Tokyo: Superdense Cyclecity.


Tokyo is a patchwork city-of-cities, home to 13 million people (the greater urban agglomeration has a whopping 38 million). It is composed of multiple, distinct communities, a megalopolis designed from the scale of the tatami mat outwards.
The self-contained neighbourhoods are well organised around daily, weekly and monthly needs. Housing is mixed tenure, low rise and high density, which creates socially cohesive communities with people of all ages and stages living together.
In many places, even remarkably close to the main centres, Tokyo streets have the feeling of being in a small town. That special quality comes from the social and functional diversity of each neighbourhood, the tightly packed buildings (each different to the other), the narrow streets and lack of traffic.
Tokyo was rebuilt twice in twentieth century, once after the 1923 earthquake and again after WWII – each time to the same fine-grained underlying pattern. In an an urban design sense, it is almost totally unplanned. But the fine grain is remarkably coherent and consistent, and small scale development is guided by a constant set of practices and rules of thumb that have made it very adaptable to change.


Being vast, flat and dense, Tokyo is ideal for cycling. I cycled in big loops through and around this city of cities over three days, with my daughter Frances. We hired two bikes for a ridiculously cheap $3 a day each from a well organised municipal hire office and bike storage place. They had a basket on the front, a stand, integrated lock, front dynamo light and one gear.
Tokyo’s streets are not noisy, dirty or dangerous. Apart from some of the new commercial and industrial areas and the arterial routes we found, the streets largely belong to pedestrians and bikes. They are naturally calmed, narrow so it’s difficult for two cars to pass. Footpaths are uncommon – the road space is shared between pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional car. Under these conditions, and with strict liability laws which hold the larger party financially responsible for accidents, motorists tend to drive cautiously.
Once off the arterial roads there aren’t many cars anyway. Car ownership in Tokyo is very expensive, and really, you don’t need one; there is a station five minutes walk from anywhere and an amazingly efficient system of cross city trains. For local trips, cycling just makes sense, and the suburbs are full of bikes.
14% of all trips in the city are made by bike. Literally everyone is a cyclist. From mums portaging two pre school kids to kindergarten on a electric two-wheeled family wagon to grey-haired ladies picking up their vegetables on a tricycle. Most use their bicycles for short trips around their neighborhoods where almost all daily conveniences can be found within a kilometer or two. Tokyo bikes are nothing special; more like a pair of sensible shoes than a set of Nike trainers, made in China and designed for utility. Not many are electric; there are no hills, and no one seems to be in too much of a hurry.
Who’d have thought that cycling around a megalopolis would feel so safe and relaxed.

Children’s garden – a living classroom.

Recently Wellington City Council held an open day at the Children’s Garden in the Botanic Gardens. The project is still a little way off completion so this was not the offical opening – that will be in the spring.

The Children’s Garden is going be a hands-on, playful landscape where children are free to explore and interact with nature with a focus on learning through enjoyment about plants for food, fibre, construction and medicine.

“When the garden is fully up and running, there will be hands-on activities that help students understand the importance of plants in our lives. These education sessions will be based around themes of sustainability, interconnectedness and culture to encourage respect for the natural environment and the importance of plants – now and for the future.” – Councillor Peter Gilberd

Dealing with complex levels, and carefully working around exisiting trees, the design has woven a multi-layed sequence of spaces that will delight and educate children (and adults) for generations to come. A pavilion building for indoor education sessions is integrated into the garden.

This project is the largest investment in the Wellington Botanic Garden since the duck pond was built more than 18 years ago.

Isthmus ‘Matariki Day’ 2017.

Several years ago we embedded an additional ‘public holiday’ into the Isthmus culture and calendar – we call it Matariki Day. We think that in the future all New Zealanders will celebrate an authentic, home-grown winter holiday of seasonal and cultural significance; a public holiday for Matariki rather than Queens Birthday.

We give all of our staff an extra day off, and in the evening hold a dinner in the studio for all whanau. This is our way of looking back and reflecting upon the successes and challenges of the previous year, as well as recognising all staff for their contribution. We tell some stories and look forward to the year ahead. We enjoy a uniquely New Zealand meal together, and afterwards, while the adults talk, the kids are kept busy with the ‘matariki tamariki design challenge’.

Our studios will be closed on the following dates:
Chews Lane studio, Wellington. Friday 23 June.
Sale Street studio, Auckland. Friday 30 June.

Connections Reflections: State @ Night.

This Saturday the 20th May of the outdoor photographic exhibition Connections Reflections Auckland opens on Queens Wharf, Downtown Auckland New Zealand. 
Isthmus are proud to announce that Haylea Muir is one of 7 photographers chosen to shoot and curate the exhibition under the guidance of top International Photographer Tom Ang.

Haylea’s 5 exhibited photographs extends, reflects and perhaps parallels her career as a landscape and urban designer with Isthmus.

Congratulations to Haylea and good luck with the exhibition and we all look forward to seeing these on the wharf and wish you all the best with this exhibition.

Vinegar Lane tipping point.

The new urban quarter of Vinegar Lane has reached a tipping point – more of it is built than unbuilt.

Masterplanned by Isthmus, owners of the 30 freehold lots have been free to select their own architects to design buildings that slot into the urban design framework. Designs are informed by the Vinegar Lane Design Manual which seeks to provide variety within the whole. Each lot is permitted 100% site coverage and a 4 storey (15m) height limit. Resource consents for each lot were pre-approved; leaving detailed designs to pass through the Vinegar Lane Design Review Panel and ACs’ building consent process. If the pre-approved resource consent envelope was challenged, new consents had to be applied for (this has happened in a couple of cases).

So, while construction is yet to begin on a number of lots, it’s now possible to imagine what Vinegar Lane will feel like when complete. When fully built-out the site will yield a density of 190 dwellings per ha gross (including lanes within the site), or 280 dwellings per ha net. High density mixed-use achieved within a mostly 4-storey height envelope.

We believe this ‘kiwi urbanism’ approach can be adopted elsewhere across the city. Such development could increase the density of the inner suburbs massively while maintaining the fine-grained variety that feels right for Auckland. Choosing the right sites, without resorting to bulk and height, and dividing them up into small and affordable parcels, puts development in the hands of small-scale private investors. Most of the lots will be owner-occupied, while also generating an income from commercial and residential rents. At Vinegar Lane baby boomer savings are being used to build a new Auckland.

Holidays and Making Memories

I have peppered of few of my holiday snap shots in here with this post. Aside from doing cool stuff, one thing I always eagerly anticipate over a holiday period is more discretionary reading time and thinking time. I was lucky enough to get through a few books this past break (long haul flights help).  It seemed no matter what I read and where I looked – some common threads of thinking kept recurring. I couldn’t help but put these into the context of where we are at as a design studio, our achievements these past few years and the aspirations we have for the future of Isthmus.

The modern day philosopher and thinker, Theodore Zeldin, argues that if we want to be innovative with our ideas and imagine a new future that is not simply an extension of the past then we need to understand the past in a new way also. Apparently our memories are formed in the same part of the brain where we think about the future and ideas.  All this interested me as I thought about new ways of formulating ideas and innovating in the way we work, communicate and design. If the past can have more of an influence on the future than we might imagine, do we then re-imagine a relationship between past and future.

This will be different for everyone but from a personal perspective I decided to formulate a series of propositions:
1 – Memories are important and if we can combine memories in new ways there is a chance that they could change how we think about the future.

The sharper our visual memories the more the future has a visual shape.

Zeldin argues: “Memory is therefore not only about the past; it provides the building blocks from which the future is constructed. The narrower the range of memories one has, the less one is likely to have broad and original ideas about the future”.

From a Maori perspective time is seen as a natural force (like wind or water) that moves around you. You are not the one journeying through time, you remain still and time flows past you eventually leaving you behind. In that way you see your past before you as it passes you by – and the future is sneaking up from behind.

Perhaps if we juxtapose people, places and ideas from different centuries and backgrounds we might find new answers to the problems we grapple with today.

 2 – Feeding your memory is as important as feeding your body.

Personal experiences are not enough and should be supplemented by vicarious memories we acquire from others, whether through conversation, reading, writing, visual media/arts etc. With poor memories we cannot imagine where we could be going next, apart from the places we have already been. Constructing and recording a richness of past personal experiences and facts thus becomes important.  It is also interesting that of the 3 original muses in Greek Mythology – Mneme – represented the art of memory.

 3 – The existence of memories is important, but what matters more is the relationship between them.

The French mathematician Henri Poincare (1854-1912), lauded intuition, by which he meant not guess work, but the ability to unit elements/facts well known but till then scattered and foreign to each other. The value, he argued, of an observation comes from its giving new value to old facts it unites. To do this he took an interest in almost everything because nothing was necessarily irrelevant. He argued the best training for a scientist was in the humanities. His favoured reading was of exploration and travel and when telling a story he seldom started at the beginning – his mind did not work in a straight line.

Poincare also valued incompatibilities, disagreements and uncertainties and argued that if you break up reality into fragments of truth and illusion it opens the door to invention. In fact when you think about it the majority of disagreements are about the past or the future – what did or did not happen or what could or should happen. If we shuffle the cards of what we remember, forget and anticipate we might hope, argue or create in a new way.

There are of course many forms of creative expression; music, drama, stories, poetry, philosophy, history, travelogues, lectures, art, dance etc. I am of the view that if we continue to have an interest in everything and find ways to make rich memories (good and bad), our no-boundaries philosophy will take on new meaning, have the potential to tap ever-richer seams of creativity and we will be booking a lot more tickets to Berlin.

That past year was challenging for us all in our own ways and for the reasons we already know – we lived through it, but seldom have I personally been so excited about the future given the foundations we have laid the past few years.