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Learning from Kyoto’s machiya

Japan has a building typology known as machiya. They are found throughout Japan, but my understanding is that they are most closely associated with downtown Kyoto. The typical machiya consists of a long wooden home with a narrow street frontage, and at least one interior courtyard garden.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of these townhouses is that, for the centuries that they have existed, they have always been mixed-used. The front of the building traditionally served as a kind of “shop space”, and the private residential spaces were tucked behind it (though this line between public and private was fairly fluid).

And so for hundreds of years, the humble machiya became a flexible building typology that allowed shops, restaurants, and various other small businesses to flourish. This has changed over the years. People went off to work in offices and Western ideals around housing started to infiltrate Japan, among other reasons. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t important lessons to be learned from Kyoto’s machiya.

Here in Toronto, we remain deeply terrified of things like triplexes creeping into our single-family neighborhoods and we remain reticent to allow non-residential uses outside of their designated areas. Old habits die hard.

But take a walk, cycle, or drive across one of our non-Avenue-designated arterial roads (which I did yesterday), and it’s hard not to imagine something much better. My mind immediately goes to an improved streetscape with (1) less on-street parking, (2) a lot more homes (as-of-right), and (3) flexible ground floor permissions that allow for crazy things like a “shop space”.

And then, what kind of city might we have if we had fewer barriers in the way of infill housing and if we allowed for low-cost spaces that could flex up and down based on the needs of small entrepreneurs? I’m pretty sure it would be a better one. And of course, it’s been done before.

Photo by Akira Deng on Unsplash

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