Kyoto, located in the Kyoto Basin of Kansai region, Honshu Island, Japan is one of the oldest cities in Japan. It was the capital of Japan from 794 (chosen as the seat of the Imperial court of Emperor Kanmu) till 1869 (Meiji Restoration). Because it was spared destruction during World War 2, it is no less than an open-air museum of the country’s heritage and townscape, playing host to a proliferation of Buddhist temples, Shinto Shrines, palaces and gardens.
Kyoto’s plan was borrowed from the city of Chang’an, China, during the Tang dynasty, thus leading to a spatial grid system dividing the city into blocks. The grid served the symbolic needs of the most absolute governments, especially in China and Japan. The city represented power, and it was in service of the needs of power. This orthogonal plan froze the spatial structure to reflect an unalterable hierarchy: it sequestered administration, religion and housing in isolated urban envelopes according to class.
The revitalization of Kyoto took place at the end of the 17th century, which led to it becoming one of the most important commercial centres heralding its golden age.
One of the most influential urban renovations done in Kyoto is that undertaken by Hideyoshi, the vassal of one of the most powerful feudal lords of Japan- Nobunaga. Upon his assassination, Hideyoshi succeeded him and eventually conquered other feudal lords to unify Japan. With this unification came peace which necessitated a renovation of Kyoto. His renovation hinged on two main points- the construction of a wall around Kyoto and the erection of a castle in the centre of the city, and, a change in the layout of the grid.
The postwar economic boom brought great material riches but also led to the loss of historical and cultural riches of equal if not greater magnitude. The insensitive and haphazard development devastated the harmonious quality that was found on the streets and in the communities of the ancient capital.
Kyoto was home to around 2,79,000 residents when the Kyoto Municipality was established in 1889. The area under the municipal corporation doubled in 1918, bolstered by the development of new roads, the electric street car and the setting up of new housing sites. The most discernible spike in population happened between 1920 and 1970 during the postwar period. This period saw the population increase from about 5,21,000 in 1920 to about 1.5 million in 1970, after which the numbers stabilized. For the past few years, though, the city’s population has been contracting in line with country-wide trends as Japan becomes older and the median age crosses 35.
Like many cities after World War 2, Kyoto also faced the challenge of redefining new objectives for urban development, necessitated by mass migration towards metropolitan areas. The question of conserving the rich cultural heritage of Japanese culture spared by the air raids during the war while at the same time promoting economic growth was at the forefront of the minds of city and state officials. Answers emerged in the form of a succession of imperfect laws and regulations that did not always strike the delicate balance they sought to achieve.
The creation of the ‘Law for Construction of Kyoto into a city of International culture and Tourism’ in 1950 spurred economic development but did not have sufficient protections for structures of cultural importance. The pre-existing ‘Law for Preservation of Old shrines and temples’ did not suffice. At the local level, a ‘Scenic Landscape District’ was established in 1930 to protect certain areas like the Kamo river, Higashiyama and Kitayama mountains. The municipality also forbade outdoor advertising from 1957 onwards and codified it in the form of ‘Kyoto City Ordinances against Outdoor Advertising’ in 1960.
The gaps left by authorities were filled by concerned citizens and civil society movements that rose to stem the tide of undesired projects like the construction of Mount Hiei Theme Park and a hotel on Narabigaoka Hill. The efforts of these and similar civil society movements across the country culminated with the passing of the ‘Ancient Capitals Preservation Law’ in 1966.
In modern-day Kyoto, the advertising ordinance has been replaced by the Miyako Landscape guidelines enacted in 2007, which set strict regulations for the height and colour of buildings, their planning and outdoor advertising.
Exhaustive negotiations between different organs of the city have paved the way for Modern Kyoto. A city with multifunctional neighbourhoods focused on public schools, mobility patterns rooted in public transportation, bicycles and walking. Of course, the negotiations regarding the direction of an evolving city never cease to end. New challenges emerge just as solutions to old ones are found and implemented. The issue being debated by the populace concerns the use of wooden materials in construction. There is concern about whether the techniques and methodologies surrounding these materials can serve as a useful reference for other cities around the world with varied histories, climatic conditions and cultures. Nevertheless, being a large city inhabited by over a million residents with more than 75 per cent of the area covered by forests, Kyoto serves as a magnificent example of developing a city alongside nature without placing any excess burden on it.
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