Sustainable Infrastructure

The case of the Kyoto canal, or, building cities that can last a thousand years

Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan, spring 1608. A merchant by the name of Suminokura Ryōi is given the contract to supply building materials for the renovation of Hōkō-ji, a temple in central Kyoto designed to rival the famous temples of nearby Nara. The Suminokura family had made a name for themselves in finance, medicine and overseas trade, with offices as far away as distant Annan (the Japanese name of the country today called Vietnam).

Suminokura1 soon realized that transporting goods into Kyoto was a difficult and expensive business. The Kamo river which runs through Kyoto was too irregular for transports, so goods arriving by boat mostly had to be unloaded at Fushimi, a town about ten kilometers south of Kyoto, repacked to ponies and transported on roads through the southern neighborhoods of Kyoto before spreading out to their final destinations. The daily comings and goings of men and animals, more or less non-stop, wasn’t popular with the locals either.

There was an opportunity here. In 1610, the Suminokura family got permission from the government, and using their own money they contracted teams of workers to dig out a canal parallel to the river, connecting the port of Fushimi with central Kyoto, to be lined with stone from local quarries. It was built for a continuous water depth of a mere thirty centimeters, about twice the minimum needed for the boats they wanted to use.

At this time, land transport was not very efficient. At walking speed, it was expected that a man could carry 60kg, a pony could carry 120kg and a small simple cart pulled by either man or pony, could take 180kg. The new canal meant that the same muscle power (either pony or man or both) could pull a boat carrying a maximum load of 2700kg at walking speed. This represents an increase in weight efficiency of about twenty-two point five times over that of a pony. And since no feed was needed it meant that no valuable agricultural land had to be set aside (the “ecological footprint” of the canal was far smaller than a pony based system).

The canal flowed in all weathers all hours of the day and night with no more noise than the soft trampling of the boat operator on the towpaths next to the canal.

When the 9.7km long and 7 meters wide2 canal was completed in 1614—construction took about three years—it changed the face of the city. Spared of the noise and traffic, and with a larger volume of goods coming in both faster and cheaper, the population density increased. Wholesale merchants and artisans could conveniently concentrate their businesses to spots along the canal, building warehouses together so that in time entire neighborhoods would be named “Lumber Town” or “Wood Town” or “Barn Town” and so on (names that still survive to this day even though the merchants are long gone). Building materials could be brought into the city in large quantities: a couple of boats could take all the material you needed to put up a house or a shop.

The boats used on the canal were simple flat bottomed craft called “takasebune”, in construction they used an absolute minimum of wood, and could carry two point seven tons of goods at water depths of just under fifteen centimeters. At typically thirteen meters long and two meters wide, they weren’t pretty: imagine a rectangular floating box with a sort of raised beak, but they were durable, strong and inexpensive to build by even apprentice carpenters. In 1710 the canal would use 188 of these boats, all of which would use one of nine dedicated quays to moor, unload cargo and turn around for the return journey, each quay holding a maximum of three boats at the same time. There were about 700 people employed on the canal.

A drawing of one of the nine docks and towpaths, willow trees, storehouses, bales of rice (each weighing 60kg) etc. From the book 京都千二百年〈下〉世界の歴史都市へ by 西川 幸治 and 高橋 徹. Illustrations by 穂積 和夫

Locals benefited from the less busy return trip as well. It was a cheap and efficient method to reach Osaka (the commercial center of Japan where far larger ocean going vessels traded). It even became a famous spot for sightseeing: the willows, the cherry blossom trees, the beautiful gardens along the canal, the stately mansions and interesting tall white and black warehouses attracted both rich and poor. A lively entertainment district also sprung up to cater to both refined merchants and the rougher canal workers. At night the boats were famously used to transport criminals condemned to exile, downstream to Osaka. A police-guard, a crewman, the condemned man, and as a final act of mercy, a relative or friend of the condemned: the last the condemned would see of the world they had to leave behind.3

The canal, now named Takasegawa after the type of boats (the Takasebune) that plied it, even had a simple low tech method of controlling the water level: small square stones were placed at the downstream end of the canal, each with a cut slot where a long wooden plank could be placed. A simple hand operated weir that in a matter of minutes could raise the water level of the entire canal. A very useful trick for when boats had to carry heavier cargo than usual and needed a little deeper water.

For over three hundred years the canal was in daily use and benefited the people of Kyoto, until transport on the canal was finally banned in 1920. During its three centuries it needed virtually no maintenance, it relied on no engines or fuel, no mining, no metals, no chemicals. There was no pollution, the boats could be hand built by any carpenter from most any kind of wood. The canal never broke down or got stuck. It did not cause any emissions or erosion, it saved millions of man hours otherwise spent on maintaining roads and road surfaces. There were no accidents: at walking speed and thirty centimeter depth it was safe enough to have children playing in the middle of it with boats coming and going. It could transport anything right into the heart of the city without noise or smell or toxic fumes and the operating costs were negligible. It helped cool the city down during hot summers. It was even a popular sightseeing spot. People would mention it in poetry. It brought with it neither pests nor weeds.4

It was a perfect piece of infrastructure without unforeseen problems or accumulating debt—paid in full from day one—or waste. Completely human scaled and operating on nothing but gravity or human muscle power.

A miracle in stone and water

To me this sounds a little bit like magic when I look out my window and hear and smell the trucks and vans coming and going at all hours, all powered by non-renewable fuel (or from electricity generated in absolutely non-renewable ways). Never have I felt inclined to dip quill in ink and compose lyrical poetry about the charm of the super market truck. The toxic oil wells—rapidly depleting—are far away, and the forever wars fought to secure the gas and oil our modern economy runs on, bothers me. The monthly news reports of tankers breaking up, fouling oceans and beaches, causing irreparable damage to the planet, also bothers me.

(Photo by Flickr user nobu3withfoxy) Takasegawa in 2015. The city has almost grown over it and the streets flanking it are as wide or wider than the canal itself. It is almost a century since it was last used to transport the daily goods of the people of Kyoto and most of the nine original docks have long since been filled in, but when the day comes we will surely be able to revive it.

Long term infrastructure

A network of trucks and roads, oil tankers, and the regular application of gun boat diplomacy is probably a system many dozens of times more efficient—if your only metric is the ability to deliver toilet rolls and pallets of cereals to supermarkets—than a system of shallow bottomed canal boats. As long as everything keeps going for the foreseeable future at least some of us should be fine.

But it isn’t sustainable, at all.

And if it is one thing we know, it is that what cannot last, will fall. Maybe not in our generation. But in our children’s, or our grandchildren’s. Why would we wish that kind of catastrophe upon them, just so that we right here right now will be able to—for example—order a tomato salad in the middle of the winter at a fancy downtown lunch restaurant? Do we really need breakfast cereals that badly?

Like the stone lined canals in Kyoto, the terraced rice fields of Java allowing for millennia of continuous rice growing, the sandstone aqueducts of Italy still able to transport water after two millennia, the ancient Greek amphitheater still in use for plays and concerts, the cobblestone streets of Copenhagen that haven’t been resurfaced in five hundred years, we need to go back to thinking about our infrastructure not in terms of five year plans and technical efficiency, but in long term sustainability. If a bridge cannot be built that will last a thousand years, why build it? Why not build one that will last, even if it will be a less efficient or more expensive in the short run?

At the very least, if we can’t build infrastructure to last we should build infrastructure that can be repaired using materials, energy and skills that are likely to be around when it inevitably fails, at some point in the future. Serious people are seriously doubting whether we will have the oil and energy necessary to maintain existing roads in the coming two decades (let alone expand them to match the never ending growth of our urban sprawl).

We will never run out of cobblestone.

On a more personal level, what about the gadget that controls the ventilation in your modern eco-home, will it be around in twenty years? Or will the lack of spares make your home uninhabitable? Our ancestors at least were never lying awake at night worrying about running out of windows that open. The suburbs and the systems that keep them habitable—the increasingly over worked power, water and sewage grids, all taken together it is nothing but a nation sized ticking time bomb.5

At the extreme end of this argument is the nuclear power plant: the waste it generates, and the extreme long term planning needed to safely store it, is many times longer than the longest running human endeavor ever undertaken.6 How do we build a storage chamber that lasts at the very least thirty thousand years (but really three hundred thousand years would be a more helpful target)? How do we communicate with our descendants that far in the future?7

The benefits of the long term perspective, in the short term

The benefits of long term planning and building things that last is that they tend to be practical for many things. We can’t really say if the handsome brick fire station downtown will still be a fire station in a hundred years, but we can be fairly sure it will be useful, so building it to last a thousand years is a good thing no matter how you argue about it, and in the meantime it will cheer us up just walking past it: bricks age gracefully. Maybe we won’t ship coal in barges on the canals of Holland, but they sure will be useful for shipping something, and they will never stop charming us.

A canal in Amsterdam, once used to transport goods and merchandize from the far reaches of the world, now a place for charming and highly valued houseboats, no to mention the value it adds to local property.

What cannot last, will fall, and when that happens it will be too late to regret all the things we did not build, while we had the chance. While the lights were still on and the oil tankers where still arriving on schedule.

(Photo by Flickr user Ken Yamaguchi) Takasegawa in 2011. The buildings are new, a car bridge has been built, the cafe is doing a brisk trade, the trees are taller, but the canal remains exactly the same.

Thank you for reading. With this post I wanted to say that there are a lot of things we can do to make our cities and countries more sustainable, and many of them will make living in cities better: cleaner, safer, more beautiful. By focusing on people rather than machines, we will be able to once again take charge of our own immediate reality, unlike now, where we are passive consumers of a global system that we have no way of influencing. I would like to thank the kind people who volunteered to read this before it was ready to publish. Hopefully there will be an audio version as well soon.

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Even the surname is an archetypical merchant surname: it literally means “corner warehouse”. If it helps you can mentally exchange Mr. Suminokura for Mr. Cornerstore every time you come across it in this text.

Suminokura Ryōi (1554-1614). A wooden statue. He is holding a pickaxe, because not only did he build the Takasegawa canal, but he also improved sections of three other river routes to make them suitable for transporting.

Roughly six miles long and twenty three feet wide.


This scene, of a condemned man brought to exile is the setting of a famous short story by Lieutenant-General, army surgeon, museum chief and author Mori Ōgai (pictured below, 1862-1922), called Takasebune, it was published in 1916.


There were/are no mosquitoes (they don’t breed in flowing water).


The American author James Howard Kunstler famously calls suburban sprawl “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known”.


Three relevant random examples of incredibly long lived human institutions (there are more but these are just from the top of my head):

Japan: Ise Shrine Rebuilding Ritual: every twenty years since 4 B.C.

Europe: the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, founded in 301 A.D.

North Africa: University of Karueein, founded in 859 A.D. in Fez, Morocco.