Yurikamome New Transit line runs through Shiodome in Tokyo.

Actors call it charisma and scientists talk about the sense of wonder. There are fundamental competencies for every profession. City planning requires vision.

Vision is the capacity to address many aspects of urban design while building a nice, safe, green, and entertraining city. Although modern cities tend to have the same problems and they usually have similar ways to address them, there isn’t a single model of vision. This article brings two, however. Both types of vision were discussed during interviews I made to urbanism experts on a recent trip to Japan and US West Coast.

First, the compass-vision type, which guides a specific community and it’s beneficial for everybody. This one was presented by Professor Akito Murayama from the University of Tokyo. Second model was far. 5151 miles away. Tom Radulovich, Executive Director at San Francisco’s nonprofit Livable City, introduced the American figure of the visionary leader: an enlightened person who comes up with ideas to design the perfect city for everyone.

What is Vision?

It’s easier to start explaining what vision isn’t. Vision isn’t a point of departure; on the contrary, it’s a destination. “I use the word ‘vision’ as a kind of direction for the society towards the future,” explained Professor Akito Murayama.

It’s urban planners task to effectively intervene when they consider a development is heading in an undesirable direction. “One of the major characteristics of Japanese urban planning is that we’ve lacked vision. You see in these maps?” Murayama asked as he pointed at a bunch of framed maps on the floor. “These are from United States. They have the clear image of how to regenerate in the future. They build the physical environment of the city based on these maps and master plans.”

The Visionary Leader

Couple of weeks later I flew to USA, looking for some masterplanning expertise. It didn’t quite go as planned.

“There’s definitely no strategy in San Francisco on the side of government,” said Tom Radulovich sitting in front of me.


I felt confused. Akito Murayama showed me the maps and he spoke very highly of US urbanism. He mentioned San Francisco particularly. What’s wrong? I thought as Radulovich kept on talking: “Governments in the region have a bad record on planning because they are not systems-thinkers.”

I asked Tom why would Japanese have such a different perception. He could explain that. Master plans exist in America but they are not always conceived neither by a group of urbanists, nor by the government. However, observes Radulovich “in US cities sometimes you do get a visionary leader.”

There are no conceptual differences between Murayama’s common vision and Radulovich’s visionary leader. But when discussing urban planning in his country, Tom finds the latter one to be more accurate.

Irrational Planning

Visionary leaders’ strength contrast with government’s weak planning system. Radulovich sees San Francisco’s government doesn’t come up with a set of principles about where housing should go. Radulovich explains there are questions government doesn’t consider before a new development: How to build more affordable housing in a way that doesn’t ruin the things that people love about their neighborhood, that doesn’t displace existing residences or businesses and doesn’t worsen environmental conditions for residents, with additional traffic or pollution?

Unsafe and unattractive streets are some of the most evident consequences of no rational planning, but that’s not all. Housing can be really expensive and transit can become a true nightmare.

Without vision, public transport loses two conditions for success: speed and reliability. Such is the case of San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).

“If you add, for example, a new line that goes out to the suburbs, you need to think about capacity because you might create a crowding problem at an urban station, escalators can be too packed, platforms can be too crowded,” Radulovich said. “These are all problems that can easily be anticipated. But governments in the region have a bad record on planning because they are not systems-thinkers.”

The Common Vision

Akito Murayama mentions key events that determined the history of urban planning in Tokyo. The Kanto earthquake (1923), WWII and the rapid population growth of the 60s made it impossible to imagine the future of Tokyo. We could only focus in particular things. We couldn’t envision the city. Instead, we had to fix the city and make it better this time. It was responsive planning.

Fortunately, things have changed during the last decades in Japan because the pressure from outside is less. “So it’s up to us how to redesign, rebuild and regenerate our cities,” Murayama said. “That’s why we need a vision.”

Who’s we? “In the 60s–the rapid growth age–government or big companies were the major players of urban planning and development,” Murayama explained. “But now, the actors involved in urban planning are also small companies, startups, nonprofit organizations, residents, neighborhood associations: there are many actors.” Therefore, a clear, single message is essential.

Compass unifies and strengthens community bonds. Most importantly, it saves limited resources like money and human workforce. “For example, if we are trying to make the cities compact and there’s a developer who wants to build in the periphery it’s a problem,” Murayama said. Instead, this developer should invest in the center of the city and also get economical benefit. “We need to design a society where every actor can gain something from the same direction,” concluded Murayama.

“Places like Japan is much more consensus driven culture and in the US probably much more individualist,” Radulovich said. However, he mentions an occasion when Seattle citizens took part in decision making successfully. Each neighborhood had to accept a certain amount of housing. They based their decisions on what made more sense to the area and no neighborhood could opt down those obligations to accept new housing.

San Francisco communities also had the chance to solve housing. But things didn’t go well. Unlike Seattle residents, San Franciscans did have the chance to refuse new housing. The result: a very unbalanced and inappropriate housing development.

Which Type of Vision Works Best?

Two interviewees, over 5000 miles apart, coincide: vision is the cornerstone of smart city planning. However, they don’t use the same model of vision: Murayama described the compass type of vision, while Radulovich explained the visionary leader figure.

Which model works best? We may imagine the more people involved in decision making process the better. Professional urbanists get a fuller picture working with residents, everyday users of the city’s infrastructure. Nonetheless, working with the whole community can lead to counterproductive results. It isn’t always easy to resolve competing interests.

There are occasions when job has to be done by government or non-profits. But, there are cases when neither consensus nor government nor non-profits work. Problems either remain unsolved, or a single person designs a master plan. The visionary leader brings enlightened ideas and builds the city that people need.

So, both, visionary leaders and the common vision are equally good and bad. Choosing the accurate one will depend on the context it will be used. Personally, I’d be inclined to think that compass is better. I grew up under a democratic regime and group activities make sense to me. Nonetheless, Janette Sadik-Khan’s Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution made me consider things differently. In her preface, she mentions drawbacks of participatory city planning. “Efforts to reach an idealized consensus have resulted in years of indecision, inaction, and paralysis-by-analysis as leaders attempt to placate the opposition that accompanies any change to streets,” she wrote.

I agree with Sadik-Khan when she says inaction is inexcusable. I guess visionary leaders should test their hypothesis working with cheap materials and then learn what works best for citizens through trial and error.

Jennifer Micó is an Argentine writer and journalist who travels and interviews urbanism experts in the USA, Europe, and Asia. Right now she’s working on a book about comparative urbanism, and she also maintains a blog on Medium.

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Jennifer Micó is an Argentine writer and journalist who travels and interviews urbanism experts in USA, Europe, and Asia. Right now she's working on a book about comparative urbanism.