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Paris led the way with the opening of the first stretch of its groundbreaking Promenade Plantée in 1993. New York City took the concept to new heights in 2009 when it inaugurated the now-iconic High Line. And Seoul provided pedestrians with a new take on that city two years ago with the construction of Seoullo 7017, better known as the Seoul Skygarden.

A reorganization and rationalization of roads in central Tokyo, combined with a conscious desire among the city’s authorities to provide more pedestrian-only green spaces, means that moves are now very much afoot to give the Japanese capital its very own elevated walkway.

Initially outlined in May last year, a formal plan was submitted to Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike in late October to transform a stretch of the two-lane elevated freeway that bisects Ginza and the Yurakucho district of central Tokyo into a pedestrianized park. The development will offer places to sit and relax, with shade provided by the greenery that many complain is sorely missing in the heart of the metropolis.

In the presentation, the planners said their aim is straight­forward: “We hope to create a green promenade full of people.”

Koike’s reaction was reportedly positive, with the governor saying: “We have considered uses for the KK Line after examining examples in other countries. The plan is very innovative and shows vision that goes beyond the 20th-century era of the car.”

The plan is for traffic that currently uses a two-kilometer stretch of the Tokyo Expressway KK Line, which runs across the top of the Ginza Five shopping mall, to be rerouted to connect with existing and new routes that are being excavated beneath the city. The new route will start at Shinbashi in the north and end at Yaesu.

In a statement outlining the antici­pated benefits to the local flora and fauna, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of Environment said: “In order to revive the greenery of Tokyo, which is on a declining trend, Tokyo is actively promoting green conservation and the creation of new green spaces.

“Native species serve as food and nesting sites for Tokyo’s indigenous creatures,” it added. “By promoting greenery, the habitats of creatures can be restored and expanded in urban areas.”

Hiroo Ichikawa, a professor emeritus of urban planning and policy at Meiji University and executive director at the Mori Memorial Foundation’s Institute for Urban Strategies, said the concept behind the elevated pedestrian walkway has received positive feedback “quite simply because of the success of the High Line in New York.”

As he told The ACCJ Journal: “That route was opened 10 years ago. At the time, people did not understand the idea behind the project. They did not realize the positive impact that it could have. But now, that impact is evident, and the High Line has become famous around the world, it is natural that other cities want to have something similar.”

As chair of the Chuo Ward Urban Planning Council, which has been championing the project, Ichikawa has visited both the New York and Seoul projects. He plans to take the very best elements of both to create an urban park in the center of Tokyo.

One of the lessons he has learned from the Seoul project, for example, is that it lacks sufficient mature greenery to provide shade. The conse­quence is that the Skygarden is exposed in the hot and humid summer months, making it uncomfortable for people to use for extended periods of time.

Paris’s Promenade Plantée

The success of the High Line, however, has convinced Ichikawa that something similar in Tokyo can have huge benefits.

The High Line is a 2.3-kilometer elevated park that was created on a spur of the former New York Central Railroad—on the West Side of Manhattan—that was originally constructed in 1847 but abandoned in 1980. Work to repurpose the railroad began in 2006. The first phase opened three years later. A second stretch was added in 2011 before a third section opened in September 2014. A final stub, above Tenth Avenue and 30th Street, was delayed for several years. It finally opened last June.

The project is credited with encouraging other cities across the United States to look at obsolete infrastructure through new eyes and to redevelop it into public space. There has also been an impact in the districts of New York surrounding the High Line, promoting the redevelopment of what was a relatively run-down area of the city, lifting real estate values and encouraging developers to take on projects.

The New York High Line
Photo: Marco Rubino

The city estimates that as many as five million people utilize the park, which is accessible from 11 entrances and is open until 11:00 p.m. in the summer months and 7:00 p.m. in winter.

“The High Line has brought development and prosperity to what was a neglected area. But since it was completed, it has attracted more people to live in the area, has brought in shops and businesses, and has had a hugely positive impact,” Ichikawa said. “It may have been a relatively small and easy thing to do, but the impact on the community has been incredible.”

The full details of Tokyo’s version of the High Line—including the financial considerations—have yet to be detailed, although the cost is not expected to be exorbitant as the roadway is already carefully maintained and rated to carry heavier loads than pedestrians. The road is also privately owned, and it is anticipated that maintenance costs will be paid for by shops and restaurants in the area, which will benefit from an increase in customers when the park is opened.

Ichikawa points out that the plan is in line with similar projects designed to green or otherwise improve other parts of Tokyo that were scarred by the rush to develop the city in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps the best example of that, he suggested, is the drive to restore the bridge at Nihonbashi to its former glory.

A campaign is underway to remove the elevated motorway that was built over a graceful bridge constructed in 1911. An earlier bridge was built at this site in 1603 on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu and was considered the starting point for the five major roads that ran the length of the nation.

The historical significance and aesthetics of the bridge were overlooked in the haste to prepare the city for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, leaving it today in permanent shadow.

“It’s not just in Japan. All over the world, there are projects to recover historically important structures and provide more greenery,” said Ichikawa. “The proposals for the bridge at Nihonbashi have had a big influence on other areas of Tokyo, and new ways are being created for people to walk in the center of the city and feel comfortable.”

Karl Hahne, co-chair of the American Chamber of Commerce Real Estate Committee and president of Hafele Japan K.K., welcomed the plans.

“As a 30-year resident of Tokyo, I have seen a huge number of improvements in the quality of life—mainly for those of us who drive. And the long-term vision of real estate developers who take 40 years to buy all the land in one district, in order to create another mini-city within the city, has added lots of value to life in Tokyo,” he said.

“As the benefits to health from sunlight and exposure to nature are recognized more and more, I expect Tokyo to lead the world in creating the healthiest and most livable of all metropolises.”

The Seoul Skygarden
Photo: Keitma

Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.
The concept . . . has received positive feedback “quite simply because of the success of the High Line in New York.”