I've got a love story to tell you, only it's not with a person... it's with a city:
I've abandoned my alarm clock recently. The sun drenches my apartment from 5:30 in the morning, which accompanied by the small birds chirping their morning song, is the most pleasant way to start the day.
After breakfast, I walked down my street, past the kindergarten around the time when Japanese mums are dropping off their kids for the day. Most arrive by electric bicycle, with a child seat on the back and sometimes one on the front too. Others walk in from nearby streets on their way to work. It's not even strange to see a group of seven-year-old kids in bright yellow matching hats walking themselves to school. Whose watching these kids? Everyone is; the streets are littered with people on their way to work, with shops and mailmen. Each person is a pair of eyes that ensure they get to school safely.
I get to the end of my street and hesitate on which bicycle station to choose; one is a few metres closer but I have to wait at a crossing. I take a left and go for the one by the hotel. There are seven red electric bikes parked there waiting to be used, each of a slightly different frame size to suit different people. I grab a mid-sized one, scan my rail pass and adjust the seat up a little, before zipping off around the corner. I alternate between the street and sidewalk depending on the road/pedestrian traffic levels.
Ten minutes later I'm in Omotesando Hills, Tokyo's premium shopping district. If you know me, you're wondering what I'm doing here. No, I'm not shopping, I've got a date in the rooftop-garden Starbucks at 11 am. Shops here open later so I walk past lines of youth queueing to get into stores at opening time. I'm a few minutes early so grab a coffee and find a nice seat in the garden outside.
The date goes great, we're both keen to hang out some more but are getting hungry. The neighbourhood isn't the best for food, so we head to the subway station two blocks over. As we scan our rail passes we hear the doors closing down below, just missing our train. It's a three-minute wait for the next one which we spend admiring some maples across the line.
We hop out in the centre of Shinjuku; Tokyo's crazy, tasty, and somewhat touristy neighbourhood and walk down to Fuunji, my favourite ramen store. Unfortunately, it's not just my favourite, but also the sixty-so people waiting in line. You can only expect as much when you rock up at 1 pm to a famous restaurant.
Not feeling like waiting I check the online ramen database for the best ramen nearby. Five stores down there is another place whose photos look good. We order, seat, slurp and are off in a half-hour.
A large portion of ramen always makes you a little sleepy. We slowly stroll up through the small lanes of Shinjuku's surrounding suburbs littered with people in search for some more coffee. We find a cool bookstore cafe and park ourselves at a window seat over-watching the sea of people below.
It's still early and the sun is only getting warmer so we decide to go to one of Tokyo's nearby parks. One the way we stop at a dollar store to pick up a picnic mat and then a 7/11 convenience store for some beer. After paying the $1 entry fee we meander through the park filled with friends and families sitting, eating, and walking about. We find a beautiful maple tree to lay our blanket on the edge of where the grass meets the park forest.
There is a group of amateur acrobats practising not far from us which makes for pleasant idle gazing. The sunny weather has brought the park to full blossom; dogs chasing balls, kids collecting acorns, mums chasing kids.
The sun begins to creep away, the coolness of the night starts to settle. We fold up our picnic rug and make our way out of the park. There's a bicycle station nearby for me, and she's is back off to the subway station.
After dropping off my bike back by the hotel, I stop in by the grocery store and pick up some fried fish to go with dinner.
As I walk back down my dark street the lights shimmer over the small lane. Bicycle wheels whiz by as salarymen in suits return home with groceries in basket. The washing machines rumble from the laundromat across the street and laughter spills out from the small sake-lined restaurant doorways.
My small little street isn't special, it's one of the thousands of small streets in Tokyo that mix good living with work and play.
Nice story... bro 🤙
If you're thinking that this could be any city, you probably haven't spent much time in a city recently. Getting around most cities consists of long walks through sparse street corridors to arrive giant street crossings where speeding cars fly by. Transit is infrequent, interrupted services that drop you far away from where you want to go. In short, it often sucks.
Here are a few important things to note from this story:
- City life can be beautifully convenient (convenience)
- It can be lush and green too (nature)
- It's easy to connect with people and things (connectivity)
- It's a pleasure to move around in (mobility)
Coincidently, these are my four principles of good city living that you'll hear a lot about later.
Good city living
In Good City Form, Kevin Lynch describes tourism as an attempt at "experiencing the pleasure of daily life" in a new city. I've been on the road for a little over two months now and have got to know a handful of cities intimately enough that I can say I've felt those pleasures.
Each place that I go has a different pleasure of daily life. Some are efficient and convenient, others charming and quaint, while the worst are neither romantic nor effective.
We often think of a city as something that organically grows by itself. While there is truth to the organic nature of cities, much of their success lies in how they have been designed and planned.
Planning a great city comprises of thousands of small mundane decisions and policies that together shape its use and growth. More importantly, planning a great city requires the people who make up the city to understand, desire, and demand the right things.
That's where you come in.
To make a great city, we all need to understand a bit of urban planning so the next time our road get's made thinner, or our corners righter, we resist the instinctual urge of "roads are where cars go broom-broom as fast as possible" and instead celebrate these life saving, culture creating changes.
Since spending the last few months learning everything I could about urban planning, city design, and human living I've learnt a thing or two.
I've realised a lot of contradictions in my own views about cars, walking, health, and good living that I didn't know were there. Some of these may be contradictions that you hold too.
Over the next few weeks, I'm going to share with you some interesting stories and ideas about how good city planning can create beautiful cities for us to live in. Ultimately this means healthier, happier lives for us and a cleaner world for our next generation. Something you should frankly give a shit about 🤷♂️
Keep reading this series – Part 2: Walk With Me