The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Society



Power lines, billboards, color, and building height
—Are these alone enough? On the landscape of Japan

Yoh Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Urban development through Landscape Act

There was a report in February of this year about a plan for a five-story condominium in Ashiya city, Hyogo prefecture that did not get the required construction clearance on the grounds that the condominium would not fit in with the landscape. Regarding the entire area as comprising a landscape zone, the Ashiya city government is conducting checks from the perspective of landscape on nearly every building. It is fair to say that this is the fullest local government implementation in urban development of the Landscape Act which was enacted in 2004.

The Landscape Act is distinct among recently enacted regulations in that its title is concise—just three characters in Japanese—whereas all the others are unusually long and complex. One gets the sense that this is a fundamental law on landscape right from the brevity of its title. The application of this law, however, is left to the discretion of the local government organizations—to begin with, whether or not they will use the existing law, as well as the how they will use it. As of February 2010, there were 434 local government organizations who had announced urban planning based on Landscape Act and formed landscape administration groups, and 214 among these had established specific landscape plans. This means that roughly one in four of the local government organizations in the nation are engaging in such activities.

To succinctly describe what is possible through the Landscape Act: one aspect is that the area for deciding rules regarding landscaping can be set, and these rules can be given legal force as legally binding commitments; another aspect is that policy can be taken which incorporates conservation and landscape improvement by making landscape a priority in the development of salient buildings, woods, roads, rivers, and the like. As there are a great many local governments which cannot achieve the first aspect, it is traditionally limited to a very small area of historical streets and zones in the city center, and in fact as a rule, it is only delivered in particularly large scale buildings and the like. In such cases, the standard scale of the relevant buildings falls under the range of the actual expected number of buildings issued at the counter of the local government organization, and decisions are made according to practical constraints in the field in many cases. Among these organizations, the pioneering Ashiya city government has been decisive in applying these rules in nearly all buildings in all areas.

From problems that meet the eye and beyond

Landscape involves the environment that we see all around us, and debate over the view centers first of all on development that is easy on the eyes. I myself have attended debate on various landscapes in all areas and the amount of discussion on power lines, billboards, colors, and building height is astounding. These topics—which might rightly be referred to as the big four topics of landscaping—certainly do have a significant impact on the impression that the scenery makes. But I wonder what exactly it is that is being debated in a debate of these points.

Considering power lines and billboards first, these certainly do stand out in photographs, and they are always singled out and designated as points to debate about landscape. Color is the next element, and as it is highly manageable—relative to structure and form—the use of loud colors and striking colors is linked to personal critiques of those using such colors, regarding this use, for example, as a strong personal statement or as reflecting a lack of consideration of others in the surrounding area. The suit that was filed over a cartoonist's red house is a case in point. Finally, there is the aspect of building height. Tall buildings do stand out and impose on those in the surrounding area, invoking a sense of damage when they detract from the beautiful scenery, or simply a tendency to feel excluded, as a result of the obstruction.

In this sense, the landscape debate centering on power lines, billboards, color, and building height as problems tends to take on the atmosphere of a manhunt or witch hunt. That is not to say, however, that we should therefore stop such debate. The crucial point is to consider the social problems that bring about phenomena such as power lines polluting the sky, billboards haphazardly crowding the landscape, and the appearance of loud colors and jutting buildings.

Reconsidering a set of values embracing: Cheapness, bargains, convenience and comfort

Although I am not able in this article to discuss in detail the social problems that I raised above, the repeated scrapping and building of the power lines, for example, cannot provide stability in terms of stock for the roadside buildings, which in turn hinders centralization of the lines. The emergence of tall condominiums jutting into the sky can be regarded as a social phenomenon brought about by inadequate city planning systems as well as economic demands in a very limited range. It is therefore not the removal or improvement of the big four landscape debate topics themselves that is required, but rather a deepening of the debate in order to solve the structural problems that cause these big four. A passionate focus solely on improving the things that meet the eye is sure to die out before achieving improvement of the environmental view that is landscape.

Now then, exactly what kinds of approaches are possible? First of all, the way of debating landscape needs to be changed. Debate should not be held in a conference room while looking at photos, but rather, it should be held while actually walking through the city and getting a feel for the way that the people who actually live in the region feel. In so doing, we can get a feel for more than just the power lines and billboards—we can get a sense of the urgency of the economic problems reflected by the rows of vacant stores in impoverished towns. And we can find the best method among a broad range for regional redevelopment in order to create a beautiful and appealing city environment. In this way—beginning with landscape—we need to plan strategic partnerships incorporating a broad range of methods for urban planning. In fact, such activities are already underway in a number of areas.

Lastly, we must consider a point that goes beyond debating methods of urban development—the set of values that currently surrounds us, extolling cheapness, bargains, convenience and comfort. An extremely limited range calls for rationality and frugality, and it is extremely easy to understand expressing the results in numerical terms. But there is no such thing as a free lunch, as the old saying goes. It is with these same deep values, steeped in comprehensive wisdom, that we must firmly reevaluate the surrounding landscape. This is the very point that is vital to urban development centered on landscape in Japan.

Yoh Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Professor Sasaki was born in Kamakura City, Kanagawa Prefecture in 1961. She graduated with an undergraduate degree from the Department of Architecture in the School of Science and Engineering at Waseda University and completed graduate work in the Interdisciplinary Graduate School of Science and Engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Professor Sasaki took up her current post in April of 2003, after working as a lecturer in the Department of Engineering at the University of Tokyo as well as at Nagoya University, and as an assistant professor in the Department of Information Society at Nihon Fukushi University.

Landscape theory and civil engineering structural design theory

Primary works: A Dictionary of Landscape Terms (Eds.); Historical Development of Landscape and Design: Civil Engineering Structure/Cities/Landscapes (Eds.)
Urban design works: The Shimbashi Bridge in Hachiman-cho, Gujo City; the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway Shirakawa Bridge and Omaki Tunnel (Winner of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers Civil Engineering Design Prize/Good Design Prize); the Rindo Bridge, and more.

Office homepage and blog