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HOME > No.12, Feb 2018 > Feature Story : The Bright Side of Urban Shrinkage : Steps toward Restructuring Cities

The Bright Side of Urban Shrinkage:
Steps toward Restructuring Cities

Junichiro Asano

One urgent challenge resulting from the rapid population decline in Japan today is the problem of urban shrinkage. Professor Junichiro Asano is engaging in this major theme from the viewpoint of a “land utilization plan”: an approach to prevent city dilution; a way to utilize the sprawling empty space and abandoned houses; and a method to maintain or reconstruct the city to be an attractive and comfortable place to live in. As a specialist, he is keen to present the problems after fully understanding the current conditions and tasks, and to encourage people to discuss the newly proposed suggestions.

Interview and report by Madoka Tainaka

Making the current problems clear, taking the role of the City Planning Law into account

In August 2017, The Architectural Institute of Japan published a book entitled “Land utilization plan during the urban shrinkage period: Challenges and approaches to create a diverse urban space.” The leader who coordinated this book project, Professor Junichiro Asano, served as the chief examiner for the “Land Utilization Problems Committee” of this institute for over four years until last year. His research achievements included writing part of the book, and engaging in selecting writers, including international researchers.

Professor Asano explains “the purpose of this book was to lay out the challenges of land utilization plans in full, clarifying the current challenges and identifying problems. In more concrete terms, the book is split into two parts: Symptoms and Solutions; and individual problems occurring in both metropolitan areas and provincial cities are explained in detail.”

The main theme of the book is the land utilization plan system which Professor Asano specializes in: the so-called “dividing system” and “development permission system.” The dividing system is a system classifying urbanization promotion and control areas based on the City Planning Law. The development permission system secures the purposes of this classification. Both systems work for the purpose of healthy urban development, by restricting areas to be developed and promoting planned urbanization.

Fig.1 Area division operation and future shrinking plan in Gifu city

Professor Asano explains, “These systems were established pursuant to the new City Planning Law, which became effective in 1968, and Japan can rightly be proud of them. Originally, they were made for the purpose of systematically designing urban district development, in preparation for future population increases. However, these systems later also functioned as a major deterrent of suburban sprawl. They are valuable systems and should continue to be maintained in the future for the purpose of environmental protection in rural areas and the promotion of sensible planning for making cities compact. However, various operational issues were discovered following a decrease in population. Pointing out these challenges and suggesting their solutions is one of the objectives of my research.”

Need for a land utilization plan that can adapt to changes over time

So far the City Planning Law has undergone several major amendments in response to the slowing of population growth and the new reality of an aging society. In 2000, a major amendment was made to include deregulation measures, and in 2006, the amended City Planning Law was established, including strict regulation of large scale shopping and leisure centers regarding opening their stores in the suburbs, and expanding the development permission system to include public facilities. These amendments gradually paved the way for introducing city functions and residential areas in accordance with social changes.

However, Professor Asano indicates that today the existing model is facing difficulties of maintaining a healthy city appearance.

“The premise of the conventional basic land utilization plan is beginning to show cracks due to urban shrinkage. If the population density in an area designated for urbanization falls below 40 people per hectare, maintaining the city planning area becomes difficult. Now, some areas designated for urbanization are forced to shrink because of reclassification. Decline in population density in cities will be an inevitable problem in the future, and discussion on the appropriate density is required.”

Due to population decrease, area shrinkage seems necessary for maintaining city functions. However, on the other side of the compact city debate is the fear that the suburbs may be abandoned.

Then, in 2014, the Location Adequacy Plan pursuant to the amended Urban Renaissance Special Measure Law was formulated. “This is an idea of gradually shrinking not only the central business district but also connected areas, by creating multiple cores in suburbs and connecting them to public transportation and other networks. Constructing welfare facilities in the cores allows for the creation of senior friendly towns, and the shrinkage plan will be reviewed every five years in order to align with current circumstances.”

Fig.2 Shrinking situation in Nagasaki city

In recent years, various regional revitalization programs were started by means of the “Town, People, and Work Creation Law” to address the overconcentration of the population in the Tokyo area and to improve the appeal of all regions across the country. In 2015, the Special Measures Concerning Unoccupied Housing Act came into effect. These programs show a national intention of giving a soft landing to the urban shrinking problem through establishing new regulations while effectively utilizing the current law systems.

“This national position itself is characteristically Japanese, though that is not necessarily a negative thing. However, the approach of restructuring cities by means of a land utilization plan needs to be discussed in more depth. Moreover, in the future, raising points of discussion regarding the method of designing law systems seems to be part of our roles as specialists.”

What it means to learn from international case studies

Another current interest of Professor Asano is in comparing the situation of Japanese cities to other cities abroad.
Professor Asano said, “In Europe and the US, the problem of urban shrinkage has been discussed in the early stages and researchers are actively engaging in international comparative studies. There are many researchers motivated to learn from case studies in other countries from the viewpoint of preventative resilience, such as recovery and defense strategies, rather than dealing with the problem after it has occurred, as Japan has done.”

However, especially in Europe, the way in which public services are viewed is greatly different from in Japan. City functions, including public transportation, are considered as a public right, so they are neither planned nor operated on a profit basis. Urban areas and other areas are clearly divided and the discussion about unoccupied housing issues is made from the viewpoint of how to fill the “holes” in a city.

“The scattered dilution phenomenon seen in Japan is caused by vague boundary lines between urban areas and other areas, and it is difficult for people in Europe to relate to.”
“Even so, discussion with international researchers is very productive. In Japan, the discussion of urban shrinkage seems to be unbalanced, focusing only on limited themes such as problems regarding increasing sparsity and unoccupied housing in cities. However, international researchers speak freely of reconsidering the Linear Shinkansen, or moving towards an active immigration policy, though such topics would be deemed as taboo in Japan. Actually, it is true that the opening of the Shinkansen increased the overconcentration in Tokyo, and acceptance of immigrants may lead to preventing a decline in the labor population.”

“Individual cultures and regulations are different, though they all face the same problem of urban shrinkage. Listening to opinions from international researchers is very productive.”

Also, Professor Asano says that multiple causes exist for urban shrinkage and that there are different solutions for each cause. As was seen in the dramatic change in towns caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the following accident in the nuclear power plant, natural disasters and accidents can cause urban shrinkage. Whereas, as seen in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and Syria, rapid changes in society and the ravages of war also can cause major changes in town appearance. He says that it is also important to learn from several different types of cases such as these.

“The population decrease is a negative factor; however, we must consider it as an opportunity to improve cities effectively. There is no silver bullet that will fix everything immediately, but even so I am highly motivated to raise points of discussion and provide some advice as a specialist to contribute to further discussion.”

Professor Asano said that seeing changes in towns based on policies incorporating his suggestions is the real pleasure of city research. He also said that he is keen to contribute to city creation while more actively collaborating with international researchers in the future.

Reporter's Note

Professor Asano said that though he has had many opportunities to visit countries in his research, he feels “he likes Japan better” each time he comes back. “In Finland, since the 19th century, cities were designed with modern architecture and the quality of design is very high. The level of education is also high and it has a substantial social security system. There is a relaxed air there. We have many things to learn from Finland, which built such attractive cities with a population of 10 million people.” Moreover, he said that allotment gardens such as “Kolonihave” in Denmark and “Kleingarten” in Germany also give clues on handling urban shrinkage. There are many things to be learned from European countries; not only about city appearance, but also about workstyles and leisure time.

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Researcher Profile

Dr. Junichiro Asano

Dr. Junichiro Asano

Dr. Junichiro Asano received his B.A. and M.S. degrees in architecture and civil engineering in 1991, 1993, respectively from Toyohashi University of Technology, Aichi, and he received a Ph.D. degree in urban engineering in 2001 from The University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan. From 1993 to 1994, he belonged to Sekisui House Ltd. and from 1994 to 2008, to Nagano National College of Technology, Nagano, Japan, as a permanent academic staff. Since 2008, he joined the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, Toyohashi University of Technology, where he is now serving as a Full Professor.

Reporter Profile

Madoka Tainaka

Madoka Tainaka is a freelance editor, writer and interpreter. She graduated in Law from Chuo University, Japan. She served as a chief editor of “Nature Interface” magazine, a committee for the promotion of Information and Science Technology at MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).