The Informal City – Haphazard development of Motomachi

One of the characteristics of urbanisation in Japanese cities is her highly hybrid land uses, and her intense haphazard urban development. Zoning was first adopted in 1919 by Meji government to restrict haphazard urban development and thus give order to the urban form, before such method became popular in the United States in the 1920s. However, mixed land use remains a prevalent phenomenon in Japanese cities nowadays. Although land is zoned for commercial, residential, industrial and institutional uses by the government, an array of programs are allowed to occur in the same piece of land, and organic, spontaneous urban change initiated by the local is often permitted (Shen, 2000). For instance, shophouse is a popular typology in residential neighbourhood in Hiroshima, where the ground floor is often semi-opened and used for retail or restaurant, while the owners and their families live on upper floors. Not only is Peace Boulevard a major road with busy traffic, but it is also the largest public space where local festivals (such as the Flower Festival) are taken place.

Evolution of land use

“High population densities and the intensive mixture of differing land uses in central city neighbourhoods, combined with stable, tight-knot urban communities to form vital, lively city areas that exemplify Jane Jacobs (1961) concept of healthy city life.” (Sorensen, 2002)

The famous American critic often has her “eyes on the street” (Jacobs, 2002), as she is impressed by the city’s vital and organic urbanism, which can be found in Japanese cities today as it did in Greenwich Village in Manhattan 40 years ago. In major cities of Japan, including Hiroshima, it is common to encounter a tranquil residential community with a variety of small shops in narrow streets just a few step away from the busy main roads. Vehicles are effectively restricted on extremely narrow roads, forming a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood. The charm of these neighbourhoods lies in the human scale of these streets, their efficient use of space, potted plants on the curb in front of every houses, together they create the unique urbanism of Japanese cities.

Despite Japanese are famous for their self-discipline, etiquette and order, the city centre of Hiroshima had developed as a haphazard sprawl in the post-war period, as a result of housing shortage, lack of urban planning and inadequate infrastructure provision. Clusters of tiny houses mix with large and small factories, retail warehouses, noisy scrap metal recyclers, all densely packed with Motomachi (the Central Town). Black markets emerged in front of Hiroshima Station in Motomachi immediately after the war – an area of illegal housing clusters. In 1949, a massive fire burnt down about 100 houses  and 500 shops, which triggered the gorvernment to carry out a redevelopment plan of Motomachi. By 1960, 900 makeshift shacks were built along Aioi Street and continued to stretch along he riverside, which wad referred to the “A-bomb Slum). In 1954, construction plans for bus terminal, baseball stadium and 53-storey municipal housing buildings in Motomachi were finalised. 2,600 shacks were removed and replaced by high-rise housing buildings that can accommodate 2805 families.  (“Hiroshima for Global Peace” Plan Joint Project Executive Committee, 2015). Today, these high-rise housing buildings remain evocative in Hiroshima’s reconstruction history.

A fire broke out in the illegal houses at the riverside
Illegal structures in Motomachi
Map of illegal housing in Motomachi



Jacobs, Jane. (2002). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House.

“Hiroshima for Global Peace” Plan Joint Project Executive Committee. (2015). Hiroshima’s Path to Reconstruction.

Shen, Zhenjiang & Ishimaru, Norioki. (2000). Planning influence factors of land use after land readjustment project in Danbury area redevelopment project, Hiroshima city. 日本建築學會計劃系論文集. Vol 536. p 191-198.

Sorensen, Andre. (2002). The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty First Century. Routledge.

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