Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week’s edition is a bit short, but it’s looking at a few important issues.

First, Tokyo. It’s surprisingly affordable – in spite of being a large city with not a lot of undeveloped land. The reason? They let people build up to their hearts’ content. Robin Harding reports in the Financial Times:

It was the rapidity of what happened to the house next door that took us by surprise. We knew it was empty. Grass was steadily taking over its mossy Japanese garden; the upstairs curtains never moved. But one day a notice went up, a hydraulic excavator tore the house down, and by the end of next year it will be a block of 16 apartments instead.

Abruptly, we are living next door to a Tokyo building site. It is not fun. They work six days a week. Were this London, Paris or San Francisco, there would be howls of resident rage — petitions, dire warnings about loss of neighbourhood character, and possibly a lawsuit or two. Local elections have been lost for less.

Yet in our neighbourhood, there was not a murmur, and a conversation with Takahiko Noguchi, head of the planning section in Minato ward, explains why. “There is no legal restraint on demolishing a building,” he says. “People have the right to use their land so basically neighbouring people have no right to stop development.”

A street in Shinjuku, Tokyo © Jérémie Souteyrat

Here is a startling fact: in 2014 there were 142,417 housing starts in the city of Tokyo (population 13.3m, no empty land), more than the 83,657 housing permits issued in the state of California (population 38.7m), or the 137,010 houses started in the entire country of England (population 54.3m).

Tokyo’s steady construction is linked to a still more startling fact. In contrast to the enormous house price booms that have distorted western cities — setting young against old, redistributing wealth to the already wealthy, and denying others the chance to move to where the good jobs are — the cost of property in Japan’s capital has hardly budged.

This is not the result of a falling population. Japan has experienced the same “return to the city” wave as other nations. In Minato ward — a desirable 20 sq km slice of central Tokyo — the population is up 66 per cent over the past 20 years, from 145,000 to 241,000, an increase of about 100,000 residents.

In the 121 sq km of San Francisco, the population grew by about the same number over 20 years, from 746,000 to 865,000 — a rise of 16 per cent. Yet whereas the price of a home in San Francisco and London has increased 231 per cent and 441 per cent respectively, Minato ward has absorbed its population boom with price rises of just 45 per cent, much of which came after the Bank of Japan launched its big monetary stimulus in 2013.

As Harding goes on to explain, the foundations of Japan’s housing affordability were set down relatively recently – in the aftermath of the country’s 1980s property bubble:

“During the 1980s Japan had a spectacular speculative house price bubble that was even worse than in London and New York during the same period, and various Japanese economists were decrying the planning and zoning systems as having been a major contributor by reducing supply,” says André Sorensen, a geography professor at the University of Toronto, who has written extensively on planning in Japan.

But, indirectly, it was the bubble that laid foundations for future housing across the centre of Tokyo, says Hiro Ichikawa, who advises developer Mori Building. When it burst, developers were left with expensively assembled office sites for which there was no longer any demand.

As bad loans to developers brought Japan’s financial system to the brink of collapse in the 1990s, the government relaxed development rules, culminating in the Urban Renaissance Law of 2002, which made it easier to rezone land. Office sites were repurposed for new housing. “To help the economy recover from the bubble, the country eased regulation on urban development,” says Ichikawa. “If it hadn’t been for the bubble, Tokyo would be in the same situation as London or San Francisco.”

Seems like an interesting model.

Locally, one of the big non-urban new items is the government’s announcement of a plan to make New Zealand predator-free by 2050. While there are reasons to be sceptical – it’s a big task to wipe out rats, weasels, and possums from an area the size of NZ – it’s the right direction to be taking. The Economist reports:

Eradicating introduced predators is not too hard on small islands, especially those uninhabited by people who might worry about the poison bait often used in the process. New Zealand itself has done so on more than 100 occasions—and the size of the islands involved has increased by a factor of ten during every decade since the 1960s. The country’s North and South Islands are, respectively, the 14th- and 12th-largest in the world, so the new project is certainly a bigger one than these previous eradications. But the North Island is 1,000 times the size of Campbell Island, the largest of New Zealand’s islands cleared so far, and the South Island is about 1,300 bigger. This means that if the tenfold-per-decade improvement continues, the target of 2050 looks within reach.

The plan is to proceed in stages. Between now and 2020 there will be a modest increase in the amount of land (currently 7,000 hectares) involved in existing predator-control schemes, a few new projects and a bringing together of various groups now ploughing separate anti-predator furrows. After that, things get more ambitious. By 2025 a further 20,000 hectares must, for the project to continue, be on the way to being predator-free. Crucially, this must be achieved without the use of fences, which are costly and sometimes impractical to build and maintain. On top of that, the plan envisages that there will, by 2025, be “a scientific breakthrough capable of removing at least one small mammalian predator from New Zealand entirely”. This done, it becomes a question of rolling out the lessons learned—first, in more isolated areas, and eventually everywhere.

It would be great to see this in my lifetime – I hope it works out.

Speaking of ambitious changes, here’s one from the east side of the Pacific. In the Guardian, Gideon Long reports on the cycling renaissance in Santiago, Chile: “‘Get yourself a bike, perico!’: how cycling is challenging Santiago’s social barriers“:

Traditionally the city has been notoriously segregated along class lines – a legacy in part of the Pinochet dictatorship. The rich live in the plush eastern neighbourhoods, in the shadow of the Andes, while the poor inhabit the lower suburbs to the south and west, where the smog is thicker and life is harder. Social mobility is low, and people from these two worlds seldom come into meaningful contact. But, anecdotally at least, there is some evidence that this is changing and that cycling, in its own small way, is playing a part. People are pedalling from one neighbourhood to another like never before. They are exploring previously unknown worlds. The city’s formidable social barriers are slowly being dismantled.

Let’s be clear from the outset: this is not Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Cycle lanes are the exception, not the norm. Motorists still view cyclists with suspicion. Saddle up and pedal into Santiago’s rush hour traffic and you’re taking your life into your hands.

But given what it was like a decade ago, when I first arrived in this city, Santiago has made progress. The number of cyclists on major routes has risen by 15-25% a year, says Lake Sagaris, a professor of transport engineering at the city’s Catholic University. In 2006, cycling accounted for 3% of journeys. These days it’s around 6% – higher than in London or Dublin. “A doubling of modal share in a decade!” Sagaris says. “Very few places in the world can match that.”

Interestingly, the trend towards more cycling opportunities began with a rethink of the city’s public transport network, which was matched with an effort to get “bottom-up” views on problems in need of fixing in the transport system:

Then came 2007, a breakthrough year. In February, the government launched Transantiago, a complete overhaul of the public transport system. Initially chaotic, it eventually brought order to the city’s bus routes, making roads safer for cyclists.

In the same year, the Dutch came to town. Interface for Cycling Expertise (I-CE), a Dutch-based NGO, arrived in Santiago to advise the regional government on how to promote intelligent urban cycling. They taught the Chileans how to design top-notch cycle paths and bike racks, and how to install parking facilities for bikes at metro stations.

Crucially, I-CE worked in partnership with Living City (Ciudad Viva), a Chilean NGO. That ensured that Santiaguinos had a proper say in the urban planning process. Living City staged neighbourhood workshops, gleaning knowledge from cyclists about local danger spots on roads and at junctions. They fed this information into the Department of Transport’s plans for the city.

Representation is essential for good outcomes. Just as you can’t maximise the things you don’t measure, you can’t fulfil the desires of the people you don’t hear from. In CityMetric, Caroline Criado-Perez explains “why cities need to start planning with women in mind“:

And not all people are men. Some of them (quite a lot actually) are women. Some of them are also girls – and boys. Sometimes people are men, but they aren’t the white, middle-aged, able-bodied men that are imagined when city halls are drawing up plans to treat people equally.

What all this means is that what works for men, as imagined by city hall, doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else. By treating us in a way that suits this male ideal, the rest of us are disadvantaged – often in surprising ways.

For example, I bet you’ve never thought about snow clearing as a gendered issue. Neither had city officials in Karlskoga, in Sweden. “The community development staff made jokes about how at least snow is something the gender people won’t get involved in,” explained Bruno Rudström, one of the city’s gender equality strategists.

But on reflection, they realised that even something as seemingly neutral as snow-clearing, actually could have a markedly different impact on men and women, due to the gender split in travel style. Women are more likely than men to walk, bike, and use public transport, whereas men are more likely to drive. By prioritising clearing the roads, the city was prioritising the way men choose to travel, despite the fact that walking or pushing a stroller though 10cm of snow is much harder than driving a car through it.

So the city changed the order of snow-clearing to focus on the pavements and cycle paths first, particularly around schools. As an unexpected by-product, it found a marked decrease in injuries: pedestrians are three times as likely as motorists to be injured in accidents due to slippery conditions.

As this example demonstrates, it’s easy to get things almost right, but trip up at the last hurdle. Small tweaks to designs can have big impacts on the accessibility and desirability of urban places for all people. Some other examples:

Inevitably, it is Sweden that is leading the way in tackling these issues. After research finding that women were reluctant to use municipal car parks – due to traditionally poor lighting, windowless concrete walls, and lifts and stairwells tucked out of sight with few people around and no easy means of escape – officials in Gothenburg decided to do something about it.

Concrete was substituted for glass, and better lighting was installed, as well as an increased security presence. “A car-park company cannot solve the underlying problem, which is men’s violence against women,” said Jonas Nilsson, the company’s head of car park security, “but we can take many measures to reduce people’s insecurity.” And making cities more woman-friendly doesn’t have to be a purely selfless act: since the changes, more women have started using the car-park, and so the company made more money. Everyone wins.

To the east of the country, in the city of Kalmar, research found that women were avoiding taking the bus at night because of safety concerns. So, in order to achieve the city’s goal of increasing public transport use, officials introduced “night stops”. Passengers travelling alone could ask the bus driver to stop between two regular bus stops — somewhere closer to home, or somewhere that simply felt safer. The bus driver would open only the front doors, and only allow the single passenger out, reducing concerns of being followed. The number of people using the night bus increased significantly following the introduction of these measures.

Lastly, here’s an interesting photo-essay on surface parking from downtown Denver:

Land Devoted Solely to Off Street Parking In Downtown Denver

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  1. The Japan piece is interesting. I lived there for 2 years in the mid 90s.
    I’m sure a liberal planning regime is a significant factor.Beyond some fairly limited height and shading controls,you can often do what you want with your property, and of course Japan is famous for its small, clever houses built in small little slithers of land.
    Having said all that, I think a bigger factor is a cultural cynicism of residential property investment. Many investors got burnt when the property bubble burst. Would be interesting to see stats, but my very strong gut feeling is that there is MUCH less mum and dad property investment in Japan.
    Unlike Japan, NZ has not had a major property crash so there is a strong belief in the ‘infallibility’ of property investment….

  2. One interesting aspect of Japanese housing is that they have a clear understanding that housing and other buildings have a limited lifespan. I believe they design them for a twenty year life for standalone wood framed houses, and a decade or two longer for concrete buildings. Effectively a house is built and expected to depreciate fully in a couple of decades, whereupon it is torn down and replaced. For the Japanese, replacing houses at periodic intervals is as normal as replacing clothes or cars once they’ve worn out.

    I discovered this visiting Himeji castle. They say it is one of Japans premiere castles built in the 1300s, but it has been reconstructed about ten time since, and the most recent incarnation dates from the 1960s.

    1. Yes that is right Nick.
      I’ve heard it said before that this view of transience, as opposed to permanence, in housing may be related both to Buddhist philosophy as well as the reality of a country prone to devastating earthquakes.

    2. I would be interested, from your first hand perspective, in how much of this stems from social and cultural attitudes. Many accounts I have read frame this as a relatively recent response to the economic depression in Japan, with specific policies that encouraged building short-life, manufacturing based buildings as an economic stimulus. Thoughts?

      1. Don’t have any literature references to hand, but I’ve read on this in the past, and it seems that the ‘transience’ concept is considered quite a strong reason why housing in Japan is built for a fairly short life. I think this goes way back, not a product of the economic depression. It has both religious, cultural and practical (eg. earthquake prone islands) elements.
        I lived in several homes during my time in Japan in the mid 90s that would have been built in the 70s or 80s, and they were clearly nearing the end of their life.
        The other thing I noticed is that even in moderate and quite well to do households there is often not a lot of reinvestment into the properties.
        The Japanese generally see the value in the land, not the buildings. Anyone who has travelled to Japan or lived there will know how run down so many of the buildings are, despite the country’s wealth.

        My mother in law, in about 2005, demolished her circa 30 year house and built a duplex – for her to live in one unit, and then for my sister in law’s family to live in the other. A great model, although it brings its stresses at times (or so I am told)

    3. The downside of buildings being treated as temporary is that it does mean a lot of waste, though. Japan’s construction sector as a % of GDP is about double that of other developed countries, to produce much the same outcome.

      The political influence of the construction sector is well more than double, but that’s another issue! At least in that case the boondoggles they build are largely useless, so they don’t end up reinforcing car dependence to the same degree as wasteful motorway projects here.

    4. Tokyo also has a vast expanse of flat land to sprawl into and weak if not non-existent growth controls. So in addition to building up it’s also sprawled outwards pretty madly, often without services.

      The upside is that it’s generally followed the railway lines (including bullet trains) rather than car-based sprawl, so you still get a fairly urban, walkable character, and the rail lines mean commuting to the city centre is still reasonable. I think it’s a good model for Auckland to emulate – densify the historic central area (for us, that would be the streetcar suburbs), and make sure that new greenfields is based around rapid transit from the start.

      1. What makes the city center in Tokyo different to what we have here is that Tokyo is made up of mini city centers/districts that combine to form the one large city center

        1. That’s true to a degree of many big cities – Seoul, Los Angeles and Paris, say. Tokyo still has one place that’s definitely “the” downtown, just as Los Angeles does, but it’s not as dominant as say, the centres of Chicago or Melbourne.

          But I was thinking more at a larger scale – most big commutes are still going to be to centralish Tokyo, i.e. roughly somewhere within the Yamanote Line.

  3. Really interesting piece on Japan. Shows how quickly things can change when policy-makers realise it’s in almost everyone’s interests to enable more housing to be built.

    Im curious as to when and why NZers got such a sense of entitlement to determine what happens on someone else’s land. This seems to be a sentiment that manifests most strongly in Anglo countries.

    1. Yes that is a really interesting question Stu. It’s the ‘nosy parker’ syndrome. I saw it most vividly with my parents. They built a rear lot town house, a wonderful townhouse and their hopes and dreams realised. Moment neighbour did the same thing – despite fairly limited impacts on my parents – it was the end of the world! It’s just bizarre. But very common.
      In Japan I just saw so little of that ‘nosy parker’, double standard behaviour.
      Some thoughts (many interrelated) on why Anglo countries generally have this but many others like Japan don’t
      – We are generally very individualistic, and believe in the right to free speech. But then, if we are so individualistic, why don’t we respect the rights of others to do what they want (within reason) with their land?
      – the majority of us have grown up in either low density suburbia or rural areas. Many are just not wired to live closer to others.
      – We invest/equate our property ownership with wealth and status, and wrongly equate greater density as threatening that

      1. continued…

        – Planning has been ‘democratised’ (overly in my view), so that people believe (correctly, often, according to the legislation) that they can have a say Our view of democracy has expanded to believing we should have the freedom to have a say on development proposals or rezonings on other peoples’ land, by virtue or some impact (even if very minor)
        – the west has a deep history of aspiring for cities to be things of beauty – ‘The City Beautiful’. This has deep Greek/ Judaeo-Christian historic origins, but perhaps came through more strongly in the wake of the industrial revolution, and the squalor and desperation inherent in cities at that time. Wired within many people is an association of higher density with squalor
        Just some thoughts

        1. Don’t forget the corollary where property ownership is used to claim special rights to adjacent public land, and the idea that other people can’t tell me what to do with “my (public) land”.

          Councils and the NZTA shouldn’t have to go through ridiculous consultation dramas to improve transport by substituting on-street parking for bus lanes or cycleways. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be an opportunity for consultation but it is wrong when THE RESIDENTS can hold the wider community hostage for the loss of a temporary privilege they would never have had in the likes of Japan.

      2. I’m in two minds about the role of culture and social norms in planning.

        On the one hand, there’s the argument that institutions and practices *reflect* culture – i.e. people design institutions that allow them to do the things that they value. In this case, that would mean the RMA, district planning rules, and local control of the planning system. All of these imply circumscribed rights for property owners, and many opportunities for input from neighbours and the community as a whole. This view is a bit pessimistic about the possibility for reform.

        On the other hand, there’s the argument that social norms are shaped by institutions and practices – i.e. if the planning legislation doesn’t give you a statutory right to object, then it might not occur to you to do so. Humans have “bounded rationality”, meaning that they don’t choose across all theoretically possible options but instead the more limited set of options that are more immediately available. For instance, in Japan people don’t think about changing the law to allow them to object to the neighbour’s apartment block. This is a more optimistic perspective – it implies that institutional changes can generate new norms.

        Lastly, as you observe, cultural values and social norms are slippery. The same sense of individualism that allegedly makes Kiwis uncomfortable with dense cities could also be interpreted as a desire for more liberal development controls – “don’t tell me what to do with my land!”

        1. I wrote about our cultural belief that it is ok to interfere with others property rights here, which got published in The Press.

          My article was superficially about a CBD property development dispute in Christchurch. But at the deeper level it asks the sort of cultural value questions being discussed here. I used a comparison to Texas values, so Peter’s link about Japan is good because it give another perspective that cultural values to property do vary around the world and are not necessarily fixed. They can change and evolve.

          1. I tend to take a conservative view on what we can learn from Houston, as their “no zoning (but increasing numbers of covenants)” approach has emerged from a pretty singular set of institutional and political dynamics. For starters, Houston’s city government encompasses the majority of the urban region – an oddity in the US, where fragmentation is the norm. Furthermore, its voters include both white conservatives, who tend to oppose higher taxes and regulation, and black and Hispanic minority groups, who are justly suspicious of exclusionary zoning. Again, this is unusual, as racial segregation into different local governments is the norm in the US. (Usually followed by the wealthier, whiter municipality enacting strict zoning codes to keep black people out.)

            This has created a durable political coalition that has voted down zoning in several referenda – you can see what that looks like in the photo at the head of this article. The factors underpinning that political coalition are so unusual that I doubt they could be easily replicated elsewhere.

            Japan’s also pretty singular, economically and culturally, so there are also limitations in how much we can learn from their experience. As others have noted on the thread, attitudes about building depreciation are very different, leading to greater acceptance of rebuilding. But because Japan took a conscious decision to reform their approach to zoning – rather than never having it in the first place – there’s probably quite a lot we *can* learn.

          2. Peter I doubt we can take any ‘one’ planning ‘system’ from somewhere else as a wholesale model for NZ housing/planning/transport reforms. But being aware of what is successful and unsuccessful elsewhere gives us some hints on what is possible for reforms to our system.

            P.S Loved the photo. Maybe someone from Transportblog could insert it?

          3. Peter although Houston may not have ‘zoning’ as we might know it. It did go through political/planning reform which massively relaxed the intensification boundary. This was much more significant than the ‘up-zoning’ being proposed by the IHP version of the Unitary Plan.

            Houston in 1999 decreased its minimum section size to a little over 100sqm and removed side setback and shade plane rules for the area within its inner motorway ring -an area larger than Auckland’s isthmus.

            Here is a nice set of architectural slides showing how traditional standalone housing suburbs were gradually transformed into higher density suburbs with the sort of affordable ‘missing middle’ developments which Auckland lacks -terrace developments, three story walk-up apartments and the like.

          4. Thanks brendonharre that makes great reading, Auckland to could have been like that but the council and their predecessors have tried to stop Auckland sprawling but at the same time had overly restrictive zoning rules in place.

  4. The standard line about Auckland still conflates dwelling supply and price with land supply. Tokyo shows that this is simply not the case.

    restrictions on density have a bigger impact on the market.

    1. Tokyo just puts more dwellings on less land so it is just like Auckland and about the demand and supply of dwellings not land. The problems in Auckland is the urban boundary tried to contain sprawl while the councils own policies restricted density (while they have been talking about building up not out for years) and we now have the high prices that goes with those two decisions (it is better for the council after all property prices are how they set their rates, a council main source of income).

  5. The designing things for women is so true, the amount of times you sit in a public bench and go why is this bench so tall and deep, I am not short I am average height for a woman. Lighting as well, at night when some creepy person starts talking to you and the lights are out at the station grr. Pavements as well, so they build us a nice new sidewalk, but they don’t clear all the loose debris/stones so shoes ruined. Tends to be not enough focus for all users.

    1. As a man there is nothing better than walking over loose debris and stones on the sidewalk, its a great design feature that recognises what men want. The fact that it damages womens shoes just goes to show that they should be wearing work boots too when out and about.

        1. Actually, it’s more of an attempt to denigrate someone else’s perspective, which is discouraged by the user guidelines.

  6. Most of the population do not see what the real reason is behind the Wests housing booms.
    Simple fact is that at a certain point the majority of people cash up their overinflated homes and move to a smaller unit.
    The rest of the cash is invested into high interest second tier lenders or the stock market. These institutions then go bust and the Investors lose everything.
    Only ones who win are the banks and Lawyers.
    Very well planned.

  7. Michael Reddell of Croaking Cassandra also wrote about the Japanese/Tokyo FT article. Michael was hopeful because the Japanese example demonstrates the sort of planning/regulatory reform NZ needs to provide affordability is possible. There was a few comments on Michael’s article from people who have lived in Japan who confirm the FT report and also note that on the ground it creates lively/exciting urban spaces.

  8. I’m not sure if it has been covered on this website before, but another interesting thing there is their approach to residential parking. There is a law that every house needs to provide a parking space for one registered car, but it doesn’t ‘have’ to be on the property itself. So, a common sight in suburban Japan is to see a section (where the house might have been demolished) providing parking for say 8-10 properties, on a month by month lease basis.
    Many properties do have one carport though.

  9. Here’s a little story for you….when I returned to NZ in 1997, I think we calculated at the time that my mother in law’s house was worth about NZ 700K. A moderate quality 2.5 bedroom detached townhouse, circa 90 square metres on a 220-240 square metre section.
    At the time, a detached house on 700 square metres is Auckland in a mid value suburb was worth about 400-450K….

    Now, nearly 20 years later, that property in Japan might be worth 750-800K max, and that property in Auckland is worth perhaps $1.2 million….

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