On the west side of Tokyo in Setagaya Ward, at the intersection of the Odakyū Odawara Line and Keio Inokashira Line, one will find Shimokitazawa (下北沢), or “Shimokita” for short. The neighborhood encompasses all of the things The Tokyo Project set out to explore. It has ample access to public transit with frequent trains on both lines. It has compact development with substantial activity focused in the immediate vicinity of the station, with winding, twisting, narrow streets fanning out through the central commercial district and into the residential areas beyond. Most importantly, everywhere you look there are people making use of and enjoying Shimokita’s unique type of public space. Though most streets are technically open to car traffic, the close distances between the open storefronts on either side of each lane foster a communal space shared by multiple modes of travel. If anything, the pedestrians and cyclists usually have the upper hand, as the high density of foot traffic forces cars to yield. The atmosphere in Shimokitazawa is vibrant and, at the same time, more laid back than that of its more caffeinated counterparts in other parts of the city.

I had been here several times before this visit. On this occasion, however, I had the additional benefit of insight from two individuals who know an awful lot about Shimokitazawa’s history and current planning issues. Nick Kaufmann had been a student in Tokyo (now in a multidisciplinary program that includes urban planning at the London School of Economics) and closely followed redevelopment plans and community response. Nick and I connected via Twitter and Skype, through which he downloaded all that he had available into my head and helped me with preparations for my trip to Tokyo. Much of this post comes from notes and conversations with Nick. Yurika Takahashi is a resident of Shimokitazawa and very active in community affairs. Notably, she is one of the driving forces behind Greenline Shimokitazawa, which is one of several groups working to organize public discussion on the nature of redevelopment. Yurika and I met at Shimokitazawa Station and went on a walking tour of the neighborhood before I filmed.

English language media are fond of describing Shimokitazawa as an emblem of Tokyo counterculture. This owes to one particular phase in the life of the neighborhood, during roughly the decade following the 1969 student protests, when it was a magnet for those who eschewed the corporate career track and sought a haven for more creative outlets beyond the confines of the inner wards. As we walked, Yurika pointed to upscale dining, designer clothing boutiques and other hallmarks of consumerism and asked, with a smile, if I still thought the label applied.

As Tokyo grew outward and Shimokitazawa became more integrated into the surrounding area, the artists, musicians and Vietnam War protestors may have ceded ground to more mainstream influences, but from a planning perspective the neighborhood was more or less left alone. The old groups continued on along with newcomers, and the area continuously evolved in an organic, largely unplanned manner. Shimokitazawa could never have been designed to achieve this outcome, but it could very quickly be destroyed by imposition of context insensitive redevelopment, which brings us to the concerns at hand.

The train lines, particularly the Odawara, roughly divide Shimokitazawa into northern and southern halves. The north tends to be more subdued and relaxed, while the south is playful and rowdy. Passage from one side to the other had been possible through multiple grade level railroad crossings (踏切 fumikiri). The fumikiri were considered by many to be an integral part of the texture of the neighborhood, the constant sound of the warning chimes and clack of train wheels was the heartbeat of Shimokita. It was this constant presence that also signaled their biggest drawback: train frequency was so great (not a bad problem to have) that at peak times the fumikiri gates might only be open for a few minutes each hour. The Odakyū Electric Railway made the decision to depress the line through Shimokitazawa and build a new underground portion of the station. The problem is that this also led to the resurrection of a provision in post-World War II recovery plans that called for the creation of a 26 meter wide arterial road to be built in place of the rail right-of-way should it ever be relocated underground, providing public funds to the project for such purpose. Such a road, along with related plans to rezone areas from low to high rise, would lead to destruction of large swaths of the oldest, densest, most unique part of Shimokitazawa’s core. Throughout our walk, Yurika would point to buildings or points on the ground and say, “This is the line,” meaning everything to one side would either become road or otherwise disappear as part of the redevelopment.

Growing alarm as the Odakyū plan moved from discussion to reality led to the birth of community groups that approached the issues with different methods and motivations. Mamore Shimokita! is an activist group that opposes the plan through legal mechanisms. Save the Shimokitazawa advocates celebration of local culture and the uniqueness of the neighborhood, also taking the position that change is more or less undesired. Greenline Shimokitazawa proposes the newly opened space to be made into a public greenway, in a similar model as The High Line in Manhattan. In the camps that support the status quo or alternative plans can be found members of younger generations that see value in historic preservation, as well as like minded local government officials. Many of the shōtengai (business district) old guard, actively or through tacit acquiescence, support the original plan. They see the redevelopment and rezoning as means of delivering economic growth, or simply as their exit plan, in which they would receive substantial compensation for the land that would be converted to new use.

The first shoe has already fallen, as the underground line began operating in March 2013 and the Odawara Line fumikiri have been disassembled. What happens next is as yet uncertain. The community groups that oppose the road plan, especially Greenline, grow more active and visible, but it is not clear if they are having a strong enough impact on entrenched interests and decision makers to avert the upheaval that stands to pass if no changes are made. Urbanists from around the world, including your writer, watch Shimokitazawa with interest in how this story unfolds. Let us hope that the ultimate outcome is one that supports the needs and interests of as many people as possible, while preserving the things that make it such a special place.

A final note about this film:

I was in Shimokitazawa at the end of October 2012, which is why the fumikiri were still in service. I hope this film will be something of a time capsule for fond remembrance of those icons. It also happened to be day of the neighborhood Halloween celebrations, which is how I manged to stumble into a costume competition in the middle of the street. While it made the lanes of Shimokita even more colorful than usual, when you visit you’ll find that it doesn’t require the aid of witches, vampires and goblins to get good and raucous. Please enjoy.

This post is part of The Tokyo Project. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.

Additional volumes: Volume 2, Volume 3