The crucial lessons Mumbai can learn from Tokyo’s urban transformation as a global city and a traveller’s utopia

Japan has a cultural norm known as jishuku, which translates to mean ‘self-restraint’. The belief is that ostentatious behaviour is in poor taste during the times of a national crisis. It is a philosophy that has been brought to the fore every time Japan has to handle disasters, right since World War II, when a devastating war destroyed its capital city, Tokyo, to now, when the world is facing tough times due to a pandemic.

While the country continues to deal with COVID, the cases since March stand at about 50,000 with about 1,000 deaths, the lowest numbers in the world. Many of these happen to be in Tokyo. In a bid to put the country back on its feet, the Japanese government will infuse $2 trillion into the economy, a lot of which will go into revitalizing its capital city, home to 13.9 million people living in approximately 15, area.

The “metropolis of salaryman crowds” (as defined by late architect Kenzō Tange, winner of the Pritzker Prize for architecture), with packed metro networks, neon-lit vertiginous towers and historic temples, has gone through several revitalization projects.

Many architects and town planners claim it is among the most sustainable in the world, a striking patchwork of neighbourhoods with distinct identities, such as the trendy hub of Harajuku, according to Momoyo Kaijima, Principal Architect and founding-partner of Atelier Bow-Wow.

Aoyoma is a fashion district with shops that look more like museums.
tokyo’s tourist hotspots: aoyoma, a fashion district and asakusa, a temple district.

Her Made in Tokyo: Architecture and Living, 1964/2020 exhibition mapped the number of transformations that the heaving city has gone through since it first hosted the Olympic Games in 1964. Before the pandemic forced cancellation, the city was executing another ambitious urban renewal plan for the Tokyo Olympics 2020.

Architect momoyo kaijima curated an exhibition of tokyo’s various transformations
architect momoyo kaijima curated an exhibition about tokyo’s various transformations

The modern revitalisation plan

Cool areas were being developed across the city with an agenda to lower Japan’s CO2 emissions. Architect Kengo Kuma designed the New National Stadium, blending steel and layers of latticed larch wood, intended to “restore the link that Tokyo lost with nature” says Kuma, which costs ¥156.9 billion ($1.4 billion) to construct.

The new national stadium blends steel and layers of latticed larch wood
the new national stadium blends steel and layers of latticed larch wood.

Though Olympics 2020 now stands postponed, Japan is going ahead with the Tokyo transformation plan. Kuma says, “In the post-COVID world, the need for making cities sustainable and technological futuristic has become all the more intense. The future of great cities will lie in the right use of technology and environment-friendly policies. This revitalization is very important for us”

Kengo kuma designed the new national museum
kengo kuma designed the new national museum.

The authorities are constructing heat-blocking road surfaces that can reduce the temperature of the road by eight degrees. “They are being installed across over 100kms in the city centre and cover the marathon course. We also have low-tech responses that have existed since the Edo period [1603-1868], such as water sprays,” Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, told The Guardian. Last year, in Japan, temperatures peaked at 42 degrees, leading the city to revive these ancient water sprays.

On the anvil are automated vehicles and automatic translation devices.

The focus is on futuristic technologies and modern sustainability efforts such as battery powered electric vehicles that are expected to feature automated driving.
the focus is on futuristic technologies and modern sustainability efforts such as battery-powered electric vehicles that are expected to feature automated driving.

Then and Now: Transformation of Tokyo

The first attempt at rethinking urban planning began right after World War-II, which had left Japan wounded. Dr Raffaele Pernice, architect, urban planner and educator at UNSW Sydney, who documented the first round of Tokyo transformation as a PhD candidate at Waseda University, says, “Post World War II, between the 1950s and 1960s, Japan undertook large-scale urban planning projects. The idea was to create urban utopias ready for the economic miracle the government planned, particularly in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. It was a matter of national pride for the Japanese after WWII. The unprecedented phenomena of urbanism and the concentration of economic activities in the main cities of the archipelago, particularly in Tokyo, made them very complex and disordered beings.”

Raffele 1

Dr Raffaele Pernice, architect and urban planner, says Tokyo was designed as an urban utopia, ready for an economic miracle.

The book, The Transformation of Tokyo during the 1950s and early 1960s: Projects between city planning and urban utopia, documented the new vision of city planners, who fought to modernise the shape and content of the city, giving birth to one of the most prolific periods of modern Japanese architecture.

No one would have believed that the glittering metropolis of today was a ramshackle one 70 years ago. By 1950, the US had begun offering Japan aid to reconstruct the country, leading to large-scale economic growth.

Postwar tokyo, destroyed by air raid bombing, faced crushing housing shortage.

Postwar Tokyo, destroyed by air raid bombing, faced crushing housing shortage.

The authorities then estimated they needed to urgently build 4 million units, besides basic transport and industrial infrastructure left in disarray. People built wooden barracks across desolate fields of ashes in the city to live in.

Researcher Norman Glickman, who documented the rise of Japan during the 1950s and 1960s, wrote about how the migration of rural masses to cities led to a scarcity of land to improve housing and road infrastructure, leading to congestion and chaos – what a city like Mumbai today faces.

Japanese architect Ken Tadashi Oshima, curator of a sprawling exhibition on postwar transformation ‘Metabolism: The city of the Future at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum’ in 2011, says, “In the 1960s, a group of Japanese architects dreamed of future cities and produced exciting new ideas. The vision of Kurokawa Kisho, Kikutake Kiyonori, Maki Fumihiko, and other architects, who had come under the influence of Kenzo Tange, gave birth to an architectural movement that was called ‘Metabolism.’ Much like the biological concept by which it was inspired, they dreamed of cities that shared the ability to live organisms to keep growing, reproducing, and transforming in response to their environments. Their ideas were magnificent and surprising, with concepts such as marine cities that spanned Tokyo Bay, and cities connected by highways in the sky, where automobiles pass between clusters of high-rise buildings.”

Kenzō tange
kenzō tange and the striking image of the plan for the tokyo bay developed by kenzōtange.

Kenzo was the man of the moment and his buildings, teachings and ideas have left indelible marks across Tokyo’s cityscape. Influenced by Le Corbusier from an early age, his works mirrored the aesthetics of Bauhaus Architecture and the architectural legacy of Walter Gropius. He designed Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, an axis-structured design that was centred on minimalist buildings designed to negate all distractions and focus the mind of visitors on its contents.

Tange kenzo, hiroshima peace center, hiroshima, 1955 photo ishimoto yasuhiro.
hiroshima peace center, hiroshima, designed by tange kenzo, 1955.
photograph: courtesy ishimoto yasuhiro.

The Peace Boulevard features a moving cenotaph that lists the names of all who lost their lives. His other architectural works included the Fuji TV Headquarters, The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and St Mary’s Cathedral. He worked on creative, governmental and religious buildings. These, and other monumental architectural works, were meant to position Tokyo as a world-class city which could attract global attention.

Kenzo gave tokyo some of its monumental postwar buildings like the fuji tv headquarters.
kenzo gave tokyo some of its monumental post war buildings like the fuji tv headquarters.

Kenzo inspired several Metabolist architects in Tokyo to create an inspired urban patina that is the city today. But it was Tange’s 1960 plan for Tokyo that transformed it at a time when most cities in the industrial world were experiencing urban sprawl. “Rather than expanding out as traditional thought would allow, he aimed to restructure the city, using linear interlocking loops spreading out across the bay. Focusing on satellite cities and decentralization, the design reflected his belief that the rising popularity of cars would be a game-changer,” says architect Tado Anto, a Pritzker Prize-winning architect himself, whose architectural style is influenced by American architectural icon Frank Lloyd Wright and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism.

Anto designed significant public buildings such as Tokyo Skytree (the tallest tower in the world in 2010); he created buildings, spaces and homes that followed nature, rather than disrupting it.

The second makeover that catapulted Tokyo into the league of great world cities was for the 1964 Olympics. The Games were a trigger to facilitate the rapid improvement of infrastructure. Kaijima contends that the city suffered from a desperate shortage of housing and functional infrastructure, including the lack of flush toilets which were common in the western world. Most of the waste had to be vacuumed daily out of cesspits underneath buildings by ‘honeywagon’ (vacuum) trucks.

But by the time the 1964 Olympics came along, the city had put all that in the past.

“out of the jungle of concrete mixers, mud and timber that has been tokyo for years the city has emerged, as from a chrysalis just before the tokyo olympics 1964. ”
out of the jungle of concrete mixers, mud and timber that has been tokyo for years the city has emerged, as from a chrysalis just before the tokyo olympics 1964.

Thus wrote a Times London correspondent. He cited a long list of buildings and accomplishments “all blurring into a neon haze … that will convince the new arrival he has come upon a mirage”.

The authorities had laid out 100km of highways, constructed a new sewage system, luxury hotels and 21km of the monorail from the new international airport to downtown. Modern buildings such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, shaped like a flying saucer, added to the mirage vibe.

The tokaido shinkansen bullet train blasted from tokyo to kyoto and back at world record speed by the time of the 1964 olympic games.
the tokaido shinkansen bullet train blasts from tokyo to kyoto and back at world-record speed.

2020, then is Tokyo’s third shot at transformation and the city is poised to redefine itself for the new millennium.

The transformation plan also extends to the tourism segment. The Japanese government has launched a ‘Go to Travel’ campaign, which encourages hordes of domestic travellers to indulge in hiking, camping, making pilgrimages to shrines, and bathing in hot springs. The campaign costs 1.35 trillion yen or £10bn.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser once said ‘Cities are humanity’s greatest invention’. Tokyo is, perhaps, the greatest example: a stunning metropolis, one of the world’s wealthiest, safest, most creative urban centres.

A lot of its creative energy has given rise to products and concepts that are part of world culture: the matcha latte, the bowl of miso, the dinner of sushi, the fascination with Pokémon and PlayStations 4.

Tokyo s creative energy has led to the world adopting a lot of its pop culture elements, like matcha in coffee and food.
tokyo’s creative energy has given the world some of its pop culture trends, such as matcha-laden coffee and food.

So, what can Mumbai learn from Tokyo?

 The financial capital of India has not just been hit hard by the COVID cases, the highest in the country, but also by crippling monsoons and waterlogging. It is symptomatic of the sheer lack of infrastructure to deal with climate change and the changing times.

Mumbai, today, is far more developed than tokyo was after wwii, but needs to be put through urban renewal.
mumbai, today, is far more developed than tokyo was after wwii, but needs a modern urban renewal plan.

Mumbai-based architect and urban planner Pankaj Joshi says that several lessons can be drawn from Tokyo. “We are far more developed than what Tokyo was after WWII. The right planning and the desire to change led to its evolution as a world-class megapolis. In September 1991, a devastating cyclone had crippled Tokyo. Almost 30,000 homes were destroyed and over 52 people were left dead. What did the city do? They began building the world’s largest storm drainage system costing $2.6 billion, which took 13 years to complete. The only way we can see any kind of transformation in Mumbai is to first get the infrastructure required to deal with natural disasters right.”

Architect pankaj joshi of udrai says mumbai needs a new storm water storage drain.
architect pankaj joshi recommends rehaul of the stormwater drains to deal with monsoon floods.

Both Tokyo and Mumbai are prone to flooding —the former due to typhoons and the latter due to high rainfall and bad drainage systems. The lesson lies in what Tokyo achieved after the 1991 typhoon. Both Tokyo and Mumbai are known as cities that have inspired millions to work hard and turn their life around.

The COVID situation in Mumbai has revealed that the Maharashtra government and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation can work towards creating an effective health infrastructure and control spread in dense areas such Dharavi, just when the city had begun floundering. This means the city has enough resources to work towards a turnaround.

Creating a tourism infrastructure

 Every great city has invested in creating tourism infrastructure in the form of great buildings, architecture, ports and interesting neighbourhoods. “Mumbai has several quirky neighbourhoods beyond the ones settled by the British,” says conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah. “Neighbourhoods such as Matunga, Khotachiwadi and Bandra have distinct cultural markings and architecture and can be revitalized to attract travellers.”

Khotachiwadi has distinct portuguese meets east indian architecture.
khotachiwadi has distinct portuguese-meets-east indian architecture……conservation architect abha narain lambah.

Admittedly, Mumbai has taken a few steps towards setting up modern tourism infrastructure. For one, an upgrade of its cruise terminal to international standards, to encourage more cruises to sail into the city. The project, being implemented by the Mumbai Port Trust, involves a new international terminal with state-of-the-art amenities, sprawling over 415,000sq.ft, built at a cost of Rs 303 crore.

Once operational by the beginning of 2021, the terminal will handle 500 ships and more than 10 lakh passengers annually and over 10,000 passengers at any time, a huge jump from the before-lockdown 105 cruise calls, which bring around one lakh passengers.

Mumbai is building a modern cruise terminal to encourage international cruises to make it a port of call.
mumbai is building a cruise terminal to encourage international cruises to make it a port-of-call.

Sanjay Bhatia, chairman of Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT), says, “The government authorities are taking proactive steps to finally use our long coastline. At Mumbai Port, we realised that import and export cargoes meant for Mumbai city could be better handled at Jawaharlal Nehru Port. Instead, we have decided to concentrate on cruise tourism and are looking forward to homeporting many more ships and rebuilding Mumbai as a leading port of India.”

The mumbai ropeway project will pass over the sewri mudflts, home to the flamingoes who make the city their home every year.
the ropeway project will pass over the sewri mudflats, base for its favourite annual visitors, the flamingos.

The second project that received the green light from the Union Tourism and Culture was India’s first and longest ropeway project over the Arabian Sea. The 8-km long ropeway will begin from Sewri and go up to the Elephanta Islands. To be executed by Mumbai Port Trust and the Ministry of Shipping, the authorities expect an annual turnover of around Rs 378 crore, based on an average of 20,000 people using the ropeway per day.

The challenge for Mumbai is far greater than what Tokyo faced. For one, the lack of space to build the infrastructure required. Then, there are federal structures and overlapping jurisdictions which makes the change harder. Yet, for a city struggling with so many infrastructure issues, the need for transformation is far more acute and urgent.

Bombay Deco

As part of its 2020 legacy, the city authorities began augmenting neighbourhoods such as Asakusa, Akihabara, Harajuku and Shibuya, with distinctive architectural characteristics, into hubs for art and cultured under its ‘Tokyo Vision’ project, a long-term plan to promote Japanese culture and art.

Mumbai, like Tokyo, is steeped in heritage. And that is one aspect of tourism it has thankfully got right. The city heritage committee is working towards documenting and conserving most of the heritage, even that beyond the colonial.

One of the biggest success stories was the ability of Maharashtra government, Art Deco Mumbai (documentation and advocacy body) and conservation architects such as Abha Narain Lambah) in getting a UNESCO World Heritage Site tag for its art deco cluster, the second-largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world after Miami.

The approximately 440 acres of reclaimed land stretching from the western edge of Oval Maidan and Churchgate to Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Road, MG Road, and Marine Drive thus evolved as Mumbai’s Art Deco Precinct.

Author salman rushdie described mumbai s art deco heritage in one of his novels as “a glittering art deco sweep …, not even rome could boast. ”
author salman rushdie, in one of his novels, wrote about mumbai’s “glittering art deco sweep…not even rome could boast of”.

“Architectural heritage and precincts across the world help in attracting travellers,” says Narain. “There are people who only travel to UNESCO World Heritage Sites because they are interested in culture, history, architecture and how cities evolved.”

The Art Deco heritage puts Mumbai in the top world cities with an irreplaceable heritage. “Decades before the construction of Le Corbusier’s modern icons of Chandigarh, Bombay’s Art Deco had given India its first tryst with the new architecture of reinforced concrete,” says Lambah

Few cities on the subcontinent could rival the dynamism unfolding in Bombay at that time. Author Gyan Prakash, who wrote about Mumbai’s evolution in his book, Mumbai Fables, says, “Art Deco was synonymous with a new fashionable lifestyle that proudly declared ‘The future is here.”

According to Atul Kumar, founder of Art Deco Mumbai, a conservation group, Mumbai is one of the few cities where the Art Deco heritage is a ‘living heritage’, “which means there are residents who still live in these buildings and use them”. Kumar and his team work with various citizens associations and NGOs revealed to him the need for residents to be involved in the conservation process. “It is an outreach program which combines social media, workshops, lectures at architecture academies, documentation, research and online inventory.”

Maharashtra Tourism Development Board (MTDC), the agency responsible for promoting and developing tourism in the state, has a few plans for the city. Among them, a modern conservation and breeding zone where all the animals from the zoo will be shifted to a more natural environment; a multi-level aquarium, much like the one in Bangkok and a modern aquarium.

Late last year, Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had said, “Mumbai is an international city. Tourists will start coming to Mumbai via its international cruise terminal. As part of a revitalization plan, we need to have an international multi-level aquarium in the first stage. I have asked the officials to prepare a proposal for the project.”

Revitalising old neighbourhoods

A large part of Mumbai is rather old and decrepit and in desperate need for fund infusion and revitalization. Among them are the fishing villages that are as old as the city. Older, because the seven islands, before they were joined together by the British, were covered by fishing hamlets.

Brihanmumbai Mahanagar Palika has been talking about revitalizing these villages but in a PR statement emailed to us, they claimed that there is not much happening on that front. Right now, the corporation is fighting a pitched court battle with the Worli fishing village residents who fear that their century-old settlement will be wiped out by the coastal road.

In the absence of a comprehensive biodiversity mapping of the intertidal zone, citizen-driven initiatives such as Marine Life of Mumbai stepped in. The group, made up of marine enthusiasts, has been conducting shore walks and documenting marine life along Mumbai’s coast since 2017. “We have recorded 340 marine species on the Worli coast,” says Pradip Patade. Several groups like these have begun walks and mappings of Mumbai’s coastal line to introduce them to tourists and to prove to the authorities that the city could be a great coastal city if plans are put in place.

But the one neighbourhood revitalization project that is going through after several roadblocks, including government permissions, is the revitalization of the Bhendi Bazaar project. It is a congested stretch of land that has rich history backing it.

The revitalization of bhendi bazaar is one of the biggest private projects in india.
the revitalization of bhendi bazaar is one of the biggest private projects in india.

During the British Raj, Bhendi Bazaar was built as the Labor Camp for workers hired for the transformation of the different islands into a modern city. These buildings were later sold off to private owners, who then rented it out on the ancient pagadi system (using which, tenants have been living here for decades on rents that are ridiculously old).

India’s biggest private revitalization project was launched a decade ago and is completely funded by the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust, established by the late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the former spiritual head of the Bohri Muslim community.

The 125-year-old neighbourhood spans 16.5-acres and is located not very far from the iconic CST (Victoria Terminus station). The redevelopment comprises 16.5 acres of land and spans over 250 decrepit buildings, 3,200 families and 1,250 shops, all of which are being seamlessly integrated into a state-of-the-art sustainable development model with wider roads, modern infrastructure, ample open spaces and highly visible commercial areas. The project also involves several green stretches, public spaces and glitzy shopping options.

In March this year, residents began moving into two newly-developed towers of 36 and 41-floors, considered a big leap into the future. Around 610 of them over 3,200 families and 128 of them over 1,250 businesses have moved from their 80ft homes into the new buildings, all without paying a single rupee.

Mustafa Hassonjee, the master architect of the project, said the cluster project looks at the way old cities across the world upgraded their neighbourhoods. “There is no way you can completely demolish entire localities. So you demolish them, part by part, and rebuild. An entire community’s way of life is going through a transformation. We can offer amenities only because the area is huge.”

It will take at least another two to three years for the project to reach its fruition and transform Bhendi Bazaar into a contemporary neighbourhood but with deep roots into the past.

Many of the city’s neighbourhoods – Bandra, with its old homes and churches, Fort’s iconic colonial-era buildings, Girgaum’s 200-year-old homes and neighbourhood – are increasingly being explored, on foot, by travellers to the city. “One of the best ways to get to know the city and its heritage is by exploring its streets on foot. Our walks are immersive experiences that recreate the magic of Mumbai’s bygone eras,” says Bharat Gothoskar, who has founded the popular Khaki Tours.

Khaki tours has hosted a walk for kenneth juster, the us ambassador to india.
khaki tours has hosted a walk for kenneth juster, the us ambassador to india.

Khaki has even hosted a walk for Kenneth Juster, the US Ambassador to India, besides several global CEOs who have taken time off while on work in the city to explore its innards. On their walks, you don’t just gawk at a bunch of monuments and admire their physical beauty.

The 41-year-old evangelist, as he is known in the tight-knit heritage conservation circles, believes that heritage experiential travel is big business and India, with its embarrassment of riches, has done little to tap into this segment. Gothoskar’s Khaki Walks hopes to create a niche for it in India even as he stays passionate about conserving, documenting and archiving cultural markers and heritage. “We began as city walks with a passion for heritage and its conservation, and have converted into an experiential travel for-profit enterprise, with heritage as a hook and conservation as its foundation.”

Two elements of transformation 

All experts we spoke to put down two elements that Mumbai needs to put right and Tokyo transformations can offer some learning.

Getting pollution under control: Till the 1970s, Tokyo was among the world’s most polluted cities. The air was so dirty that often, the sun seemed to be invisible because of pollutants emitted by factories and automobiles. Pollution continues to be Mumbai’s bane.

 “In 1979, Tokyo’s city authorities began implementing pollution control measures, such as a strict check on the smog caused by cars and the construction industry,” says A. Ramadoss who heads Sustainable Cities, a research and advocacy company working with city administrations in India to help create sustainable development plans. “There is no reason why we can’t put similar measures into place. The idea is to put a premium on buying a car, create more green spaces and implement strict regulations for the construction industry, just as Tokyo did back then.”

An efficient public transport network: It is estimated that about 40% of the Tokyo residents do not own a car, and of those who do, about 70% own only one car per family. Most people use trains, buses and taxis.

 The city’s transit system is the envy of the world: dozens of private metro and public rail lines run impeccable service across nearly the entirety of the metropolitan region. “Despite its size, it has developed an articulated metropolitan governance system that responds to its specific economic, environmental and social challenges with one of the most sophisticated and efficient integrated public transport system in the world,” declared a report by the London School of Economics’ Urban Age programme.

Managing the traffic:

Mumbai is creating new infastructure, like this worli bandra sealink to mitigate traffic problems.
mumbai is creating new infrastructure, like this worli-bandra sealink to mitigate traffic problems.

Among the issues that hamper Mumbai are the traffic snarls, an aspect comparatively well-managed in Tokyo. Japan’s capital city has managed to solve the “last-mile” transit problem by relying on an informal network of bicycles-on-hire, bicycle lanes and mini-buses that ensure people do not need to hire a cab or bring a car to the nearest train station.

Astrid Klein, the partner at Tokyo-based Klein Dytham architecture studio, says, “We love the seamless integration of cars, bikes and people in the smaller streets. It’s no good having beautiful streets—say, the Victorian terraces of Chelsea in London—if you then allow cars to be double-parked in front of them. In Japan, there is no on-road parking, which keeps the roads free of ugly cars and allows pavements to be free.”

Now if only Mumbai could solve two of its biggest problems, besides its draining system, we would be half of transforming the metropolis into a world-class city.

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