It is midnight, Arakawaoke station forecourt. I face the choice of an hour's walk home in the dark, or a 3000 yen taxi ride. Since there is a typhoon due, I opt for the taxi and skipping lunch for a week. Not for the first time, I curse the fact that Tsukuba does not have a railway station, that the bus services shut down for the night so early, and that the so-called 'international city' of science lacks so many of the amenities of a real city, and even some of a normal town. Worst of all, I curse the fact that none of this is an accident, since Tsukuba is a planned town, deliberately placed on the plain 50 km removed from Tokyo, and wilfully situated at a king's ransom away from the nearest railway station.
This September, Tsukuba's International Congress Center was host to the New Garden City Conference 2001, attended by many town planners from around Japan and from abroad. The conference was part of a celebration of 100 years of town planning, or more specifically the centenary of the foundation of the first Garden City, at Letchworth, near London. The founder of the Garden Cities movement was a Victorian gentleman called Sir Ebenezer Howard, regarded by many as the father of modern town planning. Howard's ideas were inspired by a combination of social, economic and environmental ideals. His plans featured a series of settlements connected by railways, and were as much to do with the reform of land ownership and forestalling revolution as they were to do with gardens. Howard pioneered the construction of Letchworth and subsequently Welwyn Garden City. The idea caught on, and new towns have been built in the utopian spirit all over the world ever since.
The Garden City was a nineteenth century idea. It was supposed to allow people to have a decent living away from the evils of the Victorian city - the slums, poverty, vice and pollution. The people would live in self-contained and largely self-sufficient communities. Ebenezer Howard's proposed solution, the so-called 'Town-Country', was supposed to be the product of the marriage of Town and Country, combining the best of both worlds.
However, Garden Cities and new towns are not without their critics. In practice, new towns have often turned out to be suburban dormitory towns with underused land, poor transport, lack of facilities and social isolation. Arguably, the 'Town-Country' has neither the amenities and convenience of a real city nor the rural appeal of the real countryside. For better or worse, Tsukuba is part and parcel of the town planning movement. Its conception was bureaucratic, at a Cabinet Council meeting in September 1963. Construction started in 1968, and the first residents braved moving into this 'experimental city' around 1972. The conference heard that in the early years, Tsukuba suffered from being an inconvenient place to live, with poor morale, and an unfortunate suicide rate. However, its morale and external image apparently improved significantly after the Tsukuba Expo in 1985.
Delegates learned of Tsukuba's successes which relate to greenery, good amenity, infrastructure and architecture. There were also four so-called 'uncompleted purposes'. These are the failure to achieve a compact city (in other words, the town is too spread out); the failure to achieve mixed uses (in other words, there is too great a separation of houses, shops and employment locations); incomplete redevelopment of rural areas, and a failure of long term settlement by researchers. (The last point is interesting since 3% of the residents of the town are foreigners, many of whom are on short term contracts).
Surely to this list must be added the failure of Tsukuba to be connected to the railway network after 30 years. Getting to Tokyo can be so difficult. On a good day, the highway bus service is a breeze. But it cannot be relied upon at congested times. How many times must the pathetic line "Sorry, I live in Tsukuba" be used to excuse turning up late in Tokyo? Going for a night out in Tokyo is inconvenient or impossible. In what kind of 'city' does the last bus leave at 9.30 pm?
Yet, incredibly, to some planners, the arrival of the Tsukuba Express (not due till 2005) still appeared to be a mixed blessing. This is because planners have become beguiled by the idea of self-containment, that their creations should have unique identities and stand alone as independent entities. They fear that places like Tsukuba, instead of being proud independent cities, should become 'bed towns'. Now, if Tsukuba were a real city, surely it should not fear becoming a 'bed town'? And if it is not a real city, if it is lacking in a variety of jobs and services and cultural opportunities, who are planners to deny the citizens the right to access those in the bright lights of Tokyo?
What the conference did not discuss is that, ironically, some of the ideas which inspire the principle of self-containment are nothing to do with the practical problem of planning urban development, but originate in philosophical ideas from science, and in particular, biology. Central is the idea that the city is a living organism - a sentiment expressed more than once at the Tsukuba conference. If Tsukuba is an organism, the ideas goes, Tsukuba Center is its 'heart'. Similarly, the Namiki neighbourhood is a 'cell', and the Namiki shopping centre is its 'nucleus'. The influential urban writer Lewis Mumford was one of the greatest champions of so-called organic planning, and had a field day with organic analogies, arguing for 'cell-division' rather than 'amoeboid growth' as a model for urban development. Drawing inspiration from Aristotle, Mumford used biological analogies to justify why towns should have a fixed size, and when this size was reached, a distinct new town should be built somewhere else. This kind of rhetoric helped establish the professional climate in which new towns were deliberately created in the middle of nowhere. In summing up the conference, it was stated that the key aim of the garden city was for the benefit of its residents. But for whose benefit was Tsukuba created? When it was designated, no-one wanted to move here from Tokyo; and no-one here wanted it either. If anything, the abstract ideal of the nation's scientific establishment was to benefit, and, perhaps, the careers of the town planners themselves.
Planners often see their cities as works of artistic creation. Yet they also insist that cities are living organisms. A city can only be both an organism and a work of creation if the planner is God. Unfortunately, God chose to base the planning of Science City on Aristotlean biology, ahead of giving us a railway.
The author welcomes comments on this article and any opinions on Tsukuba, positive or negative, from its residents. s.marshall[at]asahi.email.ne.jp
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