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Carrillo Silva, Diana Prof. Philip Seaton Introduction to Historiography August 3rd, 2015 Words 2,378

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Urban development of Sapporo and the influence of American city planning. Introduction

From the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry with the objective to open the Japanese ports for international trade in 1853, the Japanese contact with the Western culture was extended. The urban changes related to this event became evident after the Meiji Restoration, when “the government consciously started Japan’s modernization process” (Tipton, 2002). Sapporo’s transformation was not an immediate event, it was part of a slow progress caused by the irregular development of Japan from the Early Meiji until now. The aim of this essay is to provide understanding on how the American ideology influenced the urbanization of Sapporo and how the present layout highly depended upon the 1868’s original plan.

This “Westernization” did not only have an effect in the Japanese way of living, dressing or behaving, it also became apparent in the display of the city and the architecture as “the incorruptible witness of history, for one cannot talk about a great building without recognising in it the witness of an era, its culture, its society, their intentions…” (Octavio Paz). The analysis will be developed through a comparison between the origins in the planning of Sapporo in the Early Meiji Period and urban theories of other cities that may have influenced Japanese design. Also, it will be discussed how American culture may have had an effect on the following development from then to today.

Sapporo’s Urban Planning

The history of Sapporo as the administrative centre of Hokkaido starts at the beginning of the Meiji Period, in the Meiji Restoration. The government was the principal sponsor of urban development in Japanese cities. Although the private companies may have patronized some changes in infrastructure, the major growth was a result of the capital destined by the authorities and the type of city they wanted to plan and build. This is the first difference between American and Japanese urban development as Parker states according to Wales, “in the Far East, and especially Japan it is also important to note that, traditionally, private capital had less influence on urban development plans than firms enjoyed in the US…” (Parker, 2004).

Carrillo !2 In 1868 the city is founded as replacement of Hakodate in its functions for its inconvenient location. Hakodate’s proximity to the seashore made it difficult to defend in the event of an attack; also, in terms of administration, it is appropriate to relocate the place where the bureaucratic organization and political power is concentrated, equidistant from almost every urban and rural community under the rule of this government. Sapporo is located in the Ishikari Plain, the widest plain in Hokkaido Island. In terms of urbanization, this enables the city to grow as vast as possible, with the space topography as the acknowledged limit. Also, the decision of placing the administrative centre there speaks of the understanding that the city is not an inmutable space, it is in constant change and a urban area in process of developing has always the possibility to grow, not necessarily in a horizontal disposition but in terms of densification.

In 1869 the Kaitakushi (Development Commission) chose Shima Yoshitake to begin the urban display of Sapporo. The layout was a squared grid divided in north and south by a green belt (Image 1.1), the first idea of what would become Odori Park. In the north part, the government buildings were surrounding the Kaitakushi office, while in the south, entertainment and commercial infrastructure would be placed (Tsusumi, 2004). In this initial plan the placement of the central division was different from the actual location. 1

Carrillo ! 2 In 1868 the city is founded as replacement of Hakodate in its functions > " id="pdf-obj-1-9" src="pdf-obj-1-9.jpg">

Image 1.1 Shima Yoshitake Plan for Sapporo

Carrillo !3 However, in 1871 Yoshitake was dismissed from the job and Iwamura Michitoshi took over the urban planning of Sapporo. He modified the original plan by making wider streets and changing the original function of the green belt, instead Kabō-sen was constructed where Odori Park is currently located. It was a firebreak of 105 metres in the middle of the city from where four blocks more on the East-West axis would be placed and six in the north-south one. The objective of the unoccupied land was to prevent the advancement of a fire. 2

It is evident that Odori Park is what makes Sapporo different from any other urban design. Its process of transformation started in 1876 when 6600 m² of flower gardens were constructed in two blocks of the belt. In 1909, a Japanese landscaper turned the land into a walking area. It was then when the city started to develop around the park in the original squared grid (Tsusumi, 2004) which is still visible today, it is more than just evident, it became the basis of the city.


Different theories and factors should be considered in order to understand the origins of the plan of Sapporo. First, what Michitoshi planned may not be what the government actually constructed, changes occur when design is laid on reality due to unpredictable external factors. Secondly, the influence of the square grid seems uncertain. While the Sapporo Tourism Official Website and some authors like Irish state that the Kaitakushi “organized Sapporo into a planned city modelled after Kyoto” which was designed based on the layout of Chang’an, China (Choi and Kiang, 1998), several tourist information websites claim that “Sapporo was built based on a North American style rectangular street system.” Also, the factors that Western advisers were hired by the Meiji government to devise plans in other parts of Japan and their desire to become similar to the occident, specially America, suggest that their methods may have had an effect on Sapporo’s plan.


Urban Planning Theories and Cities

Little can be known of what influenced both urban planners and government authorities, however, their theories are materialized in the city layout. The schemes of the cities mentioned can be analyzed in order to find contrasts and similarities among them. These will be Chang’an, Kyoto and New York, the most important American city in terms of urban display. Finally it will be explained how they relate to Sapporo.

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The first statement that infers that Japan could have been influenced by city models of China is that urbanization started in the former much later than in the latter. Also the relationship between both of them has always been important, even more when Japan closed its ports to foreign ships (1639-1854) except from Dejima, “the only link between China and Japan, and almost the only link between Japan and the rest of the world” (Tellier 2009 p.222). Finally, the layout as a possible evidence will be presented.

Chang’an is located on a fertile plain land in the middle of basin of the Wei, Feng and Chan rivers. It was linked to the three rivers by a canal network and was once the world’s largest city at the time, being surrounded by a 36- kilometer wall. According to Tellier, the city was the most important and first- class administrative and commercial center then. This urban area was based on another Chinese city, both use the principal avenue as the central axis ending with the Imperial Palace with the purpose of highlighting it.

Carrillo ! 4 Chang’an The first statement that infers that Japan could have been influenced by > " id="pdf-obj-3-15" src="pdf-obj-3-15.jpg">

Image 1.2 Chang’an City Plan

The outline of the area is a grid system divided by land uses, the markets in the central part on both sides of the street and the residential area of 108 alleys around them (Image 1.2). Besides the principal avenue, the city had six main roads that allow access to the main gates, the rest were secondary roads, eleven in the south-north axis and fourteen in the east-west side. Along with the roads ran rows of water drainage and trees on both sides. For security and administrative reasons, the residential alleys and markets were enclosed structures. 5

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Heian-kyo, Kyoto’s ancient name, was founded in 794 and it was outlined to be wider than the first planned capital Heijo. Choi and Kiang argue that the Japanese government copied the layout of the city and some of the most important buildings of the model of the Tang

dynasty, but not only that, China’s bureaucratic reforms were also taken as a basis for the Japanese administrative system. The first cities were not as broad as now, Heian-kyo covered 24 squared kilometres, 4.8 km from east to west and 5.6 from north to south. As a security measure, the area was surrounded by a terrace made of mud and a ditch.

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Kyoto Heian-kyo, Kyoto’s ancient name, was founded in 794 and it was outlined to be

Image 1.3 Heian-kyo City Plan

Within these limits, the city was designed in a perfect squared grid system (Image 1.3), there were more than 1,200 blocks. The city’s outline based on a principal avenue that divided the city in two areas and ended with the Imperial Palace, the entrance was opened to the south as it was the only spot due to the natural conditions of the terrain. The Imperial Palace housed several land uses other than governmental like commercial and high nobility residential quarters, the middle and low classes lived outside this area. The Palace burned several times throughout history and is now located two kilometres east from its original place.

New York and Central Park

In the early XIX century New York’s population highly increased due to the European immigrants in the East Coast, a new urban plan was needed. In 1811 the new layout for Manhattan was approved, it would be a prefect grid: twelve avenues from north to south, crossed at right angles by 155 streets. The territory of the island was formed by roads, farms, marshes, canals, forests and wetlands so the roads needed to be wide enough to ease air circulation and prevent epidemics. The project caused controversy and social protests because of the demand of the demolition of many buildings (Beveridge and Rocheleau, 1998).

Carrillo !6 In 1853, the Legislature of the State of New York purchased an area of 2.8 square kilometres for public space because concrete was devouring the city. In 1857, the Central Park Commission was created and a contest for the design of the new park was called. The winning project was “Greensward Plan” submitted by two landscape architects: Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The park was located in the middle of the city, the size of 204 blocks (Image 1.4), the landscape was designed against the earlier 18th-century trend of Neoclassicism, it was the first public park in USA (Rybczynsky, 2003).

Carrillo ! 6 In 1853, the Legislature of the State of New York purchased an area

Image 1.4 Vaux and Olmstead’s Original 1863 Plan.

How the theories of urban planning relate to Sapporo

First of all, the squared grid is visible in the four cities, it is impossible to claim from which one of

these cities Sapporo has an influence. However these other factors will be considered: location of the government buildings, land use and public spaces. The plans of Yoshitake (the original layout of Sapporo) and the cities of Chang’an and Kyoto have a central axis that divides the city ending with the visual element of the principal state building. But Yoshitake’s original idea was changed and the placement of the Hokkaido Government Office is not the base of Sapporo’ layout anymore.

Once again in these three cities, the grid is actually used to divide the land uses according to a hierarchical order where the government is the most important use followed by commerce, amusement and housing. Only that the Sapporo’s plan which included that type of distribution was the original plan, in the Michitoshi layout the disposition of the uses was not the most important reason of design, it was the security of the city. On the other hand, the plan on New York is just divided in a rectangular grid with any type of contrast in the whole regular layout caused by a hierarchical situation of a building and without organization of land uses.

Carrillo !7 In terms of public spaces, Chang’an and Kyoto have nothing to contribute to Sapporo’s layout but New York. The green belt that Yoshitake wanted for the central axis of the city is similar to the idea of Central Park, however, Michitoshi transformed it into a vacant land. Regardless of that, what Odori Park is now is highly similar to Yoshitake’s original idea recovered in 1876. Unfortunately, during World War II, the area had to be used for potato production for the famine and after the war, when the food supply had improved, Odori became an empty land again. 6

On the next years, the occupation forces used the park for constructing athletic facilities like baseball fields and tennis courts. But in 1950, the control over the area was returned to the Japanese government and since then the development of the park escalated to what is seen today. Although Central Park seems the perfect antecedent for the public space in Sapporo, in 1873, just before the recuperation of Odori, Japan built its firsts public parks: Asukayama, Ueno, Shiba, Asakusa and Fukagawa Park. Still, none of this sites has a rectangular grid as Odori and Central Park.



Two points were discussed in this essay: how the American ideology influenced the urbanization of Sapporo and how the present layout highly depended upon the 1868’s original plan. The city according to the layout and the land use is more similar to that of the cities of Chang’an and

therefore Kyoto but the concept of a central squared public park is certainly closer to the American model. Both theories seem to have had an effect on Sapporo’s distribution, but, although there is a precedent, the city managed to organize its elements of urbanism according to its needs, resulting in a unique urban display that serves a specific way of living.

Although the land use of Yoshitake was not respected, the green belt he planned became the most important characteristic of the urban layout, as a defining element of today’s display, the most important buildings are located around Odori Park. Also, although the focus of the paper was on American impact, Japan not only had the influence of this Western country, Britain and France were also trascendental figures. Europe has developed a wider culture of public parks than America, still the squared grid is not part of their designing. Nonetheless, the influence of European public spaces and gardens on Japan’s design should be considered as possible direction of future study.


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  • - Beveridge C. and Rocheleau P. (1998). Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape. USA: Universe.

  • - Irish, A. (2009). Hokkaido: A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan's Northern Island. USA: McFarland & Co.

  • - Parker, S. (2004). Urban Theory and the Urban Experience: Encountering the City. London: Routledge.

  • - Tellier, L. (2009). Urban World History: An Economic and Geographical Perspective. Canada: Presses de l’Université du Québec.

  • - Tipton, E. (2002). Modern Japan’s History: A Social and Political History. London: Routledge.

  • - Waley, P. (2000) ‘Tokyo: Patterns of Familiarity and Partitions of Difference’, in Marcuse, P. and van Kempen, R. (eds) Globalizing Cities. A New Spatial Order?, Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 127–57.

  • - Rybczynsky W. (2003). A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century. USA: Scribner.

Online references