Conservation and Preservation
in Planning Processes:
Historical Districts of Kyoto, Japan

Hari Srinivas
Case Study Series E-164. August 2022.

Preservation Districts Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings

In 1975, through an amendment to the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties [2], a system of "Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings" was introduced in order to protect historic cities, towns and villages in Japan, including castle towns, post towns, and towns built around shrines and temples.

Municipalities develop a plan based on the municipal preservation ordinance to carry out preservation projects. Among the Preservation Districts, those of national significance are classified as “Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings” by the national government upon receiving an application from a municipal government.

The Agency for Cultural Affairs (at the national level) and prefectural Boards of Education (at the local level) provide guidance and advice to municipal efforts to preserve and utilize the law. They also provide financial support and tax breaks to municipal projects such as restoration, facade enhancement, and installation of facilities for disaster prevention and information boards. Five districts within Kyoto city (Kamigamo, Sannei-zaka, Gion Shimbashi, and Saga-toriimoto) have now been designated as "Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings" under this legislation.

Source: Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs
H istoric Kyoto was founded in 794 AD, modelled on the ancient capitals of China, and until the mid-19th century, it served as Japan’s imperial capital.

Conserving Kyoto’s rich heritage has represented a Japanese national priority since the 1930s, when a specific legal framework designated "Scenic Landscape Districts". This (with many subcategories within "scenic landscapes"), now designate an area of almost 18,000 hectares today. A number of Kyoto's historic monuments were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1994.

Urbanization and economic growth, has created a number of problems for urban areas in Japan. Kyoto has not been an exception. Out-migration from the core of the city to its suburbs has led to a collapse of the community at th city's core. The struggle between private developers and residents has been destroying the landscape and assets of traditional Kyoto. This has led to an increase in land and housing prizes, and the number of vacant housing units have also been increasing.

In order to address these and related problems, a group of academics and private consultants collaborated with the City Government in 1988, and took the initiative to set up a study group to solve the problems. Called the "Kyoto Collective Study Group" the group made a number of studies, carried out research and conducted surveys to arrive at the conclusion that one of the viable solutions was the setting up of a unique design for collective housing units that preserved the flavour/character of traditional shophouses.

The group set about its task by collecting proposals from citizens, discussing them in symposiums, and compiling suggestions and opinions in the form of guidelines (in contrast to 'restrictions' imposed by usual city laws).

The group essentially brought together private developers, the community and the local government as a triangle, (with the group itself functioning as advocates/mediators) in proposing the character of the new type of housing. It emphasized a number of guiding principles such as the unity of 'work+play+life' in these houses; maintaining the human scale in height and volume of the housing unites; ensuring harmony of classic and modern styles; application to the peculiar road system in Kyoto; unity with surrounding areas; and creating good communities networks and quality of life.

The group gathered more than 46 proposals from university researchers, professionals and citizens. In order to visualize the concept, an experimental sample/prototype was built. Several such experiments in layout and design were made. A series of symposia were held throughout Kyoto to propagate and explain the design concepts, and guidebooks were written. Basic plans were developed in accordance with the guidelines for public housing, and companies that share/support the concept were invited from private developers to build houses.

Some of the unique features of this approach was that the usual design regulation was abandoned in favour of 'guidelines' which outlines desirable goals. It thus gives freedom to the developer in design and actual implementationaspects. Communication also played a key role, in promoting participation from citizens - open competition, pamphlets, symposia etc. were used to emphasize the need for mutual learning processes that had to be incorporated.

Experimental prototypes enabled the citizens to visualize the design and check its feasibility against personal wishes and goals. Another factor that assisted its acceptance was the fact that the proposal was an initiative of academics, who were considered 'neutral', without vested interests.

Appropriate urban planning laws governing historically designated traditioinal districts provided a number of signposts such as (1) aesthetic guidelines on signage and other urban features, infrastructure etc., and also (2) financial support for residents to preserve and reuse their residences for economially viable uses.

As a result, while simultaneously preserving the overal traditional character of the districts, local residents were able to covert their residences to set up souvinir shops, restaurants, traditiional inns ("ryokans" and "minshiku"), museums and other more public uses.

Kyoto's example highlights the fact that reconciliation between economic pressures and conservation/preservation pressures is critical in developing of design guidelines - from restrictive laws to desirable action. Effective communication with active community participation also remain an important ingredient if the desirable results are to be achieved.

Kyoto's traditional "machiya" Machiya are traditional wooden townhouses that were popular with Kyoto merchants and craftspeople until just before the second World War. Since Kyoto wasn’t bombed during the war, many excellent examples of machiya have survived to this day.

The typical Kyoto machiya is a long wooden house with narrow street frontage, stretching deep into the city block and often containing one or more small courtyard gardens, known as tsubo-niwa.

Most machiya, a typical example of Japanese vernacular architecture, are made with earthen was reinforced with bamboo and hay. They are typically tone or two stories tall.

The front of a machiya served as a retail or shop space and the remainder of the building was the living area (which also incorporated indoor/courtyard gardens), with storage areas in the rear of the unit.

Kyoto is famous for numerous machiya, many of them now converted into traditional inns, and falling within the city's designated historic districts.

[1] The above write-up is based on submissions made by the Kyoto City Government to the Planning Prize of the Japan Association for Planning Administration, as well as field visits to Kyoto.
[2] The Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties (see PDF link below) defines a group of historic buildings as that which forms a historic landscape in unison with its surrounding environments such as towns formed around castles, posts (shukuba), Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, ports, and/or farming or fishing villages. This system is designed to preserve cultural property buildings as a group rather than as individual entities. It also includes gates, mud and stone walls, canals, and tombs, as well as gardens, hedges and trees.

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