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.”
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.
— Scott Epstein (@seepstein) August 6, 2016
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: