Any good dystopian writer knows that opportunity tends not to be evenly distributed. At the heart of most cities is a glittering epicenter, accessible only to those who can afford it. How far you live from that epicenter often has an inverse relationship with opportunity. As the skyscrapers recede into the distance, housing becomes more affordable—but also less likely to provide a view of those chances for a more fulfilling life.
In the city’s center, people stroll in landscaped gardens, enjoying the positive impact of nature, exercise, and socialization on their mental health and well-being. But for those living on the outskirts, that epicenter can feel distant, separated by slashes of motorways.
Public transportation often points inward in a spoke-and-wheel configuration, emphasizing that there is just one truly desirable destination. People of the peripheries must commute back and forth, below ground and along highways, on trains and buses, losing time for friends and family, relaxation, leisure, culture, and sports. The fable of city life is out of reach, lost in the sprawl.
Instead of focusing on city centers, we should reconfigure the infrastructure of the outskirts. The result could see the end of such epicenters: a future where we identify as much with our hyper-local neighborhoods as we do with the greater metropolis.
We can see this in the growing trend of placemaking. This is a planning and design approach that works with communities to understand, imagine, and deliver solutions that meet their local needs, rather than relying on the whims of a grand city plan. After all, most people live their lives at neighborhood scale, not that of the megacity. Policies passed down to support those in the center often have no bearing on those at the edge of the ripple.
As with many trends in urbanization, predicting our urban future can be informed by megacities to the East. With their rate of urbanization being higher than the West, we should look at how they approach designing neighborhoods that make their residents happier and healthier rather than more isolated.
For example, Tokyo employs the process of machizukuri. Though the term literally means “town-planning,” it has come to describe the process of empowering citizens to work with urban designers to improve and greenify their local neighborhoods. (Access to nature is an important determinant of mental health and well-being.) The Tokyo Metropolitan Government supports efforts that encourage local identity and “enhance community charm” by “incorporating local color and characteristics.” Decentralizing amenities and developing a neighborhood’s personal identity can foster both opportunity and belongingness. This sense of neighborliness is integral to mental health.
Tokyo is a great example of a city that has found both a micro and macro identity—though to call it a city is technically inaccurate. It is in fact a metropolitan prefecture comprising of 23 special wards, which are each governed as separate cities. Within this, there an additional 26 cities, five towns, and eight villages, all governed separately. This enables people to assume the shared urban identity of being a Tokyo resident while also reaping the benefits of belonging to smaller divisions. This creates scale that can be grasped while maintaining the fable of the city.
For a further glimpse at our potential urban future, we can look at Tokyo’s new plan for looking after Japan’s super-aging population. It is constructing Daily Activities Areas (DAAs), which are geographical boundaries similar to high-school catchment areas in which older adults may easily go about conducting their daily activities. These could be interpreted as villages within the city, ensuring that people can walk to their grocery store, library, post office, health clinic, social club, and other such local amenities. The approach represents a shift from amenities being centralized to one where people can live well locally.
However, we should be careful to not become too insular. An extreme is described in a recent case study of Gurgaon in India, where many people live and work in gated communities and avoid venturing beyond their boundaries. But instead of these neighborhoods being built on inclusion, they are achieved by the exclusion of others. One of the beneficial aspects of urban living is diversity, and good urban design should maintain and nurture this.
As more and more cities expand, we need to rethink how we create and convene our neighborhoods. Rather than creating a larger and larger outskirt zone, with inequalities extending out from the center, Tokyo offers up a model that we could follow for healthier, happier communities.