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Why Tokyo Works
A new book helps explain why Tokyo’s land use and development policies have helped make it an enticing and affordable city
By Emily Hamilton
Tokyo lives in many urbanists’ minds as a series of stereotypes—clean, efficient, neon-lit. A new book, “Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City,” delves beneath these stereotypes, while distilling lessons from Tokyo’s diverse commercial and residential communities and making them accessible to an English-speaking audience.
The book, by architects Jorge Almazán, Joe McReynolds and their colleagues at Keio University’s Studiolab, serves as a field guide for outsiders, providing the historical context and vocabulary for understanding some of Tokyo’s iconic neighborhoods. It includes stunning images, from photographs of neighborhoods to detailed diagrams, that explain how Tokyo’s vernacular architecture serves its residents. The authors apply urban activist Jane Jacobs’ insights about successful city neighborhoods to Tokyo, showing how many of its neighborhood typologies help promote safety, intimacy and an enticing pedestrian environment.
Almazán and McReynolds help make these points by detailing several types of neighborhoods. The yokochō, for instance, are networks of small alleys lined with two-story commercial buildings. They trace their history to shacks that housed the black markets that emerged around Tokyo’s transit stations following World War II. Today, they’re often home to tiny bars which seat perhaps half a dozen and have room for a small group at an upstairs table. Some of the most evocative diagrams in the book provide sample floor plans for yokochō bars. The small—and therefore inexpensive—spaces within yokochō give their proprietors the opportunity to create very niche businesses with themes ranging from the 1950s to horse racing. These bar owners take risks they otherwise would not in a larger bar with a matching lease.
Yokocho offer small, low cost commercial spaces. Image Credit: Douglas Paul Perkins/Widimedia Commons
Yokochō are but one example of relatively low-cost commercial spaces available in Tokyo. Another is the city’s iconic multistory zakkyo buildings covered in neon signs, like those lining the famous Yasukuni Avenue, which house a spectacular variety of businesses. Zakkyo largely started out as office buildings and transformed over time to house everything from mahjong parlors to karaoke boxes. Almazán and McReynolds point out that these buildings offer a density of destinations rarely found in the West because they offer a vertical—not just a horizontal— dimension to walkability, with elevators that open onto the street and take customers directly up to businesses. Zakkyo are on narrow lots that pull pedestrians along the streets that they line. Unlike larger U.S. office buildings, their small lot sizes also facilitate the easy reuse of zakkyo space for different purposes.
Keeping Housing Affordable
Among the U.S. housing community, Tokyo is best known for its residential affordability. This is due in part to the Japanese system of additive zoning, in which policymakers at the national level have established zoning designations, leaving it to local policymakers to determine where each zoning designation will apply. These zoning designations are intended to uniformly limit land uses with the most nuisances, such as heavy industry, to specified zones while permitting uses that cause little pollution and noise, such as housing and live-work buildings. Even in the most restrictive zone, houses with ground-floor shops or restaurants are permitted, and buildings can be as dense as a floor area ratio of one, meaning that buildings can have the same square footage as their lots—a much more liberal zoning designation than the typical U.S. single-family zone.
Under the Japanese approach to zoning, neighborhoods of single-family houses and local businesses reach much higher densities than in North America. Almazán and McReynolds explain that several policies help drive this higher density. For instance, Japan levies a steep tax on inherited land, which incentivizes families to subdivide a property when its owner dies in order to raise money for the tax bill. Residential zoning then permits houses on these subdivided lots to be built close to their lot lines and up to three stories high. The resulting neighborhoods are highly communal, providing streets that offer car access (albeit at a slow and cautious speed) but also a high degree of pedestrian safety.
“Emergent Tokyo” doesn’t overly romanticize Tokyo’s relatively laissez-faire residential neighborhoods. In the case of earthquakes or fires, the authors point out, Tokyo’s single-family neighborhoods can be very hazardous because their exteriors are not built to fire codes, their foundations do not meet modern earthquake codes and their very narrow streets and minimal public open spaces leave scant room for evacuation.
Policymakers in the Tokyo region have attempted to widen streets and improve construction in these neighborhoods, but their policy design has instead exacerbated the problem. The 1950 Building Standards Law was intended to widen neighborhood streets by requiring new construction to have front setbacks of at least two meters—about 6.5 feet—from the center of the street. (The resulting 13-foot street would still be charmingly narrow relative to typical suburban streets in the U.S., which tend to be 29-feet wide or more.) Setbacks in compliance with the law would shrink the allowed footprint for new houses, and, unsurprisingly, “landowners are generally uninterested in living in a smaller house in the name of the public good.” Tokyo homeowners famously prioritize new construction, but many single-family houses are extensively renovated rather than completely rebuilt in order to avoid compliance with the current setback requirements. Renovated houses are also not required to meet current earthquake or fire codes, leaving these neighborhoods at further risk to disaster relative to completely new construction.
While Almazán and McReynolds don’t hesitate to point out problems in the neighborhoods that they describe, it’s refreshing to read about Tokyo in English from authors who clearly love the city. Prior to “Emergent Tokyo,” urban geographer André Sorenson offered the most accessible English-language analysis of Japanese development. Sorenson is highly critical of the “emergent” outcomes in Tokyo and argues that more top-down planning would lead to more stable—and in his framing—better outcomes like those in suburbs of North American and European cities. In his article “Building Suburbs in Japan,” he describes the results of light-touch regulations as “a tragedy of immense proportion.”
Navigating the Tradeoffs
Almazán and McReynolds don’t see tragedy in Tokyo. Instead, they see an “emergent order” in the various types of Tokyo development they admire, where small-scale operators build houses and businesses independently, each contributing to successful, vibrant neighborhoods. While the architecture of any single building may be undistinguished, together these structures house successful communities that work well for their residents while also welcoming visitors.
They contrast these older development patterns with the “corporate urbanism” of new high-rise developments. The latter have proliferated since the enactment in 2002 of Japan’s Law on Special Measures for Urban Renaissance, which aims to encourage redevelopment by permitting private developers to build taller buildings in exchange for providing public plazas and green space. Relative to older Tokyo neighborhoods, Almazán and McReynolds argue that these high-rise developments are less welcoming to nonresidents than older Tokyo neighborhoods, and that they facilitate less mixing between income groups.
Like Jane Jacobs famously did in New York, Almazán and McReynolds cheer on the efforts of those in low-rise residential and yokochō neighborhoods to resist high-rise redevelopment. But successful campaigns to save neighborhoods from development in New York have contributed to the severe housing affordability problems facing many of its residents today. Should Tokyo continue its growth trajectory, it will need to continue increasing its housing stock in order to maintain its admirable level of affordability. Many of Tokyo’s suburbs have reached the maximum density achievable through detached houses, and commutes from the suburbs to the city’s job centers are on average already longer than an hour, so permitting denser residential development offers important quality-of-life advantages for the Tokyo residents who live in new high-rises.
This caution aside, “Emergent Tokyo” is a must-read for city lovers who want to learn more about Tokyo. Many English-language treatments of Japanese urbanism attribute the unique character of Tokyo neighborhoods to what Almazán and McReynolds call “Japaneseness”—vague psychological traits unique to Japanese people. Almazán and McReynolds take a welcome approach of instead evaluating the policies and incentives that Tokyo residents face. They explain urban outcomes as the result of people acting rationally, rather than resorting to unfalsifiable explanations about different ways of life. They open up the beauty of Tokyo’s archetypal development forms to Westerners, hopefully creating new opportunities to apply lessons of Tokyo’s urban design to make the best aspects of its communities possible in the English-speaking world.