Saturday, 31 October 2015

What is urban land for? Insights from Japan

It appears that planning decisions made within Japan are a product of both land availability and cultural values of land and its purpose. Land availability is limited by physical characteristics such as terrain and also by much of the land already being utilised as efficiently as possible. Examples of the efficient land use we have witnessed on this particular field trip included almost zero setback distances in many highly urbanised centres, use of land for cemeteries and small scale agriculture in very small and irregular shaped parcels otherwise landlocked by transport or industrial land uses surrounding them. Such as small triangular pieces of land with poor access to roads or other infrastructure.

The availability of land is also a product of the economics of its use and as explained by Dr Kit Weddle when discussing land use in Tokyo, the value of commercial land in Tokyo comes from the money it can generate. The value is calculated as a ratio of land to the square meterage of all the possible floor levels, therefore the number of levels a building could be built up to was important for determining the economic yield derived from the building over its useful life.

We also noted that there is a cultural difference regarding planning for the protection of built heritage to our own. It appears that culturally in Japan a high level of respect and importance is placed on the protection of non tangible cultural customs and heritage rather than that of the built form. Economic uses and values of the physical use of the building and land seemed to be more important when it came to the protection of the built form. For example, in Victoria Australia, we even value the protection of the normal and working class relics of the past as a physical reminder. This includes the original fabric of former workers and miners cottages or old industrial buildings as well as notable buildings which physically remind us of the past uses and industries. However, in Japan old buildings and infrastructure are either removed and replaced altogether, or ruined and rebuilt with new materials and then extended with modern additions in order to increase their modern-day economic value.

Politically there is a considerable respect for the decisions that are made for the community in terms of planning. For example the Tokyo City Central region of ‘Shinjiku’ is governed by a Mayor and group of representatives of the Tokyo central wards. The area is close to the Tokyo central train station and hence is a popular place for doing business which in turn drives demand for further commercial development. Preservation or development of the built environment in Japan is largely a Government based ‘top-down’ type of governance which is strongly skewed to favour the economic outcome, rather than catering for social or environmental aspects of planning. Various decisions such as reclamation of former reservoir land for private development as the Tokyo CBD was expanding in the 60’s and more recently an allowance for increase land to floor level ratios to increase the economic yield of buildings in the CBD has also been generally respected and accepted by the business community in Japan.  

However, the Government assistance in preparing and protecting Sendai from future tsunami risk by building considerably large levee infrastructure has been accepted by the affected communities. This is despite their questioning whether such a levee wold succeed. Hence the various communities of Sendai have taken it upon themselves to implement other strategies such as education and social preparation for future disasters at the local level.

Whilst on a walking tour of the Shinjuku region of Tokyo central, an interesting point was made regarding the future of ongoing construction of large ‘skyscraper’ office buildings which take into account the future depletion of oil and other traditional energy sources. The skyscrapers recently constructed and existing buildings may become too expensive to run. Currently the skyscraper office buildings are major consumers of power and energy, and may not be readily adapted to run efficiently enough on alternative energy in years to come. Therefore the future construction and maintenance of these buildings may become economically redundant.  The redundancy of the buildings will worsen particularly if the majority of the 3 million daily commuters shift toward working remotely from home instead due to factors such as. The reduced rental income earned by the skyscrapers to house people, and also from the loss of the income currently generated by the retail industry supported by the concentration of retail development to fund the establishment and infrastructure of privately owned train lines and stations.

Bianca Kucina