Japanese Urban Planning

I want to share with you what is easily one of the best blogs in existence.  Which is inaccurate to say, as it’s more like an urban planning beginner’s textbook published as a blog.  I spent several days reading through posts on Urban kchoze and it has really given me a whole new appreciation for Japanese cities.  When I walk around now, I notice all sorts of things that I hadn’t thought about before.

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To summarize, Japan has the best designed cities in the world.  They’re walkable, they’re bikeable, there’s lots of good public transport that sustains itself, car use is kept to a minimum, and there’s lots of places to live for every budget in every area.  Most visitors to Japan probably know most of these things already; they’ve felt and experienced them.  But the great thing about Urban kchoze is he tells you why these things exist.  He explains what Japan does differently from how we do things in the West that makes the urban environments here such a pleasure to live in.

Now, while all of his posts are detailed, thoroughly thought out, easy to understand (featuring lots of graphics, pictures, and real-world examples), and well worth your time to read; not all of them directly address Japan.  So I wanted to provide a bit of a Japanophile’s guide to his blog (as it stands right now), and cover some of the major points in the process.

  1. The first and the biggest point is zoning:


Contrary to what you might expect (especially if you’ve heard all the talk of Japan being group-oriented and having an overinflated bureaucracy), Japan succeeds here not by zoning really well but by having extremely lax zoning laws.  Japan’s approach is that you can’t possibly predict everything, so you let individuals decide what is needed.  If people want more middle class housing, you don’t need to make more zones that only allow for housing of about that size, it will naturally develop because that is what people will pay the most for.  If more one bedroom apartments are needed, those will be built, etc.  This post offers a good example of the sort of mix of residences you wind up with in just a few blocks of a typical Japanese suburb:


“So within close walking distances, you have a tremendous amount of variety in term of housing. Single-family homes, from the very big to the very small, townhouses, small apartment blocs and studio apartments. Housing solutions for every wallet and household…”

Further, lax zoning allows for a good natural mix of residences and businesses.  If you zone an area as for residence only, and then go and zone another area to be commercial, you’re locking sprawl and cars right into the equation.  If people are to walk to the store, the store has to be within walking distance, and that means right in the neighborhoods people live in.

Similarly, if that store is to survive primarily (or exclusively) on people who are walking to it, there needs to be sufficient density around it.  Lax zoning allows this to happen naturally, with houses replaced with low rise apartments if there is the demand for it, and low rises replaced with high rises in places where there’s demand for that.  Cities develop naturally.

2. Development around train stations results in good density.  As a Japan resident, the early images in this post made me want to cry:


What a waste!  You’ve got a train station surrounded by duplex housing.  No apartments, no shops, no nothing.  I can’t believe this sort of thing is allowed to happen.  As explored further in this post,


in Japan every station is the hub of activity for its area.  Some stations are more developed than others, but if you live within walking distance of a train station, you’re sure to pass at least a few shops on your way home every day.  And why wouldn’t you?  You’re on the way home anyway, this is the perfect time to entice you with ready made meals, cuts of meat, or something to drink.  And what better time to remind you that you need a new light bulb, or batteries, or to pick up your dry cleaning?  It’s a golden business opportunity.  And since it’s obviously nicer to spend less time walking to the station, the area immediately around every station is ripe for development into denser apartment buildings.  Then the denser it gets, even more shops become economically viable.  It’s a great positive feedback loop!  And the best part is, it happens so naturally.  All you have to do is not impose any zoning (or minimum parking regulations, etc.) that would curtail density, and put a train station there.  The rest takes care of itself!

There is also this comparative post that clearly details the differences between North American, European, and Japanese cities’ density:


And this one which covers a lot of the bases of railway-based development, including inter-city travel (as well as background information on the author):


And finally it is worth noting that almost all railways in Japan self-fund.  There is basically no subsidized mass transit, and legally a railway cannot use funds from its other businesses in order to self-subsidize the cost of tickets.  This is very useful for it not only prevents car-based sprawl, but public transit sprawl as well.  Since people have to pay for their actual cost of travel, they will live closer to where they need to go to save on train tickets, thus leading to more density.

3. There are (almost) no urban highways in Japan.  Highways are used to travel between cities and not within cities.  Also, highways are heavily tolled, making their users pay for their actual costs.  In general, the highway system in Japan is entirely self-funded.




4. In Japan there is no long-term on street parking, as well as a proof-of-parking system where you have to prove you have a space before you are allowed to own a car.


In short, in Japan drivers have to pay for their own parking.  This is great because it recognizes that there is no such thing as free parking.  Parking lots cost money to build and maintain, and wherever you have parking is a place where you don’t have something else (homes, offices, stores, sidewalks, etc.).


But even though people who take the train pay for the trains, people who drive on the highways pay for the highways, and people who park their cars pay for their own parking, Japanese people spend less money on transportation than Americans and Europeans!


When you eliminate the idea that something expensive is cheap (or even free!) people will start rationing how much they use it.  At the same time, they’ll gain a new appreciation for the cost-effectiveness of very cheap travel (i.e. walking and biking).  This is good.

By eliminating subsidized street parking and making everyone pay for the actual cost to park their car, you make cars less attractive.  But more importantly…

5. Sidewalks are wide and well-designed.  You can take all that extra space gained by getting rid of on-street parking and put it right into the sidewalk.  That extra width gives space for lots of pedestrians and still leaves room for bikes to share the space.



It also makes the road narrower overall, meaning people have less distance to travel to cross the road, and removing all those parked cars also makes the moving cars go slower, since it reduces the impression of the road as a car-only space.


In addition to that, sidewalks are designed with pedestrians and bikes in mind.  They are smoother and flatter, either at street level or with steep little ramps for cars when they need to cross, rather than lowering the sidewalk the whole way across.  All obstructions are kept far to the side, very close to the street, leaving more space (and since there are no cars parked in the street, you don’t have to worry about these poles, etc. getting in the way of street-parked cars opening their doors), and obstructions of some kind (poles, trees, bushes, planters, etc.) are regularly spaced along the road edge, giving good separation of pedestrians from cars and increasing safety.


6. In direct contrast to the previous point, sidewalks are generally completely done away with on most residential roads.  Instead you have the older idea of the road still in place; one where pedestrians dominate, but is wide enough to easily accommodate bicycles, and where cars have to slowly and carefully maneuver around the previous two.  It’s a bit counterintuitive, but the best thing to do is either have really good sidewalks (for main roads) or no sidewalks at all (residential streets).


7. Japanese people don’t like to take the bus.  In the Japanese system there is little need for buses, and so buses are infrequently used compared to Western cities.  Basically, over longer distances rail is more efficient, and over short distances walking or biking is best.  Buses are only really useful for a very narrow margin between the two (and of course for people unable to bike or walk very much).  So buses certainly exist in Japan, but with the appropriate density, they are almost unneeded.


8. Japanese houses depreciate (and actually, all houses depreciate).  It’s very hard to believe that a house actually gains more value than what is put in it.  Land can gain value, but houses lose value.  However, this does not have to be a bad thing.  Houses losing value encourages regular rebuilding.  If in thirty or forty years the value of a house becomes negligible, then the land it is on has effectively returned to the wild, having a value that is equal to what it would have been if the lot was empty.  At that point (so long as the owner is willing to sell the place), the economics of building something with greater density in its place work out much better than if you have to include the cost of a valuable house you’d have to knock down.


Also, as a nice knock-on effect, it creates a market of affordable used houses for people who wish to own a home but can’t afford a brand new one, exactly the same as the used car market we are all already used to in the West.

9. Sapporo, a case study.  Sapporo is a particularly useful example for naysayers, the people who insist that nothing of the Japanese approach to urban development could be exported to the West because of Japan’s unique history.  Since Sapporo was founded much later than most Japanese cities (in the frontier tradition of American cities in fact), and had many Americans directly involved in its early development, it is a useful example to point to how even with these initial differences, when Japanese principles were applied it still became very Japanese, which is to say dense, walkable, and car-averse.



10. Extra reading.  Building height versus width and making walks interesting:


A more detailed post on the standard Japanese urban bike:



In conclusion, its hard to point to much that is bad about the Japanese approach to urban planning.  A lot of this comes down to the fact that the Japanese approach is really just the traditional, natural approach.  North American cities were (and are) specifically designed for the car, with a certain ideal (little suburban estate, a car or two, 2.5 children, etc.) effectively forced on everyone.  Western European cities suffer from the same problem that took on a different form.  They naturally developed to a certain state, and then it was decided that this was the best possible way for them to be, and people specifically designed a system that would preserve them to the greatest degree possible.  Just like North America, it was a certain ideal (four story townhouses of near uniform height and design downtown, two story duplexes of near uniform height and design in the suburbs, etc.) effectively forced on everyone.

Japan however remained open to natural change.  So when you look at a Japanese city, only the technology is modern (elevators, high rises, automatic signalling systems, robotic parking garages, etc.), the thinking that designed the particular look of any Japanese city or block is very traditional.  If people in the West had had the technology we have today two hundred years ago, they wouldn’t still be building four story town houses, they would build Japanese cities.


I just wanted to add an extra line of praise for Urban kchoze.  It is my sincerest wish that he one day write a book on this topic.  If nothing else I know that the Japanese edition would be a best seller.

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