A recent trip to Tokyo illustrates something about the old question; is it ‘people’ or ‘place’ that matters?

Tokyo has poor cycle infrastructure

There are very few bike lanes in Tokyo. Cyclists often share the pavement with pedestrians which is frustrating for both groups.

However, far more people cycle than in Washington DC or London, which have both invested heavily in things like bike lanes and cycle hire schemes.

In fact, about 14% of journeys in Tokyo are by bike, compared with only 4% ish of people in DC that commute on bikes.

Tokyo allows some public smoking


Tokyo has fewer restrictions on where you can smoke than many other rich cities.

There are designated public smoking areas and many restaurants have smoking areas.

More people smoke in Japan than in other rich countries, but not that much more. Roughly one in four Japanese people smoke, whereas one in five Americans smoke.

Homeless people in Tokyo are highly visible


Some homeless people in Tokyo live in prominent blue tents made of tarpaulin in Ueno park.

There is something much more permanent about these tents than I have seen in Washington DC. They reminded me of the old cardboard city in London.

There are up to 5,000 homeless people in Tokyo. This is considerably fewer than in Washington DC, a much smaller city.

It’s not so much ‘place’ that matters as ‘social’

A recent report by the Work Foundation takes as it’s title the old question, “People or Place?”, asking, in essence, where should we focus our attention, on improving places or helping people (through whatever means)?

These three examples from Tokyo show how places can acquire social meaning for people. Different people will have different feelings towards the same place. Some might feel like they belong, while others feel that they are trapped and others in turn feel like they are just passing through and so on.

The social meaning that places have is bound up with people’s relationship with other people and with more abstract groups such as ‘the public’ or ‘my neighbours’. As Zachary Neal says, cities are social networks as much as geographic or administrative areas.

Rather than solely looking at how we can get a certain company to locate in an area by giving it tax breaks or asking how we reduce unemployment through training schemes for everyone out of work, we should also try and understand the different social meanings of places and use this as a basis for policy.

This could mean a number of things, from Renaisi’s work on ‘Tech City‘, to Porter’s ideas on ‘Business Clusters‘ or the ‘going with the grain‘ approach that John Houghton has talked about.

Either way, talking about ‘people’ or ‘place’ can be unhelpful if it blinds us to the importance of social interaction, norms and values.