Re-imagining public space: The vicissitudes of Japan’s privately owned public spaces

Christian Dimmer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Perhaps few other ideas have been more persevering in architecture or urban planning discourses over the past decades than ‘public space’. Ironically, its recent, expanded career as a central intellectual concept beyond those academic disciplines, concerned with the built environment, and its extensive use in professional and scholarly debates, in media and everyday language, didn’t help to lessen its semantic ambiguities (Gulick 1998; Nadal 2000). One substantial problem with the concept is its (mis-)conception as static and universal; as transcending the particularities of time, space or culture, thus frustrating meaningful comparative discourses. As a result, examining public space outside one’s own cultural context may lead to early conclusions and normative distortions when observations do not match the preconceived repertoire of spatial archetypes, or familiar patterns of appropriation. Neil Smith reminds us thus that '(d)ifferent societies and different modes of production produce space differently; they produce their own kinds of spaces’ (1998: 54). He argues that ‘specific societies and specific periods have distinctive spatial codes [.. . that] are integral to the social and spatial practices of a given place and period’ (1998: 54). Consequently, public space is better conceived as a complex multidimensional notion, perpetually reproduced by local and global actors and discourses, shaped by hard and soft social institutions, as well as specific spatio-culturally induced systems of perception, interaction, representation and language in a particular time and place. The job of theory and empirical enquiry is then elucidating the emergence, performance, and change of those spatial codes, constituting particular public space notions, rather than superimposing a priori views. Interestingly, international debates showed hitherto a strong bias toward Europe or North America - underplaying public space in non-Western settings.1 Referring to the ultimately related and equally abstract idea of ‘civil society’ Frank Schwartz points out the intricacies of applying concepts across cultures that evolved in distinctively Western milieus (2003: 3). After all, as the etymology of the Latin publicus (‘of the people’) suggests, delineating the social universe in public and private spheres or spaces has been a recurring concern of Western thought since antiquity. Cultures, however, have always borrowed from one and another in the past and thus rarely constitute homogeneous entities in the present. ‘Defying abstract considerations of authenticity and universality, ideas and institutions are constantly spreading beyond their place of origin to take root elsewhere, where they may be reconceived in local terms’ (2003: 3). Jennifer Robertson adds that ‘culture [.. . ] is every bit as much an ongoing production as it is a constantly transforming product’ (1998: 11). With Henri Lefebvre (1991) I suggest that space, or more specifically public space, both reflects and contributes to this process and thus deserves further attention. The objective of this chapter is therefore to sketch out a more nuanced, flex- ible and culture sensitive understanding of public space. The key is Lefebvre’s influential idea of the social construction of space, after which space is continually and dynamically constructed through a trialectic between the perceived, the conceived and the lived. The chapter elucidates this idea with the example of urban Japan and applies it for a close examination of the underlying socio-spatial and historical processes, leading up to the present public space boom. In order to reduce complexity, the focus is on one particular spatial archetype and its related institutional and discursive context. So-called privately owned public spaces (POPS) are quantitatively highly significant as they thrived adjacent to hundreds of downtown skyscrapers since the late 1960s. Moreover, since these privately owned, yet publicly accessible spaces result from a trade-off between bonus floor areas for open space, involving developers and local governments, their design and operation reflects how public space was thought about by both public and private key actors at a specific point in time. This is a fresh perspective, as most writing on the subject focused hitherto mostly on government policies but ignored the motivation of private developers. Lefebvre’s idea is then helpful for deconstructing the public space notion and filtering out ‘distinctive (local) codes’ (Smith 1998: 54) from generalisable global ones. This facilitates in turn a less biased, cross-cultural, comparative research and opens up the abundant, exiting developments in urban Japan to international discourses. After decades of standardised production - replicating for instance ever the same neighbourhood parks nationwide through bureaucratic routines - in the late twentieth century the attitudes of politicians, planners, developers and citizens broadly changed. In 2002 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) began, for example, accrediting street artists and vendors to systematically stimulate ‘bustling public life’ (Shinohara et al. 2007) in major parks and streets as part of outward-directed tourism promotion campaigns. The same symbolic, highly visual policies served in an inward perspective to prove the governments resolve for successful urban revitalisation to its voters. So-called ‘open cafés’ (ôpun kafê) began to proliferate rapidly in private plazas and public pedestrian malls, parks or sidewalks; deliberately prescribed as remedy for places, which the modernist dogma of efficiency and functionality had turned into mere ‘derivatives of movement’ or ‘dead public space’ (Sennett 1992) or to capitalise on newly evolving outdoor lifestyles. Symbolic, beautified public spaces - squares, promenades, waterfronts - became also a panacea for instilling local identity, where past explosive urban growth had levelled all regional characteristics. Moreover, the private real estate sector also realised the importance of public space for image branding of office buildings and whole business districts within a growing location competition among prime office areas in Tokyo. Negative demographics and more competitive budgetary policies urged many universities to brush up their downtown campuses to compete for students and financiers. Not surprisingly this keen professional interest in the quality of public space corresponds to a surging body of literature on the subject and related topics like civil society, or publicness (kôkyôsei). As we will see later, this is not to say that planning experts or citizens haven’t long been concerned with public space. In fact Kurosawa’s filmic masterpiece ikiru (1952), in which residents press local authorities for the creation of a neighbourhood park, proves quite the contrary. Also Hoyt Long shows in his intellectual history of hiroba that progressive writers like Hani Gorô have discussed democratic and social ideals with particular reference to squares, or hiroba (2007: 196-214) since the early Shôwa period that would be ultimately linked to the broader public space concept in the West. No earlier than the mid-1980s was the umbrella term ‘public space’ (kôkyô kûkan) popularly used. Relevant issues are thus less widely conceived within a theoretical and abstract framework, but restricted to concrete archetypical spatial subsets like squares (hiroba) or public parks (kôen). Interestingly, the literature on parks and squares increased most significantly with the diffusion of machizukuri-type community planning activities after 1980, where they functioned as loci of community activities and early venues for the formation of civil society. From the mid 1990s on kôkyô kûkan came in wide use at a time when related theoretical concepts like civil society (shimin shakai) or publicness (kôkyôsei) began flourishing (Schwartz 2003; Hasegawa 2004).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUrban Spaces in Japan
Subtitle of host publicationCultural and Social Perspectives
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages32
ISBN (Electronic)9781136318849
ISBN (Print)9780415695459
Publication statusPublished - 2012 Jan 1
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Re-imagining public space: The vicissitudes of Japan’s privately owned public spaces'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this