Castle town works to freeze image

Decentralization law helps Kanazawa check development

by

Kyodo

Kanazawa is an old city that developed around a feudal castle and boasts countless cultural assets.

As such, it has been taking great pains to preserve historic streets and harmonize them with modern city planning.

Especially well-known is Nishi Chaya-gai (West Teahouse Street) near the Sai River, which keeps the traditional Edo Period (1600-1868) culture alive to this day.

Eateries line a 100-meter cobblestone street, some housed inside structures built more than 150 years ago with unique latticed bay windows peculiar to tea houses of old.

“There was a time when there used to be tea houses all around the neighborhood, and Nishi Chaya-gai was more lively than Higashi (east) Chaya-gai,” reminisced Kunio Futakuchi, chairman of the Nishi Chaya-gai district association.

Kanazawa, with a population of about 460,000 and the hub of the Hokuriku economic zone, has been focusing on harmonizing the structures worth preserving with urban development. “We decide on what should remain and what should be developed,” Mayor Tamotsu Yamade said, adding the city carries out its goals through ordinances.

The city planning section lists 18 ordinances related to construction. They originate from the traditional environment preservation ordinance, which was enacted in 1968 and was the first of its kind in Japan. It served to prompt the central government to create a nationwide system to preserve traditional structures.

In the 1990s, the number of ordinances issued by local governments sharply increased, reflecting trends toward decentralization.

In 2000, when a law encouraging “packaged” decentralization took effect, the Kanazawa Municipal Government enacted two ordinances — one enabling citizens to take part in city planning and the other to regulate land use.

Under the ordinances, citizens work out rules to preserve streets and conclude agreements with the municipal government, and the city provides them with subsidies, shifting the initiative to launch planning from administrators to a joint activity with citizens.

There are currently agreements in 15 areas. The Nishi Chaya-gai area became the first to conclude such an agreement, in 2001.

Futakuchi recalled a bitter experience during the asset-inflated bubble economy years, when he was unable to stop the construction of a six-story condominium high rise on the site of a restaurant that had been sold due to financial problems.

“I negotiated with the municipal government in vain. I wish administrators had dealt with the matter much earlier,” he said. The conclusion of the agreement with the city represents the determination of citizens to stop Nishi Chaya-gai from falling into decline.

This year, the city enacted a new ordinance to regulate advertising signs along national highways, while another ordinance to regulate neon signs at night is under study.

Under the decentralization law, jurisdiction over city planning has largely been transferred to cities, towns and villages, and the Kanazawa Municipal Government is trying to make full use of this authority.

But Mayor Yamade said the ordinances need the support of national laws to truly be effective. “Even if we have an agreement with local citizens on how to develop a particular area, we cannot prevent a condominium complex from being built if it meets the Building Standard Law.”