Privately owned public space (POPS) refers to a class of places that arise from urban planning policies designed to incentivize the creation of public goods using private capital. They take many forms, including sidewalk extensions, plazas, parks, arcades, through-block passages, transit access spaces and others. In return for providing these, developers are given opportunities to increase revenue, generally though larger buildings than would be allowed by zoning regulations, or reduce costs, usually through tax cuts. In Japan, there are national, generic standards for what qualifies as POPS, which developers can design into their properties and take advantage of the benefits at their discretion. There are also standards that are meant to be adapted to local conditions, or even incorporated into a master city plan where the government is involved in the design and can limit approvals to POPS that align with specific planning goals and create desired amenities for citizens. Tokyo does not have this level of centralized planning, thus early POPS were predominately generic and built in isolation, but more recently businesses have come to recognize the competitive value of providing high-quality and coordinated public space, and have stepped in to fill this gap.
I joined Dr Christian Dimmer as he led a class of undergraduates on a walking tour of various POPS spanning several of Tokyo’s central business districts in 2014 October. At the time, Christian was both an Assistant Professor at the University of Tokyo and Adjunct Professor at Waseda University. He is now Assistant Professor for Urban Studies at Waseda’s School of International Liberal Studies and remains affiliated with the Urban Design Lab at the University of Tokyo as a Research Associate. I’ve always really enjoyed getting to see Tokyo through his eyes and appreciated this chance to be an observer at another of his lectures. Christian’s intention was for the students to experience firsthand the output of the planning policies and get a sense for the different varieties of POPS that have emerged in the dense corridor between Nihonbashi and Shiodome. As an urban design consultant to Mitsubishi Estate (ME) earlier in his career, Christian was directly involved in designing the company’s masterplan for its properties in this area, many of which were included in our itinerary.
In addition to notes I made from Christian’s talk, to better understand the technical points of POPS, I referred to Privately Owned Public Space: The International Perspective, a volume of a periodical published by the Center for Sustainable Urban Regeneration at the University of Tokyo, to which he contributed portions and served as editor.
In the early afternoon, we meet up at our launch point, Nihonbashi. Though the purpose of the walk is to seek out POPS, since this is a part of Tokyo where you can’t round a corner without finding something interesting, Christian also plans to stop to point out historic locations and interesting architecture we encounter as we move around. Few places have more significance than Nihonbashi. The bridge was the original center of the city and the end point of the Nakasendō and the Tōkaidō, the routes linking Edo and Kyoto. National highway signs indicating distance to Tokyo do not refer to the closest city limit but to Nihonbashi as the zero kilometer marker. The current version of the bridge was built in 1911 and is the only structure in the immediate area that survived the 1945 March firebombing of the city. We talk about the expressway built over top the bridge in the run up to the 1964 Olympics, blocking the view of Mount Fuji, and recent citizen calls to reroute it underground.
A bit north of the bridge we find Katsuobushi Yamatoya, one of the few wooden buildings in the district to survive the war and waves of modernization.
Across the street is the Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi honten, the first department store in Japan. Mitsukoshi is perhaps the most well-known of the commercial ventures of the Mitsui family, which was a dominant force in establishing Nihonbashi as a trade center during the Edo period.
The large, carved wood statue Magokoro Tennyo (Goddess of Sincerity) was commissioned by Mitsukoshi and completed by Sato Gengen in 1960.
Another block north brings us to our first POPS at the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower (日本橋三井タワー). There are multiple sections that are counted in the total area defined as POPS. There is a subway access concourse underground. Then there is this first floor atrium where we are standing. The atrium also serves as the entryway to a museum and hotel in the tower, but there are few amenities here. There are no places to sit and the sheer walls surrounding us make it feel like a holding cell. Christian asks the students to rate how welcoming the space feels with a show of hands. After we’ve collectively decided it deserves a mediocre rating, he explains that spaces like this meet the technical definition of POPS, but are semantically coded to feel sterile and controlled, often using signs, surveillance equipment and security personnel, to dissuade people from occupying and using the space. Because no one stays, they amount to little more than pedestrian circulation areas. The developer reaps the benefits of including POPS, without really providing the public goods intended by the policies.
An exterior patio on a side block of the building is also part of its POPS.
Here we encounter the first of what will be many signboards throughout the day. In New York City, where the idea of POPS originated, these spaces have obvious signage that marks them as part of a city wide network of POPS, with lists of the rights to which the general public are entitled. In Japan, signs are often obscured by design, bear corporate logos, and contain lists of prohibited activities. I’m already violating the rules by taking this photo without permission. Interestingly, with POPS in Japan many activities are prohibited but enforcement is minimal. The thinking appears to be to subtly signal to users that they need to self-police their behavior, but absent serious and disruptive incidents property management is unlikely to intervene.
We pass the Bank of Japan Head Office, designed by influential architect Tatsuno Kingo and completed in 1896, the first Western style brick building in Japan.
We cross the modern Tokiwabashi, from which you can view its predecessor, one of the oldest extant bridges in the city.
The original Tokiwabashi was built in 1590 and the current structure dates to 1877. It is undergoing extensive restoration which was already underway at the time of our visit and still active as of 2018 April.
As we cross the bridge, Christian points out the Nihon Building (日本ビルヂング), the first ME commercial development on our tour. The 1962 office predates emergence of POPS policies in Japan by just a few years, so that’s not what we’ve come to see. What he wants to note is that the architecture is representative of many buildings that went up in Tokyo during the post-war rapid growth period, but that are now disappearing from the cityscape. He feels developers in Tokyo have a bias toward churn. Independent of whether economic incentives for a new structure exist, many would consider architecture like this to be stylistically dated, but lacking historical weight, thus they would rather demolish and build a modern tower, rather than rehabilitate the existing building. As of the time of writing, the Nihon Building has already been partially dismantled, part of a ME redevelopment project involving several of its properties in this area.
Crossing under the rail viaduct north of Tokyo Station brings us to Ōtemachi, the next district on our route.
Ōtemachi Financial City (大手町フィナンシャルシティ) is a large, mixed-use tower completed by ME in 2012. Its POPS include a large botanical garden and tree-shaded promenade with seating adjacent to ground level cafes. This is a bit closer to the spirit of public goods POPS policies are meant to produce.
We find the signboard, which has a split personality. One on side it says pedestrians can make free use of the space—
—while the other contains the list of prohibited activities. In Japan, civil protest through assembly and speech is generally allowed on public streets and spaces, even if not enthusiastically encouraged as an obligation of engaged citizenship. In theory, this right extends to POPS. Christian proposes that the list of prohibitions is a strategy by property managers to discourage the public from exercising this right in these spaces, as happened at Zuccotti Park in New York City during the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Ōtemachi Building (大手町ビルヂング) was completed by ME in 1958 and shares a similar aesthetic with the Nihon Building. At the time of our visit it’s still in operation, but a complete renovation began in 2018 July.
A notable feature of the building, which is also found in several others from this generation, are extremely long, publicly accessible through-block passages that go straight across the building. The long halls were not only meant to facilitate pedestrian flow. Developers at that time included these to show off that buildings were so large you could observe the curvature of the Earth. When I first heard this I thought it was an exaggeration, but I checked the math later and learned you can actually measure this with a laser and a minimum run of around 150m.
Ōtemachi Tower (大手町タワー) is a mixed-use high-rise completed in 2014. The highlight of its POPS is the Ōtemachi no Mori (Ōtemachi Forest), 3,600 square meters of green space occupying one third of the site area.
We continue south into Marunouchi. That large, dark tower right of center in the frame has been completely dismantled as of 2017 October. The entire Marunouchi area, which includes the west facing side of Tokyo Station, has undergone extensive redevelopment over the past decade.
Shin-Marunouchi Building (新丸の内ビルディング) is a mixed-use tower completed by ME in 2007, a replacement for the first version of the building, built in 1952. This property looms large, figuratively and literally, in the redevelopment of Marunouchi. When the East Japan Railway Company sold its unneeded air space rights for Tokyo Station to developers in order to fund the station’s renovation, as the dominant land owner ME received a substantial share of these. Many were allocated to the Shin-Marunouchi Building, making it the tallest structure in the district.
The building’s highlight POPS is its seventh floor terrace.
From the terrace, you can admire the Tokyo Station Marunouchi Building, now restored to its original state before stop-gap repairs made after heavy damage from firebombing in 1945 May. This part of the station, originally completed in 1914, and the Bank of Japan Head Office are the buildings for which architect Tatsuno Kingo is most well known.
POPS from the Shin-Marunouchi Building and other developments all around Marunouchi include a network of underground concourses that link them to Tokyo Station and each other.
From the concourse, we emerge into the JP Tower (JPタワー), a mixed-use high-rise completed by ME in 2012. Its lower level retail and foodservice complex, branded Kitte, incorporates the original facade from the Tokyo Central Post Office.
The plaza created between the preserved facade and the modern tower, though surrounded by retail, does not include much seating and functions mostly as pedestrian circulation space.
Many buildings in this area have a frontage on Marunouchi Nakadōri (丸の内仲通り), a tree-lined street which is closed to vehicle traffic and filled with chairs and tables from 11:00-15:00 weekdays and 11:00-17:00 on weekends.
Marunouchi My Plaza is a POPS between the Meiji Life Insurance Building (1934) and Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Building (2004). The atrium’s glass ceiling is built in a way that it goes right up to but does not alter the historic facade of the former, so that it encloses the space.
On the left, the Shin Tokyo Building (新東京ビル) was completed by ME in 1965. It is one of the few remaining buildings of its generation in Marunouchi.
Across the street is Marunouchi Brick Square (丸の内ブリックスクエア), with a garden plaza POPS hemmed in by two ME properties. Marunouchi Park Building (丸の内パークビル), completed in 2009, is a high-rise office tower containing the Mitsubishi headquarters, and takes up the northwest side of the block.
The Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum (三菱一号館美術館), completed the same year, is a replica of the original art museum that stood in the same location, anchoring the southeast portion of the block. The original was completed in 1864 as the first Western style building in Marunouchi and demolished in 1968 due to aging.
The garden is filled with trees, grassy areas and seating, and surrounded by retail and foodservice.
We come to our last stop in Marunouchi, the Tokyo International Forum (東京国際フォーラム). Many people recognize this iconic convention center. Fewer realize the outdoor plaza and massive lobby are POPS.
Our final stop of the evening requires a bit of a walk down to Shiodome, passing first through Yūrakuchō.
Christian has an affinity for these arched spaces under viaducts that are found in many sections of the main rail corridor through central Tokyo. Many of the spaces that aren’t used for pedestrian circulation have been sealed with brick or concrete, and he wishes that more effort was made to utilize them. He has tried to bring up the topic in his consulting engagements with large developers, but says they generally prefer modern spaces they can control, rather than getting involved with retrofits and aging infrastructure.
The plaza on the east side of Yūrakuchō Station is quite large and connects seamlessly with pedestrian zones that fan out to the east and south. I don’t remember the precise details of what was discussed here, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if part of the plaza is controlled by JR East or the city, while the adjacent areas are POPS.
We take a brisk walk through Ginza. No time for shopping.
At the south end of Ginza we come across what remains of Shinbashi (the actual bridge for which the adjacent district was named). The bridge facilitated crossing the Shiodomegawa, but the man-made river was filled in during the Meiji era. The lamp post behind Chistian is the only trace left.
At last we arrive in Shiodome, where we sample a slice of the expansive Shiodome Sio Site (汐留シオサイト), containing what Christian feels are some of the best examples of high quality POPS in Tokyo. What makes Sio Site special is that it came about through the cooperation of a large number of landowners who, beginning with a proposal in 1991, together with the city developed a masterplan to transform what was a brownfield site, in this case a defunct freight rail yard, into a complete new district with fully integrated POPS and transit linkages, and coordinated management of the spaces between the landowners and city. It’s often cited as the first analog in Japan to the business improvement district concept in the United States.
In the short time we have here, we start out in the plaza adjacent to Shiodome City Center (汐留シティセンター). It’s hard to tell in the dark, but the plaza is full of movable tables and chairs, and surrounded by retail and foodservice. Like several other large POPS at Sio Site, this one is sunk one level below ground to link with underground concourses and transit, while remaining open to the sky.
Many large companies relocated offices to or created additional ones in this new business center. Extra large concourses were designed to allow the flow of large numbers of workers between public transit access points and the towers.
Passing through the transit concourse, we spill into another plaza adjacent to the Dentsu Headquarters Building (電通本社ビル). The POPS offered in Shiodome are substantial and diverse. I could put together an entire article just on this area. But this has been a good sample of what’s available.
As a reward for a long day of walking, our last stop is a ride up the elevator to the publicly accessible 47th floor observatory in the Dentsu Building.
As we look out over the Hamarikyu Gardens and Tsukiji Market, I’m struck by how low my awareness of POPS had been prior to this walk. I think I may have assumed many POPS that were coded corporate to be fully private. I’ve likely misunderstood many of the transit linkage concourses and other seemingly public places to be controlled by the city or transit operators, when in fact these are POPS too. Thanks to Christian, how I interpret my observations of these kinds of spaces will be more nuanced going forward, now that I know what to look for.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project, Volume 3. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.