Learning From Tokyo
How do other cities solve their urban problems? Each year SPUR takes a study trip to find out.
By Gabriel MetcalfOctober 30, 2018
Going to Tokyo for the first time made me feel like the country mouse visiting the city. To be one among thousands of people crossing the street and walking into the Shibuya train station, to eat yakitori at a seven-seat restaurant tucked underneath a train trestle, to follow the neon-lit streets at night just to see where they go. Tokyo has produced a kind of urbanism that is radically different from anything I have experienced. It has what is perhaps the world’s best-utilized transit system — the large majority of trips are taken by transit — mostly provided by private, for-profit operators. It is super dense and super livable, but somehow remains one of the most affordable major world cities. It is a city of erasure, seemingly without strong attachment to its built heritage, that nevertheless generates a walkable, traditional urban form.
That Tokyo feels so different makes it easy for Americans to disregard it as a source of ideas for our own urban areas. But while there are indeed great cultural and historical differences, I think it’s best to find good ideas wherever they come from. There is actually a lot that the cities of the Bay Area can learn from the most populous metropolitan region on earth.
Let’s start with the experience of walking Tokyo’s streets. Its main thoroughfares are lined with tall buildings, coming right up to the street. Many buildings are quite narrow, like the nine-story Uniqlo clothing store in the Ginza shopping district. The shapes of the buildings—so tall on such a small floorplate—are unlike anything we have in the United States. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s inside them just by looking. Offices? Homes? Retail? Head up a nondescript elevator in a nondescript building, and you might discover eight floors of candlelit bars.
Behind the main streets are some surprisingly intimate interior neighborhoods. Streets become narrower. Residences mix in easily with shops and restaurants. In some places, cars come occasionally and the people make way; in others, the streets are entirely given over to people on foot. To this urbanite, the absence of traffic noise is shocking. The bargain seems to be: live without a car, live in high densities, and you will be in a pedestrian paradise.
In and around the major train stations, things feel very different. This is the Tokyo of film, a city of enormous towers, some restrained and austere, many bathed in a cacophony of lighted signs. The architecture resembles that of new buildings all over the world, only more so. The contrast with the small-parcel fabric of the older city is extreme. But as with so much of Japanese urbanism, function leads. The station areas serve as major job and retail hubs, generating the funding that helps pay for Tokyo’s public transit system (see page 9) and concentrating people in easy walking distance (or right on top) of the transit.
Many Tokyo neighborhoods exhibit an eclectic variety in height and building materials. Architectural styles are jumbled. Shops, restaurants and apartments are stacked on top of one another within a single building, and three-story buildings exist alongside others with eight or ten stories. Eye-catching details appear everywhere, from the shimmering façades of Omotesando’s high-end boutiques to ubiquitous displays of shokuhin sample (fake food) in restaurant windows. Even the city’s manhole covers are cute.
To some, the Tokyo skyline and urban fabric are ugly: the towers too tall, the styles haphazard and confusing. And yet it works: Smaller neighborhoods have interesting texture and incorporate every use imaginable. The taller buildings on major streets and especially at the train stations protect the smaller, more intimate fabric behind them. It is one of the most livable, well-functioning cities I’ve experienced.
Growing Toward Affordability
We might expect one of the largest cities in the world to share London’s, New York’s and the Bay Area’s stratospheric housing costs, but surprisingly, Tokyo’s housing prices are far below those of its peer cities.1
A number of things make this possible. Unit sizes are smaller in Japan (although increasing) and much public life is lived outside.
But this is not the only explanation. The per-square-foot rent is far less than that of San Francisco or New York. The combination of lower per-square-foot costs coupled with small units means that Tokyo has not experienced a housing crisis with the severity that we do in the Bay Area.
Average Monthly Rent in Global Cities
Japan is famous for treating housing as a temporary asset. Home values actually decline over time in Japan, and it has been common for single-family homes or even small apartment buildings to be torn down when an owner moves out. My impression from speaking to people in Tokyo is that this is changing, and that today it is more common for new owners to simply remodel older units.
The construction industry in Japan works somewhat differently than the one in the U.S. For one, the Japanese have eagerly embraced prefabrication: About a quarter of new homes are prefabricated. In contrast, only about 2 percent of single-family homes in the U.S. are. Several Japanese companies regularly produce more than 10,000 new prefab homes every year, including Toyota, which sold 5,000 homes in 2006, all built in under 45 days and guaranteed for 60 years. The stigma so often associated with prefab here in the States is not an issue in Japan.
It’s clear that one of the biggest reasons for Tokyo’s relative affordability is quite simply its ability to build an astonishing amount of housing. Tokyo has built about 155,000 new homes each year between 1995 and 2015,2 compared to 21,000 per year in the Bay Area during the same time period.3 Subtracting the loss of demolished units (estimated at one unit lost for every four built), Tokyo’s net housing stock nearly tripled in size from 1963 to 2013, from 2.51 million homes to 7.36 million.4 The pace and scale of this construction means that Tokyo’s housing stock is growing by about 2 percent a year.5
Tokyo has achieved this remarkable growth by building densely, rather than sprawling. From 2006 to 2011, as Tokyo’s housing stock grew 9.2 percent, its land devoted to housing grew by just 1.5 percent.6 Today, the city averages about 220 dwellings per acre of residential land.
Of course, this scale of growth would be un-imaginable without a sophisticated transportation system, and Tokyo delivers. Its metropolitan rail system is spread out over 200 stations and is estimated to serve up to 40 million passengers daily.7 Could we replicate this in the Bay Area? No, not in any direct way. But as we do the work to build out our own regional transit system, we have a lot to learn from cities like Tokyo that have figured it out so well.
Environmentalists and planners have long ridiculed Houston as an example of what you get if you don’t limit development: a city without zoning that sprawls out forever. The Houston model yields inexpensive housing but at the cost of environmental degradation and brutal commutes. Tokyo provides another model: a land use system that effectively does not limit the overall supply of development, allowing the housing supply to increase commensurate with demand, but channeling that development into a compact, walkable form.
A Different Sort of Connection to History
We may be able to find clues to the distinctive form of Tokyo’s urbanism by looking to its past. Tokyo was destroyed — and entirely rebuilt — twice in the 20th century. The Kanto earthquake in 1923 struck in the middle of lunchtime. Measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, it leveled the city in about 14 seconds. Between the destruction of buildings and infrastructure and the ensuing tsunami and fires, 130,000 people died in Tokyo, and 60 percent of the population became homeless.
Twenty years later, the destruction happened again. At the close of World War II and over the course of one night in March 1945, the United States Air Force dropped an estimated 1,665 tons of bombs on Tokyo. It’s believed that close to 100,000 people died during the raid, and more than 1 million became homeless overnight. All told, the city lost three-quarters of its building stock, an estimated 15.8 square miles burned out and destroyed. Tokyo rebuilt again, and today, its oldest buildings aren’t more than 70 years old.
Tokyo is a city that is constantly changing. Ancient shrines are routinely torn down and replaced on the same site. A few years ago, Tokyo made headlines for demolishing the Hotel Okura — a symbol of Japanese modernist architecture designed by Yoshiro Taniguchi — in order to build a new one.
The country’s attitude toward preservation of historic buildings is very different from our own. Perhaps more than anywhere in the U.S., the Bay Area tries to protect its building stock from change.
Tokyo Dwelling Stock
While so many of the world’s older cities with fast-growing economies have seen large high-rise neighborhoods grow up around their downtowns and their suburban train stations, generating skylines that are remarkably different from the way the cities looked a generation ago, the Bay Area has decided to keep things looking the same—even at the cost of terrible social dislocation, as the supply-demand dynamics have displaced lower-income people across the region. The Bay Area has, in essence, said that protecting buildings is more important than protecting people. The contrast with Tokyo could not be more stark.
Annualized Rate of Housing Stock Growth in Four World Cities Since 1970
As someone who actually believes in historic preservation, who loves the layering of buildings from different eras, I find the Tokyo approach to the built environment challenging. I take solace in the hope that it does not have to be all or nothing — that we can preserve many buildings from the past, just not all of them, while accommodating as much growth as we need to in order to make our region affordable. To visit a place that has made different choices—that has almost completely prioritized making places for new people over protecting the heritage of the past — is a fascinating trip into an alternate evolutionary pathway.
I have come to think of Tokyo’s form of urbanism not as a collection of apartments, offices, parks, streets, and train lines but as a process that takes place in a location we call Tokyo — a metabolism that generates buildings, public spaces and neighborhoods, then links them together in an evolving network of transit lines: the city as a living, changing organism. The unspoken assumption is that everything that exists today will eventually be replaced by something else.
Against this backdrop, the threats of earthquakes, tsunamis and sea level rise feel less existential because the essence of Tokyo is not defined by any specific physical artifacts that comprise the city of today. If buildings fall down in an earthquake, new ones will be built. If a part of the city is flooded by sea level rise, the land will be raised up. Everything that exists today will eventually give way to something new.
Tokyo was twice destroyed—and rebuilt. and produced enough housing to address both conditions. It created a massive transit system. And as one of the world’s oldest cultures, it has achieved all this with a kind of urbanism that embraces change and renewal. Everything old is new again. And again.
1 Next City’s analysis of average monthly apartment rent through 2013 showed that prices fell about $200 in the previous decade. More recent data, however, shows an increase in rents. nextcity.org/daily/entry/japan-shows-the-way-to-affordable-megacities
2 According to the Tokyo Statistical Yearbook, available at www.toukei.metro.tokyo.jp/tnenkan/tn-eindex.htm
3 MTC Vital Signs for new housing permits. Available at www.vitalsigns.mtc.ca.gov/housing-growth
4 See James Gleeson’s analysis of Japan housing and land survey data: jamesjgleeson.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/how-tokyo-built-its-way-to-abundant-housing/
7 Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.