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Thursday, May 4, 2006


Finally, Tokyo tries to protect its skyline

Staff writer

Which comes first when trying to create an attractive city -- landmark preservation or urban development?

News photo
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government wants to preserve the view behind the Diet building in Tokyo's Nagata district.

Tokyo, with its mix of the historic and commercial, is now trying to tackle this tough question.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has recently taken a bold step to protect how three historic resources are viewed from street level by restricting high-rise buildings behind them. Because of the city's character, however, it faces the classic conflict of historic preservation vs. land development aimed at invigorating the economy.

The three sites are the Diet building, the State Guest House and the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery -- all symbolic architecture in the heart of Tokyo built in the early 20th century.

Back in 1997, Tokyo set up a series of regulations, under the overall title landscape ordinance, to allow the metropolitan government to request that builders protect the environment when planning new construction projects. But it lacks specific steps and carries no punishment for violations.

The ordinance, which took effect April 1, sets restrictions on the height of buildings as far away as 2 km behind each of the three historic sites.

It bans any buildings within 1 km from being visible behind the main part of the historic structures when viewed from the front.

Moreover, it bars buildings between 1 and 2 km away from being visible above the historic structures' center roof.

City planning specialists welcomed the step as Tokyo will no longer approve projects that breach the specific rules.

Under laws to promote urban development, developers usually get the metropolitan government's approval to build taller towers than normally permitted by providing more public space.

"I praise the step very much," said Shigeru Itoh, a professor specializing in urban planning at Waseda University. "I want Tokyo to maintain the concept of (limiting) super-high buildings in the future and make efforts to expand that idea."

The step is effective because each of the three areas affected stretch over two wards, and not all wards actively seek historic preservation, said Yukio Nishimura, a professor specializing in urban planning at the University of Tokyo.

But both experts agree Tokyo's action is too late for the Diet, the view of which when standing out in front of the building has already been partly damaged.

Two tall towers stand behind the building and part of them appear above both sides of the Diet building, even though they stand slightly out of the new preservation area.

Moreover, about 800 meters west of the Diet, Tokyo Broadcasting System Inc. is now constructing three tall buildings.

When they are completed in January 2008, the upper half of one will be visible on the left side of the Diet building when viewed from the front.

The project was approved in November 2004, long before the metropolitan government put the new guideline into effect.

"We want TBS to cut back on the height of the building, but there is no legal step to stop it," said Toshio Sunakawa, in charge of city planning at the metropolitan government.

Under the regulations that were then in place, the government could order changes in the color or shape of a building that would damage surrounding views.

But it couldn't limit the height of buildings, Sunakawa said.

TBS said some of the metropolitan government's opinions were incorporated in the project before it was approved.

"We designed the buildings not to stand out in the cityscape by covering the walls with glass that reflect the sky," TBS said in a statement. "We also decided not to set up any sign on the wall facing the Diet."

Planning specialists say Tokyo also needs to preserve views of smaller historical resources, such as Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district, Shibamata Taishakuten Temple in Katsushika Ward and the five-story pagoda in the Yanaka district.

But developers oppose the idea of making preservation areas too big. The Real Estate Companies Association of Japan submitted a written statement to Tokyo last December ahead of the new guideline to protect the three historical landmarks.

"We told the Tokyo government that it should make the maximum consideration not to hamper effective use of land too much," said Akihiro Kurihara, who heads up city planning at the association.

The group also urged Tokyo to limit the preservation to the areas surrounding the three sites, he said.

Developers acknowledge the importance of landmark preservation, because it boosts the value of a city. But they criticized the government's slow action, saying decades of taking a light hand on regulation makes it difficult now to persuade land owners when developing land.

"If Tokyo had introduced its policies of historical preservation earlier, we could have persuaded land owners to understand the policies," said an industry insider who did not want to be identified.

Tokyo's lack of strict regulations allowed business areas to spread all over the place instead of concentrating them in limited zones, he said.

The neglect started after World War II.

Although a group of specialists promoted landscape preservation in the 1920s, removing telephone poles, refurbishing moats and planting trees along roads, the trend changed drastically after the war, said the University of Tokyo's Nishimura.

The government was hellbent on rebuilding a city devastated by U.S. air raids and paid little attention to protecting the cityscape.

Land reforms under Occupation policy in the 1940s also allowed tenants to own a piece of farm land, which resulted in accelerating the active buying and selling of slices of land, and the bubble economy in the late 1980s added to the excessive real estate trade, according to experts.

The experts also point out that compared to historic preservation in European countries and the United States, Japan has lacked strict regulations on city planning, and because of this landowners have more power to decide the design of what goes up on their property.

What steps can Tokyo adopt next?

"Tokyo's attractiveness comes from its kaleidoscopic style," said Waseda's Itoh. "It doesn't have to change drastically. It needs to improve step by step by preserving back alleys in historic neighborhoods and rearranging buildings packed in limited space."

One way to do this would be placing a ban on buying and selling small pieces of land by widening the minimum lot for trade. NPO activities could also play an important role in speeding up local governments' slow decision-making, he said.

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