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Reasonable Urbanism: Will the Real 15-Minute City Please Step Forward?
Japan shows how to build a "reasonable" urban neighborhood, for everyone
There was an onigiri, a hot crispy potato croquette, and a bottle of beer in my bike basket as I neared my destination. I already felt the cool breeze, heard the sound of the leaves rustling. Then, rounding the corner and swerving around a group of turtle doves, it appeared in full view.
I stopped in awe, as I always do. For the trees. For the smell of earth and camphor mixed with scents from the nearby restaurants and bakery. For the rhythm and way that the narrow buildings housing these businesses rise around the park.
I never tire of visiting this shaded oasis of camphor and cherry trees, and I take it many others feel the same. On this day, just after the lunch rush, one bench was occupied by the old man putting his third and final cigarette butt of the afternoon into his empty beer can. A young woman was practicing guitar and sipping from a glass bottle of strawberry milk on another. I pedaled to one of the cherry trees, nearer the guitarist-in-training, and took my luxury picnic out of the bike basket.
The onigiri was from a shop on the next block, known for their umeboshi filled rice balls. The croquette came from a shop on the same block, where the thin man tended to a tub of hot oil from afternoon till late night, cooking his potato-filled crispy miracles to order. The beer was one of my favorites in this part of the city, a slightly floral lager, made with organic rice from a farmer we knew.
As the woman with the guitar warbled a pop song and the pigeons cooed her on, and as the old smoking man headed back to his shop with a cigarette-filled beer can, I sat down, took a deep breath, and smiled at what I call my weekly indulgence. There is nothing quite like a lunch under the trees in this neighborhood.
What is a Real 15-Minute Neighborhood?
The neighborhood illustrated above was built over the course of decades and centuries. Much has changed in those centuries, yet this neighborhood has more or less always been what some might call a “15-minute” neighborhood, where businesses and homes and places for leisure are built in walking distance of each other. Like many other traditional town centers built in the past few thousand years, this neighborhood exists as it does because human beings seem to have an affinity for such orientations, not necessarily because economists, urban planners, or any particular industry decided it should be so.
In this real 15-minute neighborhood, the buildings and block structures and trees and community agreements were all developed by the hands and minds of local citizens together with national common sense — not through multinational governing bodies. The physical structures here were financed mainly with local and regional economic and social capital — not through international developers. Finally, what some might call an absurdly low-tech ethos pervades the neighborhood, with none of the “smart city” features so often touted by the industry.
It is interesting, how all of this seems absurdly reasonable, does it not? The reality is that for the most part, the neighborhoods people enjoy spending time in are not overly tech-dependent, and are mostly conceived and built with care, over time, by local and regional minds, efforts, and investments.
While the place I describe above is unique to Japan, there are also many neighborhoods in the world with a similarly ‘reasonable’ ethos and feeling. We should be learning from all of these existing places — the small alleys where bicycles rule, the old rows of townhomes with climate-controlling central gardens instead of AC units, the blocks of sun-baked adobe homes with natural cooling towers — about how to proceed, especially on an ecological front.
But how do we build such reasonable neighborhoods today, when the state of the world sometimes seems so un-reasonable?
Ingredients for a “Reasonable” Urban Neighborhood
Every city, even the most unreasonable of them, has enclaves of reason; a garden tucked in a little corner, an experimental gallery or music venue in an old warehouse, a neighborhood party in someone’s front yard.
It is within these existing places, however small, that we can find a proper list of “ingredients” that make up the cities we actually want to live in and be a part of. So forget the urban planning manual for a moment. These unique, alive, often radical pockets of reason and local ingenuity, developed over time by local people, through local circumstances, will be our manual.
Here, I want to explore and outline what this uniqueness looks like where I have lived for the past decade, in East Asia. To start, I offer a general list of “ingredients” observed during the years lived in urban Japan.
Here, traditional neighborhood character is in many ways premised on:
Low Tech, often Nature-Based Solutions
Social and Economic Diversity
Neighborhood Organizations for Community Building
Diversity of Ownership and Building Age
A Focus on Locally-Owned Business
Streets for People
Daily Needs Within Walking Distance
Spaces for Rest in Nature
Spaces for Gathering and Activities in Nature
Frequent and Accessible Public Transportation
You’ll notice in this list, that the bit about daily needs within walking distance — aka: the 15-minute city part — is only a single point. This point can not effectively exist alone however. None of the above points can.
Like a recipe, all of these ingredients support, or are in some ways requisite of one another. For instance, when we lived in a neighborhood similar to the one described above, we were just a few minutes walk from a subway station in what The Economist often calls one of the most expensive cities in the world. Yet our monthly rent was $250. Our neighbor who had lived there for three decades was paying $50 a month. Families in a nice new apartment nearby were paying $1,500. It is difficult to imagine such naturally occurring (not government controlled) diverse-yet-reasonable housing costs. These are largely a result of a neighborhood that focuses on local investment and local ownership, small size, low-tech solutions to urbanism, community, diversity of building stock and age, etc... All of the ingredients. When we ignore the relationships between rent and these other ingredients, the cost of living is almost certain to be pushed into the stratosphere. What else could we expect, really?
Now obviously, this is a whole lot to take in and digest. Like any good recipe, we need to tease out and explore these ingredients bit by bit, before we can know the ways in which they can come together.
Diving Into a More Reasonable Urbanism
In the coming issues I will attempt to lay out in more detail, the character of each of these ingredients, and how they are mixed together in the real world in various ways.
This won’t be highly technical. It need not be. It should be more like a slow and fun adventure in awareness of the places we live. A sampling that calls for us to treat each of the ingredients we encounter with some thought, curiosity, investigation, and illustrations of their own.
Heck, maybe I need to hop on a ferry to Japan for a while — a place so rich with these ingredients. We’ll see.
If you’ve ideas or observations from where you live, related to the ingredients of a “reasonable” neighborhood, feel free to let me know. We might all just make some good urban recipes together.
Until then, you might enjoy this writing from a few years ago, recounting some moments of life lived in a small Osaka alley where some people say “time stopped.”
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