What I brought home from Kanazawa

My journey to Japan this past spring with the UW Architecture Department’s Japan Studio study tour, led by Professor Ken Oshima, was an incredible one. It was my first visit to Asia, and in less than two weeks I experienced both an urban metropolis and traditional villages, thickly falling snow and cherry blossoms.

We spent about three days of this whirlwind tour in Kanazawa, an ancient castle town where once lived samurais and geishas. For the purposes of this post I will focus primarily on Kanazawa due to its commonalities with Seattle. The cities’ populations and land areas are comparable, as are their surroundings of saltwater and mountains.

While in Kanazawa, our group was offered the very special opportunity to visit Kanazawa City Hall to attend an informative presentation by historic preservation planning staff. In the presentation and throughout my days in the city, I was impressed and inspired by the confluence of old and new throughout Kanazawa. During my time in Japan I discerned a pattern of layering – in such elements as the language, building tectonics, thresholds, clothing, and food. Spatial layering – I’ve heard this concept is called “Oku” – is no exception to this pattern. In Kanazawa a step down a side alley might bring with it a new world of textures, sounds, sights and smells.

In this post I will identify two city planning attitudes I encountered in Kanazawa that I believe could benefit Seattle’s planning process.

  1. Human systems – tradition and craft – are as essential to historic preservation as the maintenance of structures and spaces.

Sustained sense of place requires the activities that make that place unique.

In putting together this post I have considered the prevalent fragment-expression “the lost art of…” I feel like this subject comes up not infrequently. In architecture studio we often lament the lost arts of sketching and hand drafting. Do any of the following quotes sound familiar? “Have you heard they don’t teach cursive in elementary schools anymore?” “Thanks to texting, kids these days don’t know basic grammar conventions.” “I don’t think these Millennials could get around without GPS.” You get the picture.

None of these familiar phrases are usually mentioned in a positive light. People seem to generally disdain the idea of lost culture. Though they are important, cultural preservation goes beyond museums and retrofitted buildings. It encompasses collective memory and oral tradition.

How should that impact city planning?

In Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness authors Thaler and Sunstein address the human tendency to conform or engage in “herd behavior” (66). I think it’s appropriate to revisit this concept in this discussion, because it provides an excellent mechanism for encouraging new generations to carry on cultural traditions and crafts. The more people who take up these traditions, the more sustainable they will be.

Kanazawa has managed to do just that. In 2009 the city was designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) “City of Crafts and Folk Art.”

  1. Biodiversity plays an important role in historic preservation. The two are inherently linked.

Crafts, culture, and traditions associated with sense of place are embedded in local biodiversity. Each new season brings with it new activities.

Here are two websites that expand on this topic:

Biodiversity conservation is essential, and is possible when traditions are understood in light of the environmental contexts that produce them. This realization obviously impacts city planning principles, as a city is only as healthy as the systems that sustain it. This adds another layer to the importance of biodiversity in cities. With this in mind, the strategies that Hurd and Hurd address in the “Spaces for Nature” chapter of The Carbon Efficient City, such as TDR programs and investing in national and state parks, are even more essential to city planning procedures.

I believe both of these principles are important to consider in regard to Seattle planning. Historic districts such as Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, and the International District are embedded in the traditions and crafts of our region. Those traditions are largely rooted in our natural environment – our waters, our mountains, our forests, and the other species that reside here with us.

On our journey from Takayama to Kanazawa we stopped at the historic town of Shirakawa-go. The dramatically pitched thatched roofs speak to the heavy snow loads that winter brings. This vernacular architecture is a product of the climate. Of course, the conversation gets more complicated in the face of a changing economy. In Shirakawa-go, for example, the staple economy has shifted from silkworms to tourism. Yet the town remains, and with it it’s sense of place.

On our journey from Takayama to Kanazawa we stopped at the historic town of Shirakawa-go. The dramatically pitched thatched roofs echo the heavy snow loads that winter brings. This vernacular architecture is a product of the climate. Of course, the conversation gets more complicated in the face of a changing economy. In Shirakawa-go, for example, the staple economy has shifted from silkworms to tourism. Yet the town remains, and with it its sense of place.

While visiting Kenroku-en, Kanazawa’s celebrated historic garden, we saw vegetation almost as “designed” as the city and its architecture.

While visiting Kenroku-en, Kanazawa’s celebrated historic garden, we saw vegetation almost as “designed” as the city and its architecture.

Cherry blossoms in Kenroku-en.

Cherry blossoms in Kenroku-en.

Supporting Sense of Place

I love Bainbridge Island. Its wet woods and salty beaches were “home” from toddlerhood to teenagehood, and though I don’t live there permanently anymore, they still serve that role.

This summer I’ve enjoyed catching up with family on the Island. It has been refreshing to somersault in the Sound and wind through the Grand Forest again, but distressing to watch a redundant commercial shopping center emerge, tabula rasa style, at the intersection of Highway 305 and High School Road, where once was woodland. While being an Islander means owning a Bay Hay & Feed sweatshirt or twelve, it also means wincing at Silverdalesque developments like this one by Ohio-based developer Visconsi.

As one might expect, Islanders took a stand:

Last summer a then 19-year-old Bainbridge High School graduate scaled a Douglas-fir on the property to stage an inspiring “tree sit” in protest of the development. Long-term Islander Ron Peltier founded Environmental Bainbridge. Islanders for Responsible Development was created to oppose the planned development. Residents spoke out against the development to city officials.

Bainbridge Island’s own Wenzlau Architects – whose website describes a design methodology that “integrates community planning with innovative building solutions” – has taken on the project, and not without repercussions. Environmentalbainbridge.org lists the firm’s phone number on its “Action!” page with a message encouraging those who oppose the development to “call Charlie Wenzlau and let him know you are not happy with his role as the architect on this project.” Interestingly, Wenzlau has been the architect involved with a different and generally supported Bainbridge project, the Pleasant Beach Village development, on the south end of the island.

I’ve tried to piece together how, in the context of such layered opposition to the Bainbridge Visconsi project, it was approved. Answering that question is crucial to protecting important habitat areas and preventing future sprawling developments on Bainbridge. An architecture and landscape architecture student, I am no expert on issues related to policy. However, this course has provided an exciting exploration of that realm, and I will try my best in this post to articulate how a future development like the Visconsi one might be prevented.

It seem to me that this is fundamentally a matter of discord: between (a) zoning regulations and the City of Bainbridge Island Comprehensive Plan and (b) between residents and Bainbridge city council.

  1. Align priorities between invested groups.

The first step is to align priorities. While Visconsi might have different priorities, all things considered, I think the above-mentioned four entities all wish to support the Island’s special sense of place. It’s particularly important at this stage that zoning is revised to better reflect the Comprehensive Plan. While both articles should reflect the city’s best interests, it seems as if the misalignment took authority away from the Comprehensive Plan. If at all possible, areas that are vulnerable to unchecked development and not protected by conservation easements should be zoned as park land.

  1. Implement a TDR program.

Now that Islanders and city council have gotten together to make sure zoning aligns with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, it’s time to take action. While I don’t know Bainbridge’s policy on TDRs, after reading about them in A-P Hurd and Al Hurd’s The Carbon Efficient City, I am optimistic that they could be useful in this kind of scenario, especially if designation as a Bainbridge Island Land Trust conservation easement or rezoning aren’t options. The original landowner – in the case of the Visconsi project it would have been Deschamps Partnership LP – could have transferred the development rights to a landowner with property in Bainbridge’s downtown Winslow, where the Comprehensive Plan apparently recommends targeting future growth. Of note, the Bainbridge Downtown Association is a nationally accredited Main Street. Also, Winslow Way is within walking distance of the ferry terminal. This is where growth makes sense, but not at the scale of the Visconsi development. In this imaginary scenario, Deschamps Partnership LP could have still enjoyed the development opportunity of their land while it remained permanently protected as open space.

Redundant, sprawling developments like Visconsi’s don’t make sense on an island that’s less than 75 square miles of land area, especially when there is already a McDonald’s (that’s a different but equally cringe-worthy story) across the street from it, and a development including a Safeway and Rite Aid kitty-corner across the adjacent intersection. Interestingly, while the Visconsi development is being constructed, long-time Island favorite Paper Products in rebranding and moving from Winslow Way in order to stay afloat.

Sprawl is contradictory to the Island’s sense of place. Thankfully, Island keystones like Bainbridge Gardens and Bay Hay & Feed are still going strong. No “Anytown” development can offer what they offer: homegrown Bainbridge Island sense of place – something that is not, in fact, stationary.

If you want to learn more about the Bainbridge Island Visconsi development or get involved, visit environmentalbainbridge.org.