving on the wrong side of the road, all I can do is try and look both ways every time I step off the curb, can’t switch my brain over... and with all the wrong way bike traffic makes sense to do so anyway).

5. Streetscapes, with their mix of shop fronts, signs, landscaping, urban furnishings, etc. were much more monotonous and dull on major Kyoto streets than other cities I visited. The long, straight unbroken vistas took away the element of surprise and the spatial variety that has made other Japanese cities, even Osaka, so delightful.

Of course, this is the “other Kyoto”. Some of you may have spent a week in Kyoto and never noticed any of this. If you focus, as all of us ordinarily would, on the superb Heian period architectural riches of the city you will barely notice the modern city. I deliberately stayed in a work-a-day area of inner Kyoto that is not on the normal temple circuit, so saw the quotidian part of the city that passed me by on my earlier visit 15 years ago. It was very disappointing. There is a terrible mismatch in Kyoto between their unique architectural heritage and their modern urban planning. Perhaps the best symbol of this is the abomination of a central train station that was built over a storm of international
protest. But the station is only one point in a complex built environment - how the street network has been allowed to develop over time is actually a much worse insult to the city. I am not the first person to say that those making planning decisions in Kyoto appear to hate Kyoto.

Is it possible that the grid isn’t all it is cracked up to be? Maybe a fine urban street pattern as long as cars aren’t introduced into the mix... But my strong opinion after being in all these different Japanese cities is that it is the “typical” urban Japanese environment, with all it’s meandering, frustratingly indirect streets - that holds the most charm and gives the most support to the pedestrian. Perhaps we should think a little more about the usual unquestioning deference we give to grid-like street layouts.

More later. For now must try and keep up with my journal and sketch book. I seem to be constantly behind in this department.

Rick D. Browning is a Portland, Oregon based architect on an architectural discovery tour through Japan.

Keywords: opinion_item

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1 comments so far post your own

1 | At 03:27pm on Sep 27 2005, Barbara Radcliffe wrote:
I believe that Nara is also built on a grid system (as from China). In addition, Sapporo is also laid out on a grid from a much later time period (and very easy to navigate).
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