Building a better tomorrow

Toshiko Mori, founder and principal of Toshiko Mori Architect looks forward to the future of cities the world over

Toshiko Mori is one of the world’s most respected architects. Her firm, Toshiko Mori Architect, was founded in New York City in 1981 and is known for blending new and traditional materials. The firm’s projects include redeveloping the Brooklyn Public Library and creating the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the Hudson Park and Boulevard. Mori, who is also professor of architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, thinks that for a city to be successful it needs to evolve: here she explains why now is the time to rethink our urban environments.

Cities will survive…

“I don’t think the Covid-19 crisis will be the end of cities. I live in New York and what we saw at the start of the pandemic was those that could afford it were moving out of the city – renting houses out in the countryside – but now everybody is coming back. People like cities because you can walk everywhere, they like the museums which have reopened and with social distancing are less crowded. The food business is booming with deliveries. Cities are desirable places to be, I’m still a firm believer in urban communities.”

“Cities are desirable places to be, I’m still a firm believer in urban communities”

…but they need to change

“The city of tomorrow has to be walkable. Because of Covid-19 people are a bit scared of public transportation, but it goes beyond the pandemic – the environmental impact of private cars, especially, but also public transport needs to be considered. The idea of living in a place where you can walk everywhere has become very, very attractive. So, I think cities will reconvene as a series of communities where you can live, work, go to school, shop all within walking distance. It’s like going back to a sort of village living, but in a city. I love that. Tokyo already has these decentralized areas – Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, each of them is unique. This diversity is important, and it gives the city incredible strength. Tokyo is already a walkable city, but people don’t realize it. A lot of commuters could actually walk from one place to the other in about the same time as it takes on the metro, and Tokyo’s street life is so rich. You have mini cafes, cute little shops, great bars and restaurants all existing as a sort of connective tissue.”

The future’s green

“If remote working becomes more common, then cities will need to adapt to combat issues of isolation and being cooped up in one place. Everybody needs a place to go that’s not work. So I think we will see more parks, more greenery and more public spaces in cities. The pandemic has also forced people to embrace the outdoors as it is safer. In New York we have sidewalk cafes everywhere, even in November. So this idea of an outdoor life, and how to use excess outdoor space in addition to the greening of a city, is going to really change the landscape of major cities. Cultural facilities in New York are applying for permission to use empty spaces. Empty parking lots are becoming theaters. People are unleashing unused resources in cities in really exciting ways.”

Retail won’t die

“The move to online shopping was happening already before Covid-19 appeared, the pandemic just accelerated that trend. I think retail will continue in cities, but they will be more showrooms than shops. So that wall of stores will change from a place of commerce and direct purchase of goods, to a place of display, of experience. When we’re asked to design shops, the focus is always on display rather than worrying about where you keep stock or the mechanics of actually selling. So I don’t think retail is going to die, but it’s going to be very different. There’s also an opportunity for pop-up shops, which are faster paced. I have a client who owns real estate spaces in SoHo, and their business is now focused on pop-ups. It’s better for them to lease spaces for short amounts of time than it is to have a shop take a long lease. It’s more profitable for the real estate company, more exciting for the people of the city and a great exposure opportunity for a young business that wants to try something new. It’s a really exciting time for young entrepreneurs: instead of having to have a 10-year lease, they can get a premium location for one week and get their brand going.”

Look to the water

“If I was given the keys to Tokyo, the first thing I would do is develop the waterfront, it’s one of the city’s biggest hidden assets. Every other city in the world which has a waterfront takes advantage of it, but Tokyo turns its back on the water and it’s really unfortunate. Not many people even know Tokyo is right on the sea. If you open up the waterfront, you’ll again encourage walking and also boats as a fast and convenient way to alleviate subway congestion.”

“If I was given the keys to Tokyo, the first thing I would do is develop the waterfront”

Cities can save the planet

“Cities, because of their density, represent the best hope of reducing the world’s carbon footprint. The collective is powerful and one simple act of saving water or electricity, when multiplied by millions of people, makes a difference. It was a lesson Tokyo had to learn after the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, because the energy plant that was

damaged supplied electricity to Tokyo – if people kept using electricity as before, the city would have suffered blackouts. As much as 40 percent of a city’s energy usage is actually lighting and Tokyo gave companies and individuals four months to drastically reduce this. They did it gradually from a level of governance and with that simple behavior change they were able to save something like 30 percent of Tokyo’s total energy use. It just became a social habit. Tokyo has a really strong community awareness, people seem to just align themselves with a bigger agenda. Tokyo is already leading the way in energy reduction and can be an example to other cities.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Ralph Gibson Hitoshi Abe