Double Density

Back in Tokyo after four months in the calm of Berlin, heading for a spot of late-night electronics shopping in Shinjuku, I've been crushed against stoical strangers all the way from Meguro on a Yamanote Line train. I've navigated my way through a thousand bodies hurtling towards the station exits, I've passed bubbling, bursting pachinko parlours where robo-girlpop is played at volumes only topped by electronic fanfares and the din of ball-bearings cascading down glass screens.

This garish stimulus rush is what many Japanese seek after work. It helps them unwind. Instead of heading home to private space, they stay out in public. They play pachinko, they dine and drink together, they head to the camera and computer superstores where fluourescent bulbs blaze white on the stacked, boxed stock while cheerful assistants scream bargains through electric bullhorns.

I've negotiated a sidewalk packed with people and bicycles, descended the impossibly narrow stairs of the computer store, squeezed past fellow customers in tight corners with a murmur of 'sumimasen' and 'gomenasai', and climbed to a squashed snack bar. Now I sit on a stool at the window, gazing down at a busy pedestrian crossing with its classic gestalt of diagonal chevrons. A row of low shacks faces me, housing small stores. Above them are signs in red, pink and white neon, and above those a dark skyline of office buildings and department stores.

I notice a cat picking its way along the tin roof of the shacks. It's a calm, solitary presence, limping slightly, tail-less, hunting; an injured Shinjuku street cat. It seems well-adapted.

For a compact city

London mayor Ken Livingstone has said that London is not dense enough. A report called Housing for a Compact City has been compiled by Livingstone and Richard Rogers. It says that in Britain new homes are built on an average at 25 homes per hectare. By contrast typical densities are 300 homes per hectare in Paris, 500 homes per hectare in Barcelona and 1,700 in the Kowloon district in Hong Kong. 'We are still building at ridiculously low densities,' said Rogers, 'creating badly designed, unsustainable sprawl.'

The average population density of an American city is 14 people per hectare, compared to 50 in Europe and around 160 in Asia. The US is the most spread-out country in the world. The low population density in the US is closely linked to its high dependence on cars. When stuff is that spread out, you just have to drive.

Interestingly, the population density of ancient Rome, where of course they had no cars at all, has been estimated at 200 people per hectare. As hectic as modern Hong Kong!

Brain as city, city as brain

We all have a recurring dream of flying easily by flapping our wings. It's probably some pre-cambrian memory of being swimming creatures with fins. I have another recurring dream. I'm moving through a succession of large public spaces -- the alleys of a souk, concert hall vestibules, university libraries, the tunnels of a subway system, the wynds of Edinburgh's old town (a pioneer of high density housing, as it happens: Auld Reekie, laboratory of the skyscraper!) They're all interconnected, a dense underground city.

I believe that, like the flying dream, this template maps or mirrors an essential biological feature of humanity: the densely-linked chambers, antechambers, ganglions and synapses of our own brains. We make our cities in the image of our own brains. Both have erotic areas, places for work and places for play, areas dominated by the senses, by conscience or by reason. Lively city, lively brain.

The floating world

In Japan's Edo period (1615-1868) the licensed area of teahouses, theaters, and establishments for leisure-time entertainment in a city, frequented by artisans, warlords and merchants, became known as the 'floating world' or ukiyo; the pleasure quarters. Tokyo's 'floating world' area was Yoshiwara. Japan at this time was closed to the outside world. In modern day Japan, soaplands (sex-massage parlours) still refuse foreigners. The play which happens inside depends on specifically Japanese understandings.

The courtesans of the ukiyo, although the property of the owner of the teahouse where they performed, and at the service of patrons who paid for their services, were like today's pop idoru. They defined the standards of beauty and fashion and were often pictured parading with their attendants, sumptuously dressed in the latest styles. Many of these women were accomplished poets and musicians as well as entertainers and had an enormous influence on popular culture. The actors of the kabuki theatre commanded a similar following.

I want you to hold the floating world in your mind as a vision of high density paradise, a kind of model of the pleasures of public life.

Bike park

The Yamanote Line, Tokyo's Circle Line, is a century old. Its four cardinal points, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa and Ueno, developed where the line intersects with the main arteries ('kaido') of the ancient feudal roads leading to Edo Castle. It takes one hour to circle the whole line. Thirty million people live within a 100km radius of the Yamanote Line.

A typical Houstonite will spend 90 minutes a day alone in his or her car. A typical Tokyoite will spend that time in public, probably on a train. 57% of all motorised travel in Tokyo is done on public transport. So many bicycles surround stations that it's often impossible to find a space. Tokyo has bike parks the way other cities have car parks.

The city developed around its railway stations. The area in front of the typical Tokyo station -- the ekimae hiroba -- is rich in tiny businesses which string out for a mile or so along narrow semi-pedestrian streets. Brisk music is often playing throughout the whole commercial area from the tops of masts. There are bicycle shops, sandal shops, places specialised in little cakes, noodle bars, pachinko parlours, combinis and newsagents. You walk (or, later, stagger) around while bicycles wobble and wave past you.

Think what it means to spend your travelling time in public on a train rather than driving a private car. For a start, you can sleep if you want to. Many Japanese do, waking with uncanny accuracy at the correct station. Secondly, you can read. Many Japanese do, devouring the pictures in thick mangas with red and pink covers. Thirdly, you can lust about strangers. Many Japanese do, brushing their commuting neighbours with discreet or indiscreet glances, or even, at rush hour, crushed embarrassed yet excited against their bodies.

From the age of the car

In the US, urban public transport is twice as slow as the private car. The massive preference for private transport has left the public sector shabby, inefficient, starved for cash, which makes its services worse, which in turn makes fewer people want to use them. In Japan, public transport is faster than the private car. It's clean and efficient because the huge majority of people like and use it. There is no 'middle class flight' from the transit systems. There is no self-fulfilling stigma, no spiral of neglect, no vicious circle of abuse and abandonment. Public life flourishes.

In developing countries, where private car ownership is increasing as much as 20% per year, there are half a million deaths annually from pollution. Cities like Bangkok are approaching gridlock. Journey times increase, air quality worsens.

Which reminds me. It's August 2001. I am in Bangkok, and I'm trying to cross the city. Screw that, I'm just trying to cross the road. Screw that, I'm just trying to breathe. Get me back to Japan!

One day I believe we will regard cities which funnelled cars and people together as something as barbaric and retrograde as cities that featured public floggings and hangings in the central square.

Life in space

The apartment I'm staying in -- kindly loaned by Odradek, organiser of the Little Apples Tour -- is a classic Tokyo capsule. It must be less than ten square metres. In Berlin I have 64ms. But I soon adapt to the deft manouevres its tight spaces require, swinging my torso in from the micro-kitchen to the moulded all-in-one plastic bathroom. You almost expect to be weightless in such a space, and to be far from humanity. But you keep your earth weight, and humanity begins at the bottom of the narrow staircase.

Suburban single density scenario

The overestimation of private property -- and what is the car but private property travelling rapidly, damagingly and dangerously through public space? -- encourages the mistrust of strangers.

It's 2030. In your car you are in private space. You travel from your suburban home, itself isolated from the others around it, to your office. You meet family and colleagues but minimise contact with strangers, who seem threatening. Since you are very rarely 'in public' you don't make a big effort with your appearance. The people you see daily know who you are 'underneath', you reason, and won't judge you on appearances. You'd like your body to be in better shape, but haven't got around to losing that excess weight yet. You're not quite sure how you feel about your government's recent invasion of an oil-rich sovereign state.

Screw 2030, it's 2003. It's now.

Suburbs, sprawl, white flight. Driving around Detroit with Matt Jacobson. 'Nobody goes downtown. The whites left after the riots.' A twenty minute drive to the bowling alley. Another to the internet cafe. And another to the art school. How can people stand it?

(Matt's solution: to marry and move to rural Canada. Population density per hectare: 2. Matt and his wife.)

The Right of Assembly

Cities are places where people assemble. People's right to assemble is constitutionally protected in many countries. But while hanging out with other people, drifting around, having meetings, forming protest groups, and marching may be exactly the things people come to cities to do, they are also activities which distress the forces of law and order.

The right to assemble, protected in the US under the first amendment to the constitution, is often at odds with local legislation forbidding 'loitering'. In 1997 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against McKeesport, PA, challenging the city's anti-loitering law, which forbade people to loiter or loaf or walk about aimlessly in a public area.

(It seems unlikely, in a nation where many people are without passports but few without a driver's license, that 'loitering' in a car -- driving around aimlessly -- could be considered a crime. Drivership and citizenship, in the US, are more or less the same thing. When do cars assemble? When have you seen cars on a 'protest drive'?)

In the high density, high diversity city, one must, of course, have the right to be a flaneur, to 'loiter, annoy another person or make unsolicited remarks of an offensive, disgusting or insulting nature' (all things outlawed in McKeesport, even while cars are free to continue pumping toxic carbon monoxide into the air).

By legal precedent, loitering in the US (in other words, hanging around in an urban settling, talking to people unlike yourself) is a constitutionally protected activity. In the 1972 case Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville FLA, the court's ruling held Jacksonville's law criminalizing loitering 'plainly unconstitutional.'

Restrictions on the right to assemble in the US continue and are worsening. Citing terrorism concerns, New York City has refused all permits for protest marches since the autumn of 2002. Al Quaeda struck a blow against high density living when they struck the twin towers, hastening white flight, low density settlement, and gated communities.

High density speculation

I wonder if Al Quaeda didn't also boost the sales of Radiohead and Emo bands. I seemed to hear nothing but Radiohead played in New York stores immediately after 9/11. That was the mood, apparently, that dreary, weary, blurry mood.

I wonder if there is such a thing as 'high density art'? Do some songwriters pack more names, references and ideas per hectare into their work than others? And is such songwriting (and you know Momus is high density, a kind of Hong Kong of song) scary to the same people who find high density city living scary? Has there been a flight, in pop music, from cluttered, culturally-diverse, cosmopolitan songs to vague, simplified, suburban ones? From high density to low? From the brightly stimulating to the reassuringly melancholic? From Momo (motto: 'Mo'! Mo'!) to Emo (motto: 'Make it stop, Ma!')

And while we're applying the concept of high density speculatively and incongruously, let me throw this in. Is marriage a quest for low density living conditions? For instance, couldn't we rephrase the marriage contract thus: 'I want to spend the rest of my life with just one person in the area, a person of my choice. You. I want an end to crowds, to surprises. Marry me.'

Marriage, after all, often marks a physical relocation from high to low density living. One's life thins out. One justifies this by attributing greater depth to one's fewer relationships, and casting one's former single life as varied yet essentially superficial. But is this really true?

(Of course, I have nothing against reproduction. Reproduction is the means to high density. We withdraw from today's crowd to create tomorrow's crowd. And even if we remain childless, the moment we couple up we double density, quite literally.)

Final speculation. Is there such a thing as a 'low density foreign policy'? Our low density lifestyle is about not wanting to -- or perhaps even knowing how to -- live with other people, right? So we live spaced out, and stay away from public places. We spread out, and that forces us into cars. The cars need more fuel. We have 50 years supply left, but there's this country where they have a 500 year supply. We might change our lifestyle, move back to cities, depend less on cars. But, no, to hell with it -- we invade. Only trouble is, the country has people in it. How are we going to manage them while we extract the oil that allows us to maintain our low density lifestyle? Wasn't our low density lifestyle all about staying away from tangled urban strife?

The decline of public man

From the marketplace to the theatre, the last two centuries have seen what Richard Sennett calls 'the decline of public man'. We have seen a withdrawal from the city, from public space, from the risks and thrills of playing amongst -- and with -- strangers.

'A city isn't just a place to live, to shop, to go out and have kids play. It's a place that implicates how one derives one's ethics, how one develops a sense of justice, how one learns to talk with and learn from people who are unlike oneself, which is how a human being becomes human.'

Richard Sennett "The Civitas of Seeing" (1989)

As a countermeasure, Sennett proposes 'urbanity', a neat elision of that 18th century virtue, being 'urbane', with the urban setting of the city:

'What I think of as urbanity is precisely making use of the density and differences in the city so that people find a more balanced sense of identification on the one hand with others who are like themselves but also a willingness to take risks with what is unlike, unknown... It is the kinds of experiences that make people find out something about themselves that they didn't know before. That's what urbanity is at its best....To me, how to privilege the notion of difference, that is what urbanity is all about.'

Richard Sennett, lecture, Copenhagen,1994

'How has the stranger been transformed into a threatening factor?' Sennett asks. 'How is it that today, keeping silent and remaining as the audience is the only way of joining the public life?'

His answer is that people have become 'indifferent to difference'. Overstimulated, we pass amongst and tolerate 'different others' all day and every day, and our 'tolerance' comes, in the end, to mean nothing more than blocking out, muting and stifling the stranger.

We have retreated to suburbs, small friendship networks (the numbers programmed into our cell phones), families. The broad 18th century sense of public life, of coffee houses and the court and the theatre and the city as a stage or agora or urban playpark, has been usurped by a small, private psychological landscape, to the detriment of both individual and society.

The neutron effect

This fragmentation, like white flight, may have been the result of a fear of the too-great diversity of the western post-colonial city. It may be that only 'provincial' cities like Tokyo, where people by and large think, look and feel much the same as each other, can still provide the security people need to return to the city, restore its vivacity, repair its fabric, animate it and prepare it to be the ultimate locus for play.

The 'decline' Sennett speaks about just hasn't happened in Japan. There continues to be a massive investment in urban life here. But Japanese cities are full of Japanese people. They are not global cities full of opportunities for exciting encounters with 'the other'.

Sennett's vision takes for granted a relatively various western city with an imperialist past which has left a legacy of immigrant quarters. It takes for granted a certain tolerance of contemporary economic migration. Tokyo sometimes feels like a global city which has been hit by a neutron bomb, the kind that kills people but leaves property and goods intact. Sure, there's Brazilian music, but where are the Brazilians? Sure, there are Belgian waffles, but you won't find any Belgians. In terms of shopping and products, this is the most global city you'll find. In terms of population, not at all.

So is the harmony, the play evident in the 'pleasure quarters' of Shinjuku, Ginza, Shibuya, Roppongi, and Aoyama every night conditional on a lack of diversity, of 'the other'? Was that the secret of the 18th century too, that we all looked, thought, spoke and acted pretty much the same back then? And do conditions of high urban density turn, when it's enemies rather than friends who are stacked on top of each other, from utopian to dystopian?

A global Israel

The opposite of the logic of high density pluralism is the logic of the settler. It could be Americans displacing native Americans, it could be Israelis displacing Palestinians. This logic says 'Although I am interested in living on your land, I will not live amongst you.' If the motto of high density pluralism is 'We must love one another or die', the motto of the settler must be, simply, 'I hate you. Die.' It is a logic we are quite familiar with from human history, from the past. Some, though, see it reasserting itself now as a template for the future.

Territories, the current exhibition at Kunst-Werke in Berlin, examines the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. One artist has made a survey of medieval fortifications, from coats of armour to castles, and showed that all such attempts at 'total security solutions' have failed to make their users invulnerable. Another artist has made the same trip across Israel twice, first in a car with two Israelis, then in a car with one Israeli and one Palestinian. The second trip took five times as long. The exhibition suggests one dystopian vision of the future: that the whole world might one day be as mistrustful, as property- and security-conscious as the state of Israel is today.

A global Israel. Fortification, roadblocks, vigilance, hatred and suspicion, machismo, super-security, bullet-proof SUVs, stand-offs, tension, terrorism, reprisal, state brutality, incarceration without trial, assassination from the air, bulldozing the victim's family home. Arbitrary borders, shoot first ask questions later. Low density, high death. A hell straight out of Hieronymous Bosch.

Factual addenda

1990 Urban Densities (persons per hectare)
Tokyo Metro area: 71.0
New York Metro area: 19.2
Tokyo inner area: 132.1
New York inner area: 91.5

Public transport uses four times less energy per voyager per km than the automobile. Public transport, especially when it is heavily used, is much more energy efficient than the car, which is often occupied by only one person (the average occupancy for most cities is 1.2 to 1.8 person per vehicle). Efficiencies differ from place to place, though: public transport uses 1.6 times less energy than the automobile per voyager per km in the States, 3.7 times less in Europe and 10 times less in Japan, where this exceptional performance is explained by heavy use of the strongest regional railway systems in the world -- in Tokyo and Osaka.

According to the World Bank, it has been proven that in developed countries when population density is divided by 3 (20 inhabitants per hectare instead of 60), the amount of daily travel done on foot, bike or public transport is divided by 3 or 4, the total cost of travel to the community increases by more than 50%, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions due to transporting people are multiplied by 3, accident related deaths increase by 50%, and access time to urban activities for people relying on public transport doubles.

A follow-up conversation is going on here.

Essay Index