City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Stockholm 8 April 2020

Polka dot city Tokyo as an exemplar of ‘Slowdown’ theory, as the world’s largest and smallest city, and as a case study for others post-Covid-19.

“Slowdown is not an end of history or the coming of salvation. We are not heading toward a utopia, although life for most people may be less precarious, with better housing, education, and less onerous work than in the recent past. We are heading for stability. Stability may be a little boring, like Pittsburgh, Stockholm, Kyoto, Helsinki, Ottawa, or Oslo, especially if you are hankering after excitement and bright lights.” — Danny Dorling, Slowdown (2020)

Having lived happily in two of those “boring” places, and with a fondness for at least two more in the list, I’m questioning my own sense of self a little. But as Dorling points out, just as we will always find things to worry about — that is something we are intrinsically good at, as a species — we will always be able to generate a little tension in an otherwise stable city, to lose ourselves in the darkness on the edge of town.

For example, as well as the list above, Dorling uses another city as an archetypal example of Slowdown, a city that also exemplifies the polka dot city motif used in this series: Tokyo. Arguably the world’s biggest megacity, and to many visitors utterly bewildering in its scale and dynamism, Tokyo is a constantly churning urban experiment, with its own particular metabolism enabling it to constantly change and thrive. Yet the city precisely exemplifies the Slowdown, and revels in the small and the quiet. It is worth dwelling, briefly at least, on some of the patterns of lived experience forged by the city, or that forge the city, and noting their relationship to the previous papers in this series.

This is not to say we should all Be More Tokyo. The place is unique, as all places are, and its value would resist copy-pasting. Yet as an Asian megacity Tokyo encourages us not to fall into the trap of valorising the usual European ‘compact city’ examples, the more obviously smaller, slower, and more sustainable cities that I draw on as much as anyone else. Should you need it, I’ve recently written about European cities and streets like Paris, Oslo, Utrecht and so on, and how they are supported by their smaller, lighter, more active mobility systems, post-car, as well as alternative housing models that can unlock different forms of neighbourhood. Many cities and places smaller than Tokyo are moving rapidly to retrofit their streets during the lockdown, tactically at least, perhaps getting a headstart on the Slowdown. But Tokyo provides an almost extreme alternative compared to these examples, akin to being a lead user in design methodology.

Please note: this is not an attempt in-depth piece at all. I recall reading Thomas Campanella’s book about Chinese urban development, The Concrete Dragon, which starts with the author’s reflection that each time he visited China, he realised he knew less and less about the place. Japan can have that effect on the gaijin too. Rather, this piece is a skim across some aspects that align with Danny Dorling picking out the city in his last chapter of his book Slowdown, and that also align with the small pieces, loosely joined polka dot patterns I’ve been sketching in this second batch of Slowdown Papers. I’ve written more in-depth pieces on some of the architecture, neighbourhoods, and metabolism of Tokyo, with respect to Sou Fujimoto’s House NA and Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, and on the mobility cultures that frame Tokyo’s streets, as part of this mini-series. Perhaps read those first. Or later! And for more detail from eyes on the ground, the work of Darko Radovic and Davisi Boontharm at Keio University is worth exploring (see below).

And as geographer Paul Waley notes, writing in 2012 for his preface to Small Tokyo (again, reference below), we cannot take for granted that the patterns that produced this version of Tokyo will necessarily continue. He writes:

“Small Tokyo is a struggle, and in many respects it is a losing struggle.” —Paul Waley, preface to ‘Small Tokyo’, Darko Radovic and Davisi Boontharm (2012)

Yet Waley continues, “In a funny sort of way, however, Tokyo’s upwards explosion over the last three decades or so has intensified our appreciation of its smallness. The contrast accentuates the smallness of so many of the city’s buildings and the intimate nature of so many of its spaces.” And now, in 2020, in the context of an examplar Slowdown city according to Dorling (not least following lockdown conditions), that upwards explosion will have become difficult to justify. It is the smallness and slowness of Tokyo that may well persist, in its own uniquely complex way—yet only if we are aware of it, and appreciate it as Waley suggests. And in the same way, perhaps, some aspects of the lockdown might intensify our appreciation of the potential in the slowdown.

First of all, this distributed polka dot pattern that this series returns to. There is no discernible meaning to the centre of Tokyo (Tokyo Station is not really it) but instead, the city is pinned-up on dozens, hundreds of sub-centres, mini-neighbourhoods with agglomerations of higher density around their subway stations, which after the protective firebreak of tall-ish buildings, drops quickly to humble but beautifully human-scale side-streets. No particular single central business district rules over the others, and the neighbourhood currently in vogue can apparently shift with the wind. Yet each area seems to retain its values, character, and function within the city, one way or another.

Tokyo (2018, 2019)

A quite distinct model for urban mobility enables this pattern; distinct, but entirely replicable elsewhere, as it is essentially the repeated polka dot described previously. Crucially, at street scale, on-street parking is not allowed, which opens up the streetscape for people, on foot and on bike, for conversation and activities, and yes, for moving goods and people around but as a secondary ‘enabling’ activity to the life of the street itself. (Again, the virus is giving many of us a glimpse of this, in streets otherwise long-lost to the car. But in Tokyo, the lack of parking opens up more possibility again, revealing how streets should be. If other cities used such regulation to excise on-street parking, it would, with the stroke of a pen, be the single-most impactful move they could make.)

The streets this leaves Tokyo with are small, tidy, but full of life. In local neighbourhoods, they are no more than four metres wide or so, but due to their openness, they are packed with life, but at the scale of plant pots, signs, window displays, seats, small trees, vending machines, bikes …

Tokyo (2018, 2019)

Buildings of the quality of Sou Fujimoto’s House NA or Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House humbly thread themselves into these neighbourhoods, blurring the domestic and the urban, home-life and work-life, a polka dot pattern we’ve seen throughout these papers. Admittedly, these spaces, and many rather more humble examples in other neighbourhoods, may be aligned in this way but the general work culture in Japan is not yet primed for working from home, or working from different ‘not-office spaces’, at all. Yet much of the city’s fabric is primed for more diverse activities, enabling patterns of living and working to be peppered across multiple small, local spaces.

On most small streets, the greenery is all around, tucked into every corner, tumbling from every pocket, from small walls of pots to tangles of trees with proper root systems. It could be greener still, given the climate, and the suburbs will go that way for sure. (Ed. You also see this in Kyoto and other Japanese cities of course; this pattern is beyond Tokyo. It is just particularly clear here, given the contrasting scales and dynamics.)

Not all of Tokyo is like this — not ‘all of Tokyo’ is anything, given the diversity and scale — but much of it is. There are vehicles delivering goods and people across a rich array of all sizes, but most of them small and quiet, often fully people-powered.

Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, in its natural habitat
Sou Fujimoto’s House NA, likewise

Koh Kitayama’s book ‘Tokyo Metabolizing’, described here, outlines precisely how the metabolism of the city works in this ‘everyday complex’ way, balancing its architecture and urbanism fast and slow, large and small. And Darko Radovic’s co+labo studio at Keio University has also been producing and curating a rich array of brilliantly distinctive research on these aspects of Tokyo—not least their books ‘Small Tokyo’ and ‘100 maps of a single street, Kuhonbutsygawa Ryokudo, Jiyugaoka edited by Darko and Davisi Boontharm.

Small Tokyo’, Darko Radovic and Davisi Boontharm (2012)

On this paradoxical question of scale—of how Tokyo is defined by the small, yet is the most populous mega-city-region in the world—Darko writes, with some prescience perhaps, of the resilience of slow and small:

“Thinking about the future, I believe that this exact and peculiar Japanese ability to live small can prove to be an invaluable cultural asset, and that it creates an internalised knowledge and key survival skills in a time of crisis and scarcity which environmental degradation seem to be bringing about.”—Darko Radovic, introduction to ‘Small Tokyo (2012)

And in Paul Waley‘s contribution:

“Smallness begins not in Tokyo but in the mountains. There in the mountains almost anywhere in Japan, the crumpled folded spaces of steep mountain valleys and the circuitous meanderings of valleys seem designed to confuse the traveller. All sense of distance is confounded; that which is near seems far, the large seems small. Tokyo, sitting at the centre of by far the largest conurbation in the world, replicates this mountain landscape. It is replete with small things, small gaps between buildings, small thoroughfares in narrow townscapes, small distances between dierent districts. Despite its vast size Tokyo appears strikingly small.”—Paul Waley, preface to Small Tokyo (2012)

These warps in scale and speed are made possible in Tokyo by its variation on the polka dot pattern used as a motif throughout this series, with a stretched fabric of super-fast subway system distributed around multiple concentrations of activity. The subway pops up, or is elevated above, relatively high- or medium-density, mixed-use and diverse centres, part of Tokyo’s ‘firewall urbanism’ earthquake defences, but this incredibly fast network is surrounded by super-slow neighbourhoods, the height and pace quickly dropping down to the scale of people, trees, and alleyways.

Smaller, local centres are taken by bus, on foot, or by bike. In fact, bikes are everywhere, even though Tokyo is not usually considered a cycling city in the same sense that Copenhagen or Utrecht are.

Tokyo polka dot city. Now is the time to reveal that the polka dot pattern I’ve been using is drawn from the Tokyo subway layout (below), with larger centres drawn around junctions, and smaller neighbourhoods drawn around them. Lines, however, indicate your can connect in multiple ways, not simply via subway.
Tokyo subway system

That subway system, actually with metro and JR lines combined, seems impossibly complex at first glance. The map has no more centre of gravity than the territory does. Yet at the street level, or on the subway itself, it remains a smooth, fast, regular, and highly effective system, which, given a few hours worth of comprehension, becomes perfectly easy to use, belying the map above. In fact, as with any good subway system, it makes the entire city legible. Almost all of the carriages I’ve ever ridden in have been unbelievably clean (the polar opposite of some things I’ve seen on the New York subway, shudder.) But while its sheer extent is perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the system, another is the way that people respectfully queue along the lines marked on the platform. There’s a stillness, slowness, and calmness to the overall operation, given the care with which it is conceived, operated, and maintained.

Tokyo subway (2018, 2019)

And that pattern repeats until it covers most of Honshu’s southern mass, for 38 million people. Zooming out, that pattern repeats even further, as if fractal, as the Shinkansen trains connect the dots at national scale too.

Dorling, looking at the data on Tokyo’s urban growth, and particularly its rate of change, suggests that:

“(Tokyo) is heading for slowdown, for stability. Tokyo as a whole is ending its period of growth, and there will soon no longer be a question of whether the city’s growth is greatest within the center, the suburbs, or the furthest outskirts … Tokyo in particular, and Japan more widely, can be seen in many ways to be at the forefront of slowdown. Japan has changed and will continue to change rapidly, but it is an example of the end to change in things that no longer need to grow — in the number of people, the number of buildings, and in overall consumption.” — Danny Dorling, Slowdown (2020)

Redrawn graph from ‘Slowdown’ by Danny Dorling (2020). I had to redraw it to understand it! Apologies to Dorling, and his illustrator Kirsten McClure, if I have misrepresented the original graph. It indicates both population growth and direction of growth, in terms of growth in city centre versus suburbs. Essentially, it indicates a spiral closing in on itself, tending to zero on the ROXY scale, which essentially means stability and Slowdown. ‘ROXY’ is the mean population growth rate of a city when all the individual growth rates of each area are weighted by their distance from the centre of the city. If the value is positive and high, it means population growth is concentrating near the central parts of the city. If it is negative and low, it means the city is spreading outward faster than it is growing in the centre. If the value is near zero, this implies stasis.

Crucially, however, Dorling notes that there is a layer of change that does not subject to the Slowdown: “Culturally and intellectually we will continue to change, perhaps faster than ever before in the decades soon to come.”

This seems particularly apposite with Tokyo in mind, as its streets support and both fast and slow cultural change perhaps more than anywhere else. Its buildings last no more than 26 years on average; except for those that are centuries old. Its trends come and go at the speed of tropical storms, yet other, deeper cultural patterns are frozen, ancient—for good and bad.

The architect Ryue Nishizawa said, “Asian cities are based on a model of ‘change.’ This is true not only of Japan, but also of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, and all of Asia. People’s lives change, and values do too, and because they change, the idea that a city that supports them should also change rapidly is indicated by its form.”

Yet whilst the layer of building changes more rapidly here, the city itself slows down, as noted in Dorling’s diagram above. This city is now continually rebuilding itself on the same plot, rather than sprawling outwards. Change is happening, but from within—which feels like an appropriately gnomic thing to say, almost Neo-Confucian, but somehow also describes building sites.

This is the turnover of cultural and intellectual change that Dorling describes, and therefore it is architecture doing its real work, in that sense, beyond providing shelter: design’s role as bringing form to ideas, and in turn shaping ideas; spatial intelligence articulating what we stand for, as tangible statements of public life—rather than simply being the subservient water-carriers of the real estate business. So although buildings move more rapidly in Tokyo than in other cities, and serve as containers and broadcasters for fast-moving ideas, the city itself is decelerating to a slower pace, ultimately in stasis, spatially.

Plant pots, Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House (2018)

These are the paradoxes of Tokyo: the world’s biggest megacity, whose emblematic scale is that of a plant pot outside a tiny bar in a back alley; the most rapid turnover of urban fabric, within an urban form that is standing still; a popular culture with an insatiable appetite for novelty, within a deeply-layered ancient culture. These rippling layers of change produce a form of resilience that may be attuned for Slowdown.

As with the Saarinen Principle, Stewart Brand’s pace layers diagrams are chiselled in the foundation stones of strategic design, enabling fast and slow-moving actions, infrastructures, and institutions to be sorted and arranged in terms of pace of change. Yet while Brand’s thinking about the qualities of vernacular architecture in ‘How Buildings Learn’ remains highly useful outside of that frame, his broader ‘pace layering’ model from The Clock of the Long Now, running from nature to fashion, increasingly seems misconceived.

Certainly, the speedy ways that governance, infrastructure, and even nature can now move belies the sedimentary feel of their ordering in the diagram, just as commerce and culture can be pleasingly slow, as we’ve been discussing. Fiskars might hail from 1649CE, but Japan busts out that end of the timeline of commerce like no other country.

“Back in 2008, a Bank of Korea report found that of 5,586 companies older than 200 years in 41 countries, 56% of them were in Japan. In 2019, there were over 33,000 businesses in Japan over a century old, according to research firm Teikoku Data Bank. The oldest hotel in the world has been open since 705 in Yamanashi and confectioner Ichimonjiya Wasuke has been selling sweet treats in Kyoto since 1000. Osaka-based construction giant Takenaka was founded in 1610, while even some global Japanese brands like Suntory and Nintendo have unexpectedly long histories stretching back to the 1800s … Yoshinori Hara (Dean and professor at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Management) says that Japanese companies’ emphasis on sustainability, rather than quick maximisation of profit, is a major reason why so many of the nation’s businesses have such staying power. “In Japan, it’s more: how can we move [the company] on to our descendants, our children, our grandchildren?” he explains.”— ‘Why so many of the world’s oldest companies are in Japan’, BBC News, 12 February 2020

Kongō Gumi, founded in 578, used to be the world’s oldest company, lasting over 1400 years before it was acquired by Takenaka which, as noted above, is a mere stripling at only 400 years old. Now Brand’s diagram makes little sense, with these representatives of ‘commerce’ moving at the pace of nature, again with a resilience fit for a Slowdown.

Tokyo indicates how fast and slow dynamics can be found, and exerted, within commerce, culture, governance, and various forms of infrastructure, if not nature itself (noting the problem with that word, which Raymond Williams called the most complex term in the English language.) As Dorling suggests when he states that the cultural and intellectual layers may move faster than ever in the Slowdown, we can use examples like Tokyo, or the many other things or ideas I’ve described in these papers, as case studies to help us explore and examine just how these dynamics might work.

The point of the above is to counter the sense that the Slowdown only applies to twee Scandi towns, Greek grape pickers or Fukuoka eco-tourists. We have to reconcile ourselves to the idea that Tokyo is also a Slowdown City, a smaller, slower city than people think—at least in this fractal sense of zooming down from megacity region to districts, with neighbourhoods, with streets, with corner bars, described here and elsewhere. For fans of big cities, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if Slowdown happens there, it can happen anywhere. And for those motivated by the smaller and the slower, it has that too. And in that sense, Tokyo describes a broad arc of different conditions that most cities don’t have. Yet it also exemplifies how all big cities are moving, according to Dorling.

“No cities in the world today are growing at the rates that London, Istanbul, and Moscow once grew, let alone at the rates that Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, or — perhaps more appropriately — Mumbai, São Paulo, or Shanghai once grew, all at the height of the great transition.” — Danny Dorling, Slowdown (2020)

The broader point is that, in both its locking-down of us and powering-down of the global economy, the coronavirus forces us to encounter the idea of Slowdown, or at least some of its aspects. As all these things are connected, the Slowdown can be articulated in both Fiskars and Tokyo and all points in-between. It opens up the possibility at least of a different pattern for living, far more evenly and equitably distributed.

A connoisseur of the polka dot, Japanese artist and Tokyo resident Yayoi Kusama, has been singularly pursuing this pattern for decades, applying it across objects all over the world. Her affinity with the pattern goes back to a childhood vision, and she speaks to it thus:

“Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment’.”—Yayoi Kusama

In that quote, she captures this fractal pattern, the sense of zooming up and down scales, as well as this notion that it opens up an understanding of humans as nature, as part of a single environment. Everything is connected.

‘Yellow Pumpkin’ (1994), Yayoi Kusama, Naoshima

But this is not about polka dots. This is not an attempt at some grand unified theory of strategic planning. A set of dots is just a set of dots, whether a distributed field of smaller dots, or one big dot, copy-pasted. I’m using it only as a way of suggesting a way of thinking, of suggesting that there could be connected organising principles across design, strategy, and policy: that there is now a Baran Web-like distribution of work across the mixed-use spaces of your home and diverse public spaces of your neighbourhood, as opposed to being located in ‘single-use offices’; and that has the same dynamic and pattern to that of Amsterdam’s post-war playgrounds and Shift’s post-Covid marketplaces being distributed across the city, rather than one big central park, market, or retail park; that this has the same dynamic as Tokyo’s dispersed neighbourhoods, rather than a CBD; and that this is the same as a distributed network of gently thriving small towns built around making and stretched across a restorative approach to the countryside, rather than doubling down on one or two all-consuming major cities dominating each country, and so on.

There are good reasons for these shifts: tech, culture, resilience, climate change, politics. The lockdown due to the coronavirus is shining the most awful stage lighting upon this right now, but the broader ideas of the Slowdown may also be more positively addressed via these kinds of organisation.

If we built on these themes idea of open, distributed, decentralised, networked, diversity over density, with purposeful redundancy, all pivoting around the social and natural life of small urban spaces, we would likely find a far more resilient pattern for city life and urban growth. If we then fundamentally reorient that around a hugely increased emphasis on biodiversity — not just human-centred design around ‘the product’, but stretching from our street corners out to the distant fields of agriculture and landscape that support them — we address climate, health, social justice, and pandemic simultaneously. That extends the ideas of social life to include the many other natural elements that ‘socialise’ in and around our towns, cities and regions.

In this sense, the countryside is reimagined. The neighbourhood is reimagined. The home is reimagined, turning both inside-out and in on itself, with the pleasingly complex layers implied in Fujimoto’s allusion to shoji screens. The weight is taken off the city centre and distributed across many neighbourhood-scale centres. The transport systems, health systems, social systems balance out. Aviation is reduced to a fraction, finally flying within planetary boundaries, thanks to the increased focus on the local, and the slower modes of movement. Biodiverse landscapes are restored, local resources properly valued. Local jobs are created, in accessible and diverse trades, in high tech and low tech and with new and old craft, with sustainable infrastructures located, owned and governed locally too, yet connected together in larger networks. Small pieces loosely joined in distributed polka dot patterns.

The virus shows us the error of our ways, with a most terrible ferocity, but also points to other possibilities, almost like an intervention with an alcoholic, showing us the value of slowing down.

Our collective next steps will be crucial. The coronavirus, as with a bushfire, is merely an expression of the wider climate crisis, what Latour calls “a dress rehearsal”. Being petrified is not necessarily a strong motivation for change, as the word implies, but should you need it, David Wallace Wells opens his best-selling book on the climate crisis, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, with a line that makes clear what we are in for: “It’s worse, much worse than you think.”

And of course, the only metric in Dorling’s book that is not slowing down, but increasing and accelerating, is global temperature rates. But again, the pandemic outside the window is an articulation of these two deeper currents: the most destructive aspects emerge from the climate crisis, and yet for many, it feels like the Slowdown. How we choose to address these patterns holistically is an existential question for us all.

As Joseph Grima notes, “The conditions we have come to regard as necessary are no longer conducive to life, and now is the moment to consider what we are actually going to do about it.”

The implications outlined above are far from the only reading of the near-future, clearly; there are far darker visions equally within view. Yet this simple way of thinking in scales indicates how the decisions taken in a living room do connect to the decisions taken at the scale of a nation, even to a shift in international politics (even though it omits much of the detail that more rigorous work would discover and articulate.) Some designers think this way: the Italian architect Ernesto Rogers said architecture can stretch “from the spoon and the city”, suggesting this constant zooming back and forth between scales, paces, and contexts. ‘From the chair to the nation’ is one possible future, a glimpse of another green world, that’s all.

“Without both population growth and material economic growth, capitalism — the economic system we have become so used to that we cannot imagine it ending — transforms into something else. Something far more stable and sensible.” — Danny Dorling, Slowdown (2020)

The Slowdown is happening anyway. We have to embrace it. The virus puts elements of this front and centre, forcing us to deal with it. This seems daunting at first, but it is also within our gift to understand, articulate and flex these dynamics, scales, and relationships in these ways. Our first step, as with an intervention, is in recognising that something deeper is happening here, climate crisis or Slowdown, then do something about it.

Slowdown Papers

This is the second batch of Slowdown Papers, a series of observations, reflections, and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus Covid–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020. All Slowdown Paper are collected here.

13: From Lockdown to Slowdown

“Chair-room-house-environment-city plan”; how the coronavirus could change the strategy for our patterns of distribution of workplaces and work, from home to town to countryside to nation.

14: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Home-Work-Farm

As Covid-19’s Great Pause forces a blurring of home, work, office, classroom, studio, and shop, we get a glimpse of the patterns, spaces, and rhythms of a deeper slowdown.

15: From Lockdown to Slowdown: House-Playground-Street

Circling around our homes and their environs due to coronavirus-induced loops, how do the patterns, edges, and dynamics of neighbourhoods change in the Slowdown?

16: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Neighbourhood-City-Country

The Slowdown brings the return of the ABC-City, neighbourhood markets, and greenness on the edge of town.

17: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Region-Country-Continent

The changing dynamics of a deeper ‘slowdown’, hinted at by the coronavirus-induced ‘pause’, could change the distribution and dynamics of production and consumption across city, region, and nation, with outcomes not only for sustainability, resilience, and wellbeing but also politics.

18: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Tokyo as Slowdown City

Polka dot city Tokyo as an exemplar of ‘Slowdown’ theory, as the world’s largest and smallest city, and as a case study for others post-COVID.

All the Slowdown Papers are collected here.


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