Urban Lessons from Hong Kong and Tokyo

One of the best things is flaneuring across cities around the world. They’re all different, yet remarkably similar. It’s the perfect opportunity for reflecting how your own city or cities compare. Two places I’ve recently had the pleasure of exploring are Hong Kong and Tokyo.

These Far East mega cities may seem an odd couple at first, but there’s a key theme they share: they’ve been built over and over again. Hardcore redevelopment is part of their DNA.

Tokyo has been destroyed many times by war and other disasters. More recently it has been changing under the pressure of a back-to-the-city movement, especially around brownfield areas. Hong Kong has also gone through hard times, but here the primary force driving urban change has been quick population growth in a geographically limited area and the city’s strategy to generate fiscal revenue via land sales.

Each destruction point or wave of redevelopment has brought about a new way of developing the cities. Many of those layers are not there anymore. Including Tokyo’s 19th-century “bricktown” Ginza.
Similarly Hong Kong used to look a lot different than it does today.

I found Hong Kong and Tokyo fascinating and want to share some of my experiences as inspiration and reflection for cities in Finland and elsewhere in the world. Even if the duo undeniably would deserve their own in-depth posts.

On with the lessons and experiences!

1. The cities are a reminder that quality urbanism isn’t limited to historic neighborhoods

In Finland the only places you’ll find some traces of urban vibrancy and street life are the historic cores of cities. Anywhere more modern, forget about it.

The same can’t be said about Hong Kong and Tokyo. Despite having close to zero buildings that date from before World War II, their streets are so busy with people and activities that it can even get overwhelming. The beauty of it is that there’s economic activity of all kinds mixed into a huge web of enterprises ranging from street vendors to small businesses and global corporations.

If you don’t like crowds, Hong Kong (nor Tokyo) may not be for you. This is just another shopping street in Mong Kok.

The vibrant urban life in both cities is obviously powered by high-density living and an efficient public transportation system. But the key factor I want to stress is design. Hong Kong and Tokyo are largely fine-grained cities. Meaning that each city block consists of many buildings. Most buildings don’t stand out as architectural masterpieces, but the fine-grained structure enables an interesting mix of everything. And the buildings are designed to have very human-friendly and diverse streetfronts leading to endless to enjoy. A word that often came to my mind to describe these areas is “complex”.

Many Tokyo’s neighborhoods have a small-town feel to them while they’re also incredibly full of life. Many backstreets are so narrow you basically have to walk in the middle of them. This is no problem because there are very few cars.

In Tokyo much of the urban fabric is made up of buildings that are quite small (sometimes really tiny), narrow and diverse. There’s a certain hierarchy, too. Bigger buildings cluster along main avenues and behind them you’ll find lengthy networks of narrow, alley-like streets.

This is Kennedy Town in Hong Kong. The narrow high-rises are an interesting feat of the city. They also make the finer-grained city possible.

In Hong Kong buildings across the city tend to be much larger and also a lot taller than in Tokyo. The street network is also more grid-like but there are plenty of smaller streets and alleys to go around, too. These alleys usually accommodate market stalls of all sorts.

The smaller streets in Hong Kong feel sometimes like you’re walking through a shop or restaurant.

2. The global “super mixed use” is something to watch out for

Suburban sprawl has been the urbanists’ archenemy since the 20th century. Following a shift towards a rediscovery of city centers and backed up by intensified globalization, a new villain has emerged in the 21st century: the “super mixed use” real estate (re)development model.

While investment in the inner city is a good thing, the “super mixed use” is basically a mutation of the modernist urban project that’s feeding on today’s more city-friendly aspirations. The model incorporates offices, commerce and/or apartments into one giant complex. Part of the catch is that it’s sold as something intrinsically urban. Yet the ways the “super mixed use” materializes is gradually doing away with the complexity of urban neighborhoods with universalizing giant malls and towers.

Before: Kwun Tong Town is a bit run-down, but nonetheless it’s center is typically active and full of local businesses. This photo is from May 2016. Photo credit: CumulusHK.

A grand example of this type of a redevelopment process is showcased in Hong Kong’s 2030+ vision, where the Kwun Tong Town center gets demolished under the goals for achieving a “high-density livable city”. The replacement, a monstrous megastructure, will “adopt best practice planning and design concepts, including compact rail-based development, a good mix of daily convenience, urban living close to nature, and smart, green and resilient districts, etc.”

This is what Kwun Tong Town is going to get. It’s goodbye for the fine-grained city. Image credit: HK Urban Renewal Authority
The Tokyo Skytree Town complex is not a “town”. It’s a super big box that encloses shopping, restaurants, entertainment and of course the Skytree tower itself.

In Tokyo some prominent example projects include Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Skytree Town which have both landed like alien spacecraft in the middle of otherwise highly fine-grained neighborhoods. But if you want to see what the dystopic city preferred by this type of development philosophy looks like, go visit Odaiba Island. It’s supersized mallscape is the complete antithesis of the walkable, human-scaled Tokyo.

At man-made Odaiba Island the scale of everything is enormous. The liveliness of mainland Tokyo feels like a distant dream when you’re trying to navigate through the elevated walkways and vast, empty plazas.

3. Redevelopment and the global-local nexus

Yes, I’m in love with redevelopment. It’s clear that there’s a task for urban policy to come up with a model that supports the cities’ (or any city’s) valuable legacy of fine-grained structures (and economies) but also answers to the realities of global investment circuits and people’s lifestyle demands.

Moving socially upwards means getting a shot at being a true “Westerner” and so come the artsy cafes, microbreweries, and design shops swooping in.

An observation from Hong Kong. Unlike the more affluent Tokyo, Hong Kong is a city driven by strong social mobility. In the more traditional neighborhoods you can easily follow how the new urban class and their consumption patterns are taking over the city. Gentrification obviously is associated with problems that deserve a discussion of its own, but what I want to highlight is that the intense urban change within the “older” neighborhoods tells a compelling story about the adaptability/flexibility of the fine-grained city and traditional urban block to accommodate the pressures of modern lifestyle aspirations.

Cartier’s new building in Ginza doesn’t break the fine-grained pattern.

An observation from Tokyo. I came across interesting prototypes of new development that don’t necessarily kill the foundations for vibrant street life and are also clearly interesting for investors. For example many global fashion brands have set up shop in their own new buildings on the main streets in Harajuku and Ginza. This “fashion architecture” is often human-friendly and permeable at the street level. These examples from Tokyo don’t necessarily represent local capital or local character style-wise, but they nonetheless embrace the structure of the fine-grained city that is the foundation for a fine-grained and more resilient economy.

The point: it’s evidently also possible to build and develop viable cities in our time without the “super mixed use” monoliths.

4. A city can also work vertically

An interesting feature in Tokyo and Hong Kong is that many buildings have functions and activities also in the upper (and basement) floors. And not just upstairs from the street level but really on any floor.

For a European the vertical setup is quite puzzling because we’re used to interacting with commercial spaces at the street level.  It’s difficult to get a grip of the possibilities on the upper or lower floors. Is there anyone in the restaurant? Who are the clientele and is the interior appealing?

A street in Tokyo with activities in all three dimensions. Choosing where to go can be a daunting task.

There are any number of reasons for the vertical setups – the prices of on-street retail space in a bustling city not being the lightest – but there’s one that could have significance for other continents as well.

In Tokyo at least, “it has to do with curated lives” Greg Dvorak told me over lunch. He is a long-time resident and connoisseur of urban life in Tokyo – and especially the local bathscape which he’s written about in Tokyo Totem. What he means is that in a fractured, postmodern city with countless lifestyles and endless offerings “you create your own Tokyo and know exactly where to go”.

Indeed, perhaps Tokyo is an already existing expression of the hyper-connected urban world and its spatial service arrangement that other cities will confront sometime in the future.

5. Make the most out of whatever space you have

In the high-density environment the struggle for space is fierce. For directly fiscally “unproductive” public spaces and green spaces this means good negotiation skills and creative solutions.

A vertical public plaza in Hong Kong.

Especially in Hong Kong there are cool examples of how to fit in small plazas, small parks and other green structures wherever there’s space. Although overall the city isn’t very green – Singapore apparently being the Asian metropolis to benchmark in this respect. But then again that’s compensated by vast nature areas just a stone’s throw away from the city.

A compact garage in an apartment building in Tokyo.

Tokyo on the other hand has even fewer green spaces. And not too many public plazas either for that matter. Just try to find a bench to sit on. But the city offers many other inspiring ideas for smart use of space. Take for example the city’s parking facilities that often feature a “turntable” so you don’t need to turn your car around. Or the various robot car parks across the city. Another, rather surprising, idea is to integrate train stations literally seamlessly into neighborhoods.

In some Tokyo neighborhoods, you can practically live at the local train stop.

6. Small things can make density more livable

Hong Kong and Tokyo have both culturally formed around a necessity of working together, sharing and getting along. Even if cities in Finland are less cramped, here are some ideas worth considering stealing to make urban life more comfortable now or in the future.

Crowd management at Kiyomasa’s well near the Meiji shrine in Tokyo.

The well-known example from metro stations is staff that will help you fit into trains at rush hours. But at stations you’ll also appreciate the super clear signage for e.g. helping you find the right exit. At least in Tokyo at some busy stations they’ve also made sure everyone gets to plan their trip properly by having taped a queuing system on the floor in front of the train information boards. And all in all, in both cities you’ll discover queuing to be well organized wherever you go.

Hong Kong’s big with street markets. So there’s apparently an on-off system for them taking over some streets when necessary.

In Tokyo, they also care about your pedestrian experience. At the entrances to bigger car parks you’ll meet guards that control the flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk and cars trying to get in or out. The same applies for any construction site. There will be someone to see you won’t have any trouble passing by.

Got a wet umbrella or bags with you? No worries, they’ve always got your back in Tokyo.

When heading out to eat, in Hong Kong you might easily get seated in a table with strangers to make sure everyone can come in. Following a similar thought, in Tokyo you might come across restaurants with standing tables. The concept is supposedly invented to cut costs for people to eat out in an era of economic hardship. Most Tokyo restaurants will also offer convenient small baskets for you to store your jacket or bag. Got an umbrella? No worries, establishments in Tokyo have wonderful ways for making sure you don’t have any inconvenience taking one with you.

Hong Kong’s push carts are ubiquitous and you sometimes see amazing amounts of goods on them. Not sure how the system works, but you don’t see too many delivery vans parked in front of businesses.

Another cool thing is how they handle deliveries for businesses in dense and complex urban environments. In Hong Kong you’ll be amazed how they keep the city running with small push carts. In Tokyo you’ll see fewer carts, but at the world’s largest wholesale fish market they run the show with fascinating small electric vehicles that look a bit like R2D2.

I saw these R2D2 look-a-likes only at the Tsukiji fish market, but they’d make excellent delivery vans elsewhere, too. A bit like the upgraded version of the pushcart.

As a final thought, I must say that Hong Kong and Tokyo are actually more similar than different from Helsinki or any city. We often tend to think ideas and examples from other cities will not transfer to cities in our country. But it’s not true. Many urban problems and solutions are universal.

Want to have your own house and garden but don’t want to move out of the city? Consider moving to Tokyo.

The stereotypical Finnish dream is to have your own house in the middle of the city and by the water. Excluding the water, Tokyo’s small-scale development model has made this a normal way of living right in the middle of the world’s largest metropolitan area. How cool is that?




5 responses to “Urban Lessons from Hong Kong and Tokyo”

  1. Sofia Avatar

    Interesting read

  2. citinature Avatar

    Hey, Timo! I really enjoyed reading your observations, many of which I share. I especially found the description of the “curated lives” in Tokyo a fascinating way to describe the lives of many people I know in Tokyo. It’s really an apt description. I look forward to reading more. We will have to collaborate one day on something. 🙂 I will be in Helsinki in June and July. Hope to bump into you.

  3. Joonas Avatar

    Reading this on a train to Narita airport on my way back home to Hong Kong. Thank you for the great post! 🙂

  4. Thoa Tran Avatar

    Reblogged this on Think City – Think Hanoi and commented:
    Not only for Finland but also for Hanoi and other Vietnamese cities…

    I just came across this very nice article on the blog of a Helsinki-based urbanist. The author discussed his/ her thoughts after visiting the two Asian mega-cities Hong Kong and Tokyo and drew up some lessons I find very meaningful for Hanoi and Saigon, and indeed for any other big city in the world. It is all about how to create a human-scale livable city out of a giant metropolitan area growing at a dizzying speed.

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