Nissan Seminar: Commoning the City: The Townscape Councils of Kyoto

Co-Convenors: Juliana Buriticá Alzate, Jenny Guest, Hugh Whittaker

Speaker(s): Professor Christoph Brumann, (Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology, Halle, Germany)

Commoning the City: The Townscape Councils of Kyoto


The burgeoning social scientific debate about urban commons rarely focuses on the visual aspects of public space, the most elementary shared good in cities. In the former Japanese capital of Kyoto, however, the townscape has been intensely debated over the last decades. Reacting to widespread discontent with the previous laissez-faire policy, the city now boasts one of the strictest building codes of the nation. For the details of implementation, however, volunteer bodies of concerned citizens are relied on: developers have to discuss construction plans with these 'local townscape councils' before starting their projects. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in 2019/20, the presentation will review a number of cases and analyse the reasons for their diverse outcomes. The significant number of successes relate to the townscape councils being less lay and local, the developers being more local and the state being less absent than they are often imagined. Together, the involved actors sustain an informal grey zone that appears to be productive for the upkeep of an urban commons.

Professor Christoph Brumann is Head of a Research Group at the Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology, Halle, and Honorary Professor of Anthropology at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. He obtained his doctoral and habilitation degrees from the University of Cologne and previously taught there and at the universities of Düsseldorf and Tübingen. His research topics include urban anthropology, cultural heritage, international organisations, the anthropological concept of culture, the anthropology of Buddhism, and utopian communes. He is the author of Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape of Kyoto: Claiming a Right to the Past (2012) and The Best We Share: Nation, Culture and World-Making in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (2021). He also co-edited Making Japanese Heritage (2010), Urban Spaces in Japan: Cultural and Social Perspectives (2012), World Heritage on the Ground: Ethnographic Perspectives (2016) and Monks, Money and Morality: The Balancing Act of Contemporary Buddhism (2021).