(2024-03-07) Smith Why Japanese Cities Are Such Nice Places To Live

Noah Smith: Why Japanese cities are such nice places to live. (Traditional City) Every once in a while, American social media rediscovers tiny Japanese apartments. The latest instance of this was a video of a Japanese studio apartment in Tokyo that’s 250 square feet for $300 a month:

Now, that’s an incredibly good price compared to top American cities. $300 for 250 square feet is just $1.2 per square foot! A study last year found that rents in New York City are astronomically higher than that — $6.17 per square foot in Manhattan, $4.39 per square foot in Brooklyn

One reason for this, of course, is that Japanese cities like Tokyo build a ton of housing. But another reason is lower demand — Japanese people are, on average, much poorer than Americans, with less than half the median disposable personal income. This means they can’t afford to pay as much for apartments, so prices are lower.

when I was 25, I lived in a Japanese apartment slightly smaller than the one in the video for about half a year. It was cramped, yes, but it was actually a really nice living experience. And understanding why it was a nice living experience is helpful for understanding why American cities are so unsatisfying.

Why was it so nice to live in a tiny apartment? Part of it, certainly, was that I was 25 and footloose, living in a foreign city and partying a lot.

But much of it had to do with how Japanese cities are built. Japan has really mastered the art of dense, mixed-use urbanism. This means that even if you live in a tiny apartment, the city around you is so nice that your live can feel very free and luxurious.

Mixed-use zoning with high commercial density

almost every zone is mixed-use

most zones don’t expressly forbid stores. Here is an infographic of the 12 basic types of Japanese zones:

Because almost every area has stores and restaurants, even in the suburbs, you’re never far from a store or restaurant. This makes it a lot easier to live in a tiny apartment, because you don’t have to keep nearly as many things in your house.

if I wanted to drink water bottles sometimes, I would have to store some in my house. That takes up space. And the same goes for food, kitchen supplies, cleaning supplies, and so on

Having restaurants nearby is also incredibly freeing

Having stores and restaurants within a couple minutes’ walking distance of your house does something else — it creates public space near your house

In Japan, by contrast, you see strangers in your neighborhood all the time — in the convenience store, in the noodle shop, or walking down the street from their own houses to those shops and restaurants

It creates a feeling of communality — of shared civilization and community — even if no words are spoken

Of course, all of this requires something besides mixed-use zoning — it requires high commercial density.

We tend to think of “density” as residential density — the number of people who live in a given area

Japanese cities, in contrast, have a ton of little stores and restaurants. One reason for this is that as you can see in the chart above, Japanese zoning explicitly limits the size of stores in residential areas; the more residential an area, the smaller the stores have to be.

Japan also has a national law protecting small stores — the Large-Scale Retail Store Law, which makes it hard to build a big-box store. This law was relaxed somewhat in the 90s, but it’s still important. It has some negative effects — small stores are inefficient, which raises consumer prices for Japanese households. It also probably has some beneficial effects on Japan’s political economy — it protects a thriving small-business-owning middle class, which in turn demands walkable neighborhoods and good transit systems in order to have more foot traffic for their stores.

But most importantly, it creates a variety of stores in a neighborhood

there are a number of things Japan does to make its urban neighborhoods especially livable.

The first of these, of course, is public safety. Japan has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world

But a city doesn’t have to be anywhere near as safe as Japan in order to reap major benefits from public safety. New York City is America’s safest big city, and it has the country’s most walkable, dense, vibrant neighborhoods

In fact, there’s a virtuous cycle between public safety and dense walkability — the more people are out walking around, the more “eyes on the street” there are to deter crime, which in turn makes more people feel safe walking around.

A second thing that makes Japanese cities incredibly livable is low noise

In Japan, there are regulations about how noisy trucks and other vehicles are allowed to be

Newer Japanese buildings, unlike most buildings in NYC or other American cities, are designed to be soundproof.

Japan also tends to have a lot of very nice public spaces where people can walk around. These include urban parks (city park), which tend to be very beautiful.

Many large streets also have very wide sidewalks that are protected from road traffic by trees, railings, and various structures.

And Japanese cities are rife with public commercial spaces in alleys, train station basements, covered shopping arcades, and even highway underpasses

And of course there are the trains. Japan has arguably the best train system in the world. In large cities like Tokyo, the system is so dense that it’s rarely more than a 10-minute walk to the nearest train station. (mass transit)

All this public space does one thing — it makes the world outside your apartment feel big and accessible

Living inside versus living outside

In his famous book Bowling Alone, the sociologist Robert Putnam documented how Americans have begun to “hunker” inside their houses

He attributed part of this to America’s increasing racial diversity, but quantitatively, this was only a very small part of the effect. My guess is that America’s built environment is a far bigger factor.

In Japan, in contrast, you mostly live your life outside. You spend a lot of your time walking around, seeing — or, if you’re not shy, meeting — strangers, discovering new places to eat and shop, enjoying the pleasant public spaces

New York City, the closest thing America has to Tokyo, manages to achieve something almost as good. Its public safety is decent, its trains are serviceable, and many neighborhoods have bodegas and little neighborhood restaurants.

What America really could use — and what it’s within our power to create — is a few more Manhattans. With a little hard work, dedication and vision, quasi-dense cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle could replicate much of NYC’s train-centric mixed-use density. And even Houston and Atlanta and Dallas could build more dense, mixed-use neighborhoods if they wanted to.

Secrets of Japanese urbanism (part 2)

I thought I’d write a follow-up to my post a couple of weeks ago about Japanese urbanism

There’s a huge amount of historical context involved in how Japanese cities became the way they are

A group of authors, led by Jorge Almazán, has written a book that tries to boil down a lot of these historical, institutional, and contingent factors into a few key elements that give Tokyo its distinctive look and feel. That book is called Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City

One of the contributors to that book was a friend of mine named Joe McReynolds. He has also written a paper, entitled “Understanding Tokyo's Land Use: The Power of Microspaces”, which is a great companion to Emergent Tokyo

Zakkyo buildings

colorful densely packed electric signs running up and down the front of narrow buildings

They contain a whole bunch of small retail businesses — restaurants, bars, retail outlets, schools, health care offices, whatever

Building tall-ish, narrow buildings was a way to maximize usable floor space within the rules of the postwar period.

perhaps most importantly, Japanese regulations were and are very lenient about allowing a bunch of electric signs, including signs that hang out into the street

Putting a restaurant on the 4th floor of a building often only makes sense if you can inform passing pedestrians that there’s a restaurant up there — which means having a big glowing sign.

When you can stack a bunch of retail businesses vertically, you can cram a whole lot of retail into a very small part of a city.

Pocket neighborhoods

A lot of older Japanese buildings are made of wood

This is a giant fire hazard

Tokyo created a bunch of large streets fronted by giant concrete buildings, to act as natural firebreaks.

“pocket” neighborhoods, where a dense maze of small streets and low-rise buildings are shielded by what are basically giant walls.

What this means is that if you’re inside the pocket, you don’t run into a lot of cars.

These pocket neighborhoods achieve what “superblocks” are supposed to achieve, but rarely do.

the lack of any sort of grid plan.

side streets are explicitly for pedestrians first, instead of for cars first. If you’re in a car, you try to stick to the big roads, because otherwise you can easily get lost in an absolute maze of winding side streets

In New York City, in contrast, the grid plan means that it’s easy for cars to use small residential streets to get between one big road and the next. So they do. Which means that no matter how small your street is in Manhattan or the inner parts of the boroughs, you can’t really walk in the middle of the street.

Bottom-up organization

Even residential suburban neighborhoods will have a few businesses scattered around them — a bike shop, a cafe, a neighborhood bar, a little fabric store, and so on

Mixed-use zoning creates walkability.

Local neighborhood associations (自 治会 or jijikai, literally “self-governance association”) will often mediate those disputes between neighbors about what is or isn’t unreasonable. (HOA)

A recent article by Anya Martin documents how Houston has been able to build a lot of “missing middle” housing in residential neighborhoods — essentially by giving each micro-neighborhood control over whether to allow density

Emergent Tokyo documents how many of Japan’s distinctive commercial spaces — the yokocho alleyways, under-track shopping arcades, shotengai covered shopping streets, and even some zakkyo buildings — are protected by small business associations that resist pressure for redevelopment

That and many, many other similar episodes demonstrate the usefulness of commercial NIMBYism to create distinctive and interesting city experiences. I spend a lot of time decrying residential NIMBYism for blocking the building of new housing.

Which brings me to the biggest thing that Emergent Tokyo leaves out — the centrality of small business protections to Japanese urbanism and Japanese society.

Japan’s secret sauce is small business

Greater Tokyo has 160,000 restaurants. The New York City metropolitan area has 25,000. The Paris metropolitan area has only 13,000

Most of these are small businesses rather than big chains. This turns out to be essential not just to Japan’s excellent urbanism, but to Japan’s middle class as well.

The space thrives because of high commercial density

it’s not just variety; it’s uniqueness. If you went into a zakkyo building and everything was just an Olive Garden, a Starbucks, or a 24 Hour Fitness, it would get pretty boring after a while

without the small business associations to band together and resist redevelopment pressures, Japan’s most iconic urban spaces will eventually be turned into boring corporate malls

What Emergent Tokyo never delves into is why Japan is so small-business-centric. Part of it is driven by policy — Japan has a number of government policies in place to support small retail businesses over large one. One of these is the Large Store Law.

But there are many others. There are a vast and diverse array of subsidies and supports targeted specifically at small retail businesses — startup cost assistance, renovation assistance, low-interest loans, tax incentives, training for small business entrepreneurs, community preservation laws, and so on.

small business owners provide a crucial constituency for many of the essential ingredients of Japanese urbanism.

Chains have name recognition and marketing budgets; small independent restaurants and stores in urban areas depend more on serendipitous foot traffic. So it’s in the interests of small businesspeople to have great trains, walkable spaces, and residential density, in order to get them more customers.

And small businesses create the ultimate constituency for capitalism itself. Centrally planned economies rarely have the kind of spontaneous, vibrant commercial spaces described so lovingly in Emergent Tokyo. Small business turns a large mass of the middle class into capitalists

There’s a cost in terms of efficiency, but cheap stuff isn’t the only enjoyable thing in this world.

Big U.S. cities can change this if they want to. There’s already a movement to restrict chain stores in city centers, but it needs to be paired with measures to encourage, train, and support small independent retail businesses. Zoning reform has to be a part of this, and regulations like permitting requirements and limitations on liquor licenses and electric signs should be loosened

Small businesses are now under threat in Japan, due to a lack of young people who want to take over family businesses. (there are multiple match-making businesses for finding non-family people to take over a family business)

But as Emergent Tokyo notes, there still are quite a few young Japanese people who want to start new small retail businesses.

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