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Old January 24th, 2016, 11:54 PM   #1
GCarty
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Japan -- how relevant as a model for affordability without car-dependency?

While the United States has lots of cities (mostly in the "red states" -- Houston, Texas being the largest) where housing is very affordable (a median house prices/median annual salary ratio of approximately 3) this comes at the cost of low density and dependency on cars.

In most parts of the world, denser cities offering half-decent alternatives to private motor transport tend to be far more expensive than could possibly be saved by a reduction in car ownership and use. The reason for this is that a limited number of sites are available (due to the need to be within walking distance of work, or at least within walking distance of a train station), meaning that bidding wars drive up prices as too many prospective residents compete for too few sites. This means that efforts to reduce car dependency (often involving urban growth boundaries and other policies to increase density) have resulted in skyrocketing house prices -- such policies in California were instrumental in that state's huge housing bubble, which played a major role in the 2008 financial crash.

Japan however seems to be an exception to the rule -- while its cities are less affordable than the car-dependent ones of red-state USA, they are still surprisingly affordable by the standards of high-density cities, with the Tokyo-Yokohama metro area having a price/salary ratio of 4.4 while that of Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto is 3.5. This can be contrasted with London, Vancouver or Hong Kong (all with a price/salary ratio of more than 10) or Singapore (where it is more than 6 even though a large majority of Singaporeans live in public housing).

What lessons can Western countries learn from Japan regarding the achievement of affordability without car dependency? In particular how do they avoid the problem of extractive land rent than makes Western high-density cities unaffordable?

Japan has liberal zoning laws which permit residential development in commercial and light industrial areas, and do not discriminate between owner-occupied and rented housing or between single-family and multi-family buildings. They do allow residential areas to be zoned for low-rise building only, which may avoid the problem (which IIRC occured for some time in Houston with its total lack of zoning) of plots remaining vacant because their owners are waiting for an offer from a high-rise developer rather than selling for a lower price to a low-rise developer.

Would these liberal zoning laws (and the other policies to internalize the costs of car travel -- such as the "proof of parking" system and the fact that most expressways are expensively tolled) be enough to make a city that was affordable without being car-dependent, or is Japan's housing affordable for other reasons that it would not be acceptable to replicate in a Western context?

Certainly Japan's ethnic homogeneity will mean little public clamour for exclusionary zoning (which is what drives the ridiculously low-density sprawl in many American cities -- particularly those east of the Mississippi) and the country's declining population (and rejection of immigration) must also have an impact.

Also, I've seen suggestions from Phil Hayward (a pro-sprawl commenter from New Zealand whom I've seen on various sites) suggesting that much Japanese housing (especially the high-density apartment blocks with convenient rail access) is owned either by government or by the train companies, and priced considerably below what the market would bear in order to encourage people into the rail-oriented lifestyle. (I guess this would mean that Japanese railways aren't profitable after all contrary to common claims -- rather that the government subsidizes the properties they serve instead of the fares as per Western practice).

Could anyone more knowledgeable about Japan give me more information here? I wonder if WWII and its aftermath were also significant -- did the government have access to large amounts of (bombed-out) city centre sites that could be used for building homes that would work well with the train system, without having to pay extortionate prices to existing private owners (which in the West often caused public housing tower blocks to be built in peripheral locations with poor transit access, leading to their becoming impoverished slums)? Or were the big urban landowners expropriated during the American occupation much as the big rural landowners were (probably because they were blamed for causing the war, and/or because MacArthur believed land reform would forestall the spread of communism)?

I'd be interested to know more, and have thoughts on my original question of whether Japan's urban model could be exported to the West...
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Old January 25th, 2016, 05:01 AM   #2
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First, it is important to understand why many American and Western European urban planning is the way it is.

Suburban US and its sprawl was a reaction to the industrial revolution in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

People were trying to get away from this




A lot of people didn't want to live in crowded, polluted cities. They didn't want their children playing in dirty alleys and streets. People wanted greenery rather than stone and concrete. During this time you had many planning philosophers like LeCorbusier, Ebenezer Howard, etc, pushing for radical ideas such as garden cities, and others, where basically things were zoned, in order to limit the extent of dense populated areas, commercial areas, industrial areas, away from commercial areas which had more greenery. The US generally moved more towards Howard's ideas while the Communist block, and to some extent, Japan, moved towards LeCorbusier. Even today you can still see influences of garden city planning in modern plans


These ideas attempted to limit vehicular traffic to expressways and arterial roads, which connected to local and feeder roads where the residential areas were located. This would give residential areas more greenery, less vehicular smog, promoted more privacy and land use freedoms, etc. That's why as the US expanded development further and further west and south, newer cities tended to use this model while the older ones in the north east were more dense.

One of the biggest criticisms to Howard and LeCorbusier's ideas were that they were architects who did top down planning. They pushed their idealistic visions of society and city planning, which could at times, be out of reality. While it might be workable on a clean slate. More often than not, cities had to work from something pre-existing, so it was viewed that this method was very inorganic.

As time went on, some other challenges began arising. Pushing all the vehicular traffic to arterial roads and expressways created a lot of traffic and congestion, leading to smog, while many local and feeder roads were mostly empty. When it was created, energy was cheap, but it kept rising and the suburban sprawl model became energy inefficient as everything was spread out (requiring services to be spread out), longer commuting distances combined with slow traffic, and the lower density made it harder to implement public transit as many residential areas were also too spread out.

Perhaps in the last 20 years, the US saw a lot of changes in the direction of its planning. There was a strong gentrification movement going on, and planning shifted from a top-down rational approach to a bottom up, citizens based approach. People began moving back to the cities and redeveloping them. This also has some other type of problems as the low land value areas in cities are now becoming higher and pushing low income people out. At the end of the day, the lesson to learn from this is that there's no such thing as a final best type of planning. Like society, the city itself is organic and will keep changing.

Now in the Japanese case. A lot of non-Japanese tend to think all of Japan is like Tokyo and Osaka. This is probably because, all they've been to is Tokyo and Osaka, and their surrounding areas. Tokyo is indeed the largest city in Japan, however the area represents roughly 10% of Japan's population. It's not like Korea where Seoul is 50% of the country. Outside of the biggest Japanese cities (Tokyo metro area including Yokohama, Osaka metro area including Hyogo and Kyoto, Nagoya, and Fukuoka), the rest of Japan is car country.

You go to regions like Shikoku or Tohoku, there are trains, but they are inter-city trains that connect city to city. They are spread out and too far in between. Kids will bike or have their parents drop them off at the station, so they can go to another city for school and walk or bike for another 30 min (1-2 hour one-way commutes for children is not uncommon). Adults either have some one drop them off at the station and pick them up later, or simply just drive. In some cities, the train rarely comes, so driving is the only option.

They also suffer from the suburban sprawl. Go to any of the big cities in Fukushima Prefecture, such as Koriyama or Fukushima City.. barely any high rises beyond the train station area. but low rise buildings stretch far out. There's also no metro system to take you out there and back. Only Sendai city in the Tohoku region has a metro.

Much of the way Tokyo developed is mostly organic. It became dense and dense over time. Many of the major rail systems today like the Yamanote line, existed BEFORE, WW2 (it was a collection of smaller lines that got merged). Bombed out areas did allow for some re-development to go on, but a number of areas are still roughly aligned to the same grid from the Samurai era (hence the narrowness). Its so dense that you CAN'T build a giant costco or similar type building. Costco exists in Japan, but it is always far out in a suburban area. Similarly, all the big mall chains like AEON Mall, are located in the suburbs.

Living in both Tokyo and smaller cities. I really enjoyed the fact that I could use the train to get about almost anywhere. I don't really need a car. But the problem is, you can't really own a car either. You can, but its very impractical because parking space is too few, too crowded, and too expensive.
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Old January 25th, 2016, 02:23 PM   #3
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Interesting information RyukyuRhymer, but it doesn't really address my original query as to why housing in dense urban areas in Japan is so much more affordable than housing in similarly dense urban areas in other countries.

Is car-oriented sprawl in the West a natural product of the free market which Japan avoids due to heavy government intervention in the housing market to encourage lifestyles oriented around walking and transit, or is it itself the product of government intervention which Japan avoids? It is notable that Sapporo -- a newish Japanese city whose central street grid wouldn't look out of place in Texas -- is still far-less car-dominated than almost all North American cities (mostly due to more walking and cycling though, rather than transit).
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Old January 25th, 2016, 03:12 PM   #4
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Interesting information RyukyuRhymer, but it doesn't really address my original query as to why housing in dense urban areas in Japan is so much more affordable than housing in similarly dense urban areas in other countries.

Is car-oriented sprawl in the West a natural product of the free market which Japan avoids due to heavy government intervention in the housing market to encourage lifestyles oriented around walking and transit, or is it itself the product of government intervention which Japan avoids? It is notable that Sapporo -- a newish Japanese city whose central street grid wouldn't look out of place in Texas -- is still far-less car-dominated than almost all North American cities (mostly due to more walking and cycling though, rather than transit).
Sapporo itself has a good metro system. The city's street grid looks that way because it was designed with the assistance of an American. Sapporo is osta new city so its easier to start out that way. Outside of that, the entire island of Hokkaido is definitely car country and sprawl.

In rural areas, people and development have a tendency for sub-urban sprawl. In one case, Toyama City.. the sprawl was straining utlities and other public resources so they built a light rail line and changed some of the land use. What happened shortly after is people began moving back into the city center and car use dropped, leading to significant reduction in carbon emissions and pollution. However many rural areas don't have the ability to push this because of depopulation and that most rural lines run in the red. Private companies don't even want to operate there. that's why rural areas have a higher number of third sector rail companies.
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Old January 25th, 2016, 05:27 PM   #5
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Japan is really an amazing place.
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Old January 25th, 2016, 06:16 PM   #6
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I'm actually the author of the blog referred to here. Anyway, I think that Japan's success at keeping housing affordable is certainly due to the zoning laws which allow smaller housing on smaller lots to compensate for high land value or construction costs. This allows people to sacrifice space for affordability.

But ultimately, it's important to remember that low-rise buildings are much more affordable to build per square meter than high-rise buildings. Can a city have really affordable housing with high-rise construction? I've yet to see a city that meets that requirement, even in Japan, in depressed housing market like Hokkaido, with lax zoning laws, new high-rise construction costs generally the equivalent of 3 000$ to 5 000$ per square meter, versus new low-rise houses that cost 1 500 to 2 500$ (despite higher land costs).

For example, this new detached house 108 m2 detached house in a suburb of Sapporo is 240 000$ (2 200$/m2): https://archive.is/ARKTH

This series of 125-m2 townhouses in Sapporo is being sold from 270 000 to 308 000$ (2 200 to 2 500 $/m2): https://archive.is/iekuQ

This 11-story condo building sells units sized 80 to 100 m2 for 350 000$ to 680 000$ (lowest price ratio would be about 4 400$/m2): https://archive.is/PahY3

The Japanese tolerate extremely dense low-rise constructions though, that detached house I've mentioned is on a lot just 250-square-meter big, or roughly 2 800 square feet, and it's not small for a Japanese house, it's not rare for house on that website to have lots of less than 200 square meters.

Another thing is that Japan still has a strong train system that connects basically the whole country, and taking these trains is just as easy as taking a subway or a bus. You go to the station, you pay the fare and you get on, no fuss, no reservation (except for the Shinkansen or some express lines or some "green car" luxury wagons). These trains are frequently faster than cars, and train companies often have real estate arms to develop their stations, pure synergy. Meanwhile, freeways are tolled, sometimes heavily tolled, if I remember correctly, the freeway near Sapporo is tolled the equivalent of about 30 cents per km (50 cents per mile), freeways in Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya are twice as expensive.

So urban developments in Japan do spread geographically, but they do so along train lines rather than along freeways. They also allow dense low-rise construction along train stations, to compensate the smaller "reach" transit stations have over freeway interchanges. Even in areas that are relatively car-dominated (like Hokkaido outside Sapporo), the developments tend to be very dense by North American standards and even by European standards. If you look at Google Maps, these cities look like compact nodes, not the dendritic form commonly associated with American sprawl.

For example, someone brought up Toyama as an example of a bad case of sprawl in Japan. Well, here is a map of Tooyama from the sky, each red circle represents the area less than 1 kilometer away from the nearest train or tram station:


And here is what the "sprawl" they're fighting looks like:



It's also a bit funny to hear about even Hokkaido being described as "car country" and "sprawl". Sure, by Japanese standards, it is, but by American standards, well, the mode share of cars in Hokkaido cities outside Sapporo tends to be around 70 to 75%. In North America, that would be the equivalent of, say, metropolitan Vancouver or Québec city. Sure, most trips are done by car, but walking and biking remain really viable options because of the density and development patterns.

For example, here is Obihiro, a mid-sized city in Hokkaido, each green circle represents areas within 500 meters (a third of a mile) of the nearest supermarket:


Now contrast this with a city with similar population in Greenville, North Carolina:


Whereas most people in Obihiro live within easy walking distance of their local supermarket, people in Greenville frequently live very far from supermarkets which are concentrated in industrial/commercial areas far from any residential zone. Even malls in Japan tend to be built inside residential zones, or at least they attract dense developments very quickly, it's not rare to see 10+-story condo buildings being built around malls in small Japanese cities.

For example, in Sano, Tochigi, this building was recently built near a massive car-oriented mall near a freeway by-pass:


It's not like car-oriented areas don't exist in Japan, but they are far, far fewer in number, and they are far less car-oriented than what we see in North America, malls will often have two or three floors, parking will often be in garages or on the roof of the building.

For example, this aerial image of an AEON mall in Kitami, Hokkaido:


You can see parking on the roof, there are many floors to the store and it's located in a densely population residential area with many 4 to 6-story apartment buildings.

As a Canadian who grew up in a suburb where walking to the nearest supermarket or restaurant would have taken me about 40 minutes, I can't help but snicker a bit when Japanese tell me that they have car-oriented sprawl too, as if it were the same thing. They don't know what American-type sprawl actually looks like. Sure, not all of Japan looks like Tokyo, but almost all cities remain walkable and bikable, with the walk+bike mode share of most metropolitan areas being 20 to 40% (versus maybe 5% in real American sprawl).
Source for mode shares in Japanese cities: www.mlit.go.jp/crd/tosiko/pt/PT_eng.xls

BTW, Kooriyama, mentioned by someone else as an example of "car country" has a car mode share of 50% only, 40% of trips are done on foot or by bike.
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Old January 26th, 2016, 09:57 AM   #7
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I'm actually the author of the blog referred to here. Anyway, I think that Japan's success at keeping housing affordable is certainly due to the zoning laws which allow smaller housing on smaller lots to compensate for high land value or construction costs. This allows people to sacrifice space for affordability.
In most countries though, higher-density housing does not mean more affordability though, as all the benefit is swallowed up by higher land rents. And just because a site is permitted to be redeveloped at higher density doesn't necessarily mean it will be so developed -- less than half of the sites in London with such permission are actually being densified in this way!

In a city which is freely sprawling outwards (such as pre-1980 New York City, or contemporary Houston) city centre rents are limited by competition from fringe greenfield development, so the owners of city centre sites are forced to build upwards in order to compete. But in a spatially-constrained city sites become a speculative commodity whose owners are generally more interested in capital gains than in rental yields -- the most extreme example of this is the rise of Chinese speculators in Vancouver and London who buy up high-rise properties to leave empty rather than to let out!

And a lot of the increase in density in expensive cities comes from overcrowding rather than increased FARs -- third-world immigrants accustomed to overcrowded living conditions are a boon to greedy landlords. Maybe Japan's anti-immigrant culture is another factor in its affordability?

That's why I was asking if a substantial proportion of Japanese properties were government-owned (as that could anchor rents, just as fringe developments do in car-oriented cities). Although even government ownership of sites doesn't mean affordability if the government itself decides to maximize rent take, as is the case in China.

Another possibility is that Japan's throwaway housing culture means that there are more lots which are available for developers to use -- in Western cities densification is expensive because developers must eat the substantial cost of existing buildings that are to be demolished.
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Old January 26th, 2016, 03:17 PM   #8
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Could the declining population of Japan be a factor? Having slow or no population growth may reduce some of the pressure that hot-red housing markets have.

Although Japan has one of the highest usage levels of public transport in the developed world, in fact a majority of passenger kilometers traveled in Japan are by car. I could only find detailed breakdowns as of 2004, but back then the share of passenger kilometers was 61% car, 27% rail, 6% bus and 6% airplane.
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Old January 26th, 2016, 05:50 PM   #9
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Could the declining population of Japan be a factor? Having slow or no population growth may reduce some of the pressure that hot-red housing markets have.

Although Japan has one of the highest usage levels of public transport in the developed world, in fact a majority of passenger kilometers traveled in Japan are by car. I could only find detailed breakdowns as of 2004, but back then the share of passenger kilometers was 61% car, 27% rail, 6% bus and 6% airplane.
Japan's population is in decline nationally, but major cities' population is still growing as people still flock to them, emptying out rural areas and smaller cities. Tokyo's population for instance has grown by nearly 10% between 2000 and 2010. Even in Hokkaido, where population is falling, Sapporo has seen a population growth of 5% in 10 years. In comparison, Paris has had an average population growth of 0,55% between 2006 and 2011, roughly the same for New York too. London seems to be growing much faster though.

Just because Japan's development pattern is favorable to non-car mobility doesn't mean car travel is impossible. Even if people have the choice to walk or bike, many drive still. Furthermore, people who drive a lot tend to do all their trips in cars, or at least most of them, and to travel much greater distances. For example, if on average people do four trips per day, a frequent driver is likely to drive on all four trips, meanwhile, a transit user may use transit only on two of these and do the other two on foot or on a bike, thus preferring proximity and doing smaller distances than the driver.

From most mode share studies, it seems that each transit trip tends to be accompanied by one or two non-motorized trip, and as someone who lives in a city without a car, I think that is true in my life as well, I get around on foot or on a bike at least as often as I take transit. Non-motorized trips are not accounted for in the data you've shared here, and the passenger-km metric is also one that would make these forms of transport insignificant.

That's why I prefer a mode share on trips rather than on distance traveled, because a trip to a grocery is worth the same to someone if they travel 1 or 10 km, so why should the 10-km trip to a grocery count as 10 times more important than the 1-km trip to a similar grocery? Trips' economic values are unrelated to the distance traveled to do them, transport is a cost like electricity, and not a value in and of itself.

Also, some bit of data-crunching. According to the data you've shown, there is 52,3 billion passenger trips in private cars in Japan each year, and 7,7 billion in private trucks. That's a total of 60 billion car/truck trips per year, on a population of 127 million people, or about 470 trips per year, or 1,29 car trip per capita per day. That is for the entire country, not just Tokyo ad other big cities.

How does that compare to the rest of the world? Well, according to "variable 12" from this source, people in Toronto do about 1,5 car trips per day per capita, people in Montréal do 2,0, 2,3 in New York, 2,5 in Vancouver and 4,3(!) in Houston. And that doesn't include small cities, just the main metropolitan areas! So the Japanese do on average half as many car trips as people residing in New York and its suburbs.

In terms of travel, the Japanese travel on average less than 6 800 km in private vehicles each year. If we look at Americans, they travel on average 11 500 passenger-MILES per capita each year in private cars and trucks, or about 18 400 passenger-kilometers, almost three times more than the average Japanese.

That's why it kills me to read people comparing Japanese developments to American sprawl. There is just no comparison, even outside Tokyo and other metropolises. When RyukyuRhymer said that transit outside big cities were mostly just intercity trains, he's right, but that's not a bad thing. We don't even have that in North America, we do have Amtrak or VIA Rail and some intercity coaches, but there is no network and the service is terrible. Between Montréal and Toronto, the two biggest cities in the most frequently traveled corridor in Canada, there are 6 trains per day during the week. 6. That is the same number of trains as between Asahikawa (300 000 pop) and Wakkanai (37 000 pop) in Hokkaido. I'd kill to have the inter-city train network Japan has (and that we had before we built toll-free highways and killed our train service with unfair competition).

He mentioned Koriyama and said there was no metro... But Koriyama has a population of 340 000 people all concentrated in a tight area with a radius of 4 km. Do you really need a metro? You can bike from one end of the city to the other in 30 minutes and there is a radial bus network around the station so most people live at most 15 minutes by bus from the center of the town. You don't need a metro when a local bus service gets you where you want to go in 20 minutes or less because of how compact the city is, and if people want to go to another city, then they have inter-city trains which go there often faster than cars. Sure, a car remains convenient for residents, but it's really not essential.
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Old January 26th, 2016, 07:31 PM   #10
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In most countries though, higher-density housing does not mean more affordability though, as all the benefit is swallowed up by higher land rents. And just because a site is permitted to be redeveloped at higher density doesn't necessarily mean it will be so developed -- less than half of the sites in London with such permission are actually being densified in this way!

In a city which is freely sprawling outwards (such as pre-1980 New York City, or contemporary Houston) city centre rents are limited by competition from fringe greenfield development, so the owners of city centre sites are forced to build upwards in order to compete. But in a spatially-constrained city sites become a speculative commodity whose owners are generally more interested in capital gains than in rental yields -- the most extreme example of this is the rise of Chinese speculators in Vancouver and London who buy up high-rise properties to leave empty rather than to let out!

And a lot of the increase in density in expensive cities comes from overcrowding rather than increased FARs -- third-world immigrants accustomed to overcrowded living conditions are a boon to greedy landlords. Maybe Japan's anti-immigrant culture is another factor in its affordability?

That's why I was asking if a substantial proportion of Japanese properties were government-owned (as that could put a floor on rents, just as fringe developments do in car-oriented cities). Although even government ownership of sites doesn't mean affordability if the government itself decides to maximize rent take, as is the case in China.

Another possibility is that Japan's throwaway housing culture means that there are more lots which are available for developers to use -- in Western cities densification is expensive because developers must eat the substantial cost of existing buildings that are to be demolished.
The price of housing is established by a simple process of supply and demand, so if you have more housing in a desirable location, the value of that housing will be lower than if there were fewer housing units. Land rent intervenes at a different level, from what I understand and affects speculators. Areas that allow higher densities will yield more expensive land, which makes it more expensive to build low-density housing.

Basically, I think land owners estimate the price of their land based on the maximum FAR that can be built on it. So, for example, if the market value of a square meter of housing is worth 3 000$ in an area and you can build up to 300 square meters on a lot (according to zoning regulations), then the total market value of housing on that lot would be 900 000$. If the lot is upzoned to allow 600 square meters, then the potential value of housing on that lot is also doubled to 1 800 000$. This has a direct impact on land value, with one stroke of their pen, urban planners can double or triple the value of land, which I think may be part of the reason why some request high-density permits for their land and then do not build what they requested permits for, essentially, it is a way to pad the value of their land, to make it more attractive to developers.

That is why I am strongly opposed to arbitrary spot zoning practices. It's a practice that encourages corruption because planning authorities have the ability to make speculators much, much richer.

High-density constructions can also cost a lot more if they go over 4 stories, because then a lot of strict regulations come into play, which means that only in areas where the market value of housing gets very high will mid-rise and high-rise construction be started. It's not that high-density housing leads to high housing costs, it's the other way around, high housing costs allow high-density housing to make economic sense and to start being built. To see what happens when zoning forbids higher density housing despite high housing costs, see Vancouver, the city of the 1-million-dollar house.

As to throwaway housing... I think the cultural element is overblown. There are plenty of American cities where houses built in the 1950 or 1960s are worth next to nothing. When the zoning regimen allows houses to be added, either through replacement or sprawl, then plenty of houses lose value over time until they become next to worthless.
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Old January 26th, 2016, 11:52 PM   #11
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The price of housing is established by a simple process of supply and demand, so if you have more housing in a desirable location, the value of that housing will be lower than if there were fewer housing units. Land rent intervenes at a different level, from what I understand and affects speculators. Areas that allow higher densities will yield more expensive land, which makes it more expensive to build low-density housing.

Basically, I think land owners estimate the price of their land based on the maximum FAR that can be built on it. So, for example, if the market value of a square meter of housing is worth 3 000$ in an area and you can build up to 300 square meters on a lot (according to zoning regulations), then the total market value of housing on that lot would be 900 000$. If the lot is upzoned to allow 600 square meters, then the potential value of housing on that lot is also doubled to 1 800 000$. This has a direct impact on land value, with one stroke of their pen, urban planners can double or triple the value of land, which I think may be part of the reason why some request high-density permits for their land and then do not build what they requested permits for, essentially, it is a way to pad the value of their land, to make it more attractive to developers.
That is how land prices are determined in expensive cities, where the land market is a seller's market. In cheap car-oriented cities land prices never get substantially more than the price of agricultural land because the land market is a buyer's market. Development in such cities tends to follow a "splatter" pattern as developers buy farmland that is for sale anyway (for example because a farmer died, retired or changed livelihood) rather than having to offer them an inflated price to persuade them to sell up earlier.

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That is why I am strongly opposed to arbitrary spot zoning practices. It's a practice that encourages corruption because planning authorities have the ability to make speculators much, much richer.
The UK's policy of requiring planning permission on a case-by-case basis may explain why it has a specifically acute problem with housing affordability, along with the powerful incentive for local government to oppose new development that results from 85% of local government spending being funded by central government rather than locally-raised taxes.
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Old February 11th, 2016, 04:12 PM   #12
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Japan's population is in decline nationally, but major cities' population is still growing as people still flock to them, emptying out rural areas and smaller cities. Tokyo's population for instance has grown by nearly 10% between 2000 and 2010. Even in Hokkaido, where population is falling, Sapporo has seen a population growth of 5% in 10 years. In comparison, Paris has had an average population growth of 0,55% between 2006 and 2011, roughly the same for New York too. London seems to be growing much faster though.
Very interesting discussion all, thanks. Just a minor correction here, that small growth figure for Paris is small because it refers to Inner Paris only (the city proper), while in reality the "unité urbaine" (the contiguous city regardless of the split into municipalities) has recorded an increase of 3.45% (353858 people) between 2006 and 2013.

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That is how land prices are determined in expensive cities, where the land market is a seller's market. In cheap car-oriented cities land prices never get substantially more than the price of agricultural land because the land market is a buyer's market. Development in such cities tends to follow a "splatter" pattern as developers buy farmland that is for sale anyway (for example because a farmer died, retired or changed livelihood) rather than having to offer them an inflated price to persuade them to sell up earlier.
Are you mentioning farmland because where you're from (the US I presume) it is allowed to build housing on farmland?
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Old February 11th, 2016, 11:39 PM   #13
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Are you mentioning farmland because where you're from (the US I presume) it is allowed to build housing on farmland?
No I'm not American, but yes I'm mentioning farmland because affordable American cities are that way because they have no restrictions on building on farmland.

However, this approach does lead to very inefficient usage of land, which is why I was wanting to learn more about Japan's approach, to see if it could be used to improve housing affordability in countries too densely populated for Texas-style sprawl...
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Old February 17th, 2016, 07:17 AM   #14
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Very interesting discussion all, thanks. Just a minor correction here, that small growth figure for Paris is small because it refers to Inner Paris only (the city proper), while in reality the "unité urbaine" (the contiguous city regardless of the split into municipalities) has recorded an increase of 3.45% (353858 people) between 2006 and 2013.
I said 0,55% average growth over 5 years, the equivalent of a growth of 2,8% over 5 years, so our numbers are more similar than not.

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No I'm not American, but yes I'm mentioning farmland because affordable American cities are that way because they have no restrictions on building on farmland.

However, this approach does lead to very inefficient usage of land, which is why I was wanting to learn more about Japan's approach, to see if it could be used to improve housing affordability in countries too densely populated for Texas-style sprawl...
It depends where. Seattle and Portland, IIRC, have green belts legislation. The Japanese also allow development on farmland, the big difference is that Japanese freeways are all tolled, often very heavily so, and tend to skirt around urban areas. This discourages developments around freeway exits, except for industrial uses that need freeways to move freight.

Land is only valuable for development if it is within acceptable travel time from a lot of jobs and services. The American model of fast, free-to-use highways and freeways, which DOTs keep building even when they can't maintain what they've got, allows farmlands far from major cities to nonetheless be viable as suburbs. In Japan and, to a lesser extent, Europe, this network is not as developed and not always free, so that reduces the development potential of much farmland.
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Old February 17th, 2016, 04:14 PM   #15
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First, it is important to understand why many American and Western European urban planning is the way it is.

Suburban US and its sprawl was a reaction to the industrial revolution in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A lot of people didn't want to live in crowded, polluted cities. They didn't want their children playing in dirty alleys and streets. People wanted greenery rather than stone and concrete. During this time you had many planning philosophers like LeCorbusier, Ebenezer Howard, etc, pushing for radical ideas such as garden cities, and others, where basically things were zoned, in order to limit the extent of dense populated areas, commercial areas, industrial areas, away from commercial areas which had more greenery. The US generally moved more towards Howard's ideas while the Communist block, and to some extent, Japan, moved towards LeCorbusier. Even today you can still see influences of garden city planning in modern plans

These ideas attempted to limit vehicular traffic to expressways and arterial roads, which connected to local and feeder roads where the residential areas were located. This would give residential areas more greenery, less vehicular smog, promoted more privacy and land use freedoms, etc. That's why as the US expanded development further and further west and south, newer cities tended to use this model while the older ones in the north east were more dense.

One of the biggest criticisms to Howard and LeCorbusier's ideas were that they were architects who did top down planning. They pushed their idealistic visions of society and city planning, which could at times, be out of reality. While it might be workable on a clean slate. More often than not, cities had to work from something pre-existing, so it was viewed that this method was very inorganic.

As time went on, some other challenges began arising. Pushing all the vehicular traffic to arterial roads and expressways created a lot of traffic and congestion, leading to smog, while many local and feeder roads were mostly empty. When it was created, energy was cheap, but it kept rising and the suburban sprawl model became energy inefficient as everything was spread out (requiring services to be spread out), longer commuting distances combined with slow traffic, and the lower density made it harder to implement public transit as many residential areas were also too spread out.

Perhaps in the last 20 years, the US saw a lot of changes in the direction of its planning. There was a strong gentrification movement going on, and planning shifted from a top-down rational approach to a bottom up, citizens based approach. People began moving back to the cities and redeveloping them. This also has some other type of problems as the low land value areas in cities are now becoming higher and pushing low income people out. At the end of the day, the lesson to learn from this is that there's no such thing as a final best type of planning. Like society, the city itself is organic and will keep changing.

Now in the Japanese case. A lot of non-Japanese tend to think all of Japan is like Tokyo and Osaka. This is probably because, all they've been to is Tokyo and Osaka, and their surrounding areas. Tokyo is indeed the largest city in Japan, however the area represents roughly 10% of Japan's population. It's not like Korea where Seoul is 50% of the country. Outside of the biggest Japanese cities (Tokyo metro area including Yokohama, Osaka metro area including Hyogo and Kyoto, Nagoya, and Fukuoka), the rest of Japan is car country.

You go to regions like Shikoku or Tohoku, there are trains, but they are inter-city trains that connect city to city. They are spread out and too far in between. Kids will bike or have their parents drop them off at the station, so they can go to another city for school and walk or bike for another 30 min (1-2 hour one-way commutes for children is not uncommon). Adults either have some one drop them off at the station and pick them up later, or simply just drive. In some cities, the train rarely comes, so driving is the only option.

They also suffer from the suburban sprawl. Go to any of the big cities in Fukushima Prefecture, such as Koriyama or Fukushima City.. barely any high rises beyond the train station area. but low rise buildings stretch far out. There's also no metro system to take you out there and back. Only Sendai city in the Tohoku region has a metro.

Much of the way Tokyo developed is mostly organic. It became dense and dense over time. Many of the major rail systems today like the Yamanote line, existed BEFORE, WW2 (it was a collection of smaller lines that got merged). Bombed out areas did allow for some re-development to go on, but a number of areas are still roughly aligned to the same grid from the Samurai era (hence the narrowness). Its so dense that you CAN'T build a giant costco or similar type building. Costco exists in Japan, but it is always far out in a suburban area. Similarly, all the big mall chains like AEON Mall, are located in the suburbs.

Living in both Tokyo and smaller cities. I really enjoyed the fact that I could use the train to get about almost anywhere. I don't really need a car. But the problem is, you can't really own a car either. You can, but its very impractical because parking space is too few, too crowded, and too expensive.
Fascinating background history- thank you for sharing Ryukyu
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Old March 19th, 2016, 06:32 PM   #16
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For example, here is Obihiro, a mid-sized city in Hokkaido, each green circle represents areas within 500 meters (a third of a mile) of the nearest supermarket:


Now contrast this with a city with similar population in Greenville, North Carolina:


Whereas most people in Obihiro live within easy walking distance of their local supermarket, people in Greenville frequently live very far from supermarkets which are concentrated in industrial/commercial areas far from any residential zone.
Are there relatively few really huge supermarkets in Japan, either because their size is restricted by law (as I believe to be the case in Germany) or because they are discouraged by the tax system? If you want more people to be within walking distance of a supermarket, then more and smaller supermarkets is an obvious way to do it...
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Old April 22nd, 2016, 05:22 PM   #17
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japan is a small crowded country. it needs mass transit
america is a big spacious country where a lot of people hate mass transit. so cars for them.

you cannot expect every place to like the same thing.
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Old April 23rd, 2016, 12:26 PM   #18
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japan is a small crowded country. it needs mass transit
america is a big spacious country where a lot of people hate mass transit. so cars for them.

you cannot expect every place to like the same thing.
The "sprawl your way to affordability" approach of places like Texas is predicated on very low residential density and many places simply don't have that amount of land to spare. Also, I doubt it would work for cities whose population is considerably larger than Houston's 2 million, as the distances would become unmanageable even at highway speeds.

Many countries have high-density, non-car-dependent cities, but only Japan has done this while keeping housing costs reasonably low. My query is whether Japanese practices could be adapted for use in other countries -- why is Tokyo (4300/km^2) so much more affordable than New York (1800/km^2) or Los Angeles (2400/km^2)?

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Old April 23rd, 2016, 01:43 PM   #19
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My experience in Japan is with renting, not home ownership, but in general, there is simply a huge housing stock in the big metro areas, and government policy is pro development. For example, there is nothing like the opposition to affordable housing (or just plain high density housing) you find in Northern California, especially the SF Peninsula. Plus there is the excellent rail network, and amenities centered around bigger stations. Local bus lines, rather than running in grid patterns or radially from the city center, are centered around these node stations, and feed the railway line with passengers. If a neighborhood becomes desirable with subsequent rise in rent, all you have to do is find a cheaper neighborhood with plenty of housing near another train station. I think there is a similar effect in New York City, but in Tokyo and other cities in Japan, these more affordable neighborhoods are typically safe. Blight and crime issues in the North American sense are absent.

I don't know if this model can be applied to N. America, as some things are cultural. At least build more rail lines along with more high density housing centered around those lines. The established suburbs are hopeless, imo
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