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How does Tokyo build so much housing?
Compared to London, New York City, and Paris
Greater London Authority Housing Research Note 3, Housing in four world cities: London, New York, Paris and Tokyo (April 2019), by James Gleeson.
How has Tokyo built so much housing compared to London, New York City, and Paris? Since 1963, Tokyo’s housing supply has nearly tripled. Over a similar time period, the other three cities have increased their housing supply by only 20-30%.
Is it because homes in Tokyo are tiny compared to elsewhere? No. A comparison of floor area per person.
Is it because everyone’s living in high-rises? Surprisingly, no. A comparison of how many homes are in buildings more than four storeys tall.
Is it because the number of people living in Tokyo grew faster than in the other three cities? No: housing has grown faster than population (as people’s income increases, they want more space), and the difference is greater than in the other three cities.
So what’s the answer? Allowing new housing is a collective action problem: making decisions at a hyperlocal level prevents new housing from being built. In Japan, both land use and building codes are regulated at the national level, not at the local level. Alan Durning in Sightline:
Housing obstructionism is a potent impulse among neighbors in Japan, just as it is in other places. It’s a constant in human affairs. But the nation’s centralization of control over buildings makes it moot. The national interest lies in developing compact, walkable, low-carbon neighborhoods with plenty of homes for everyone, and that’s what policy allows, obstructionists be damned. Takahiko Noguchi, a planner in Tokyo’s Minato ward explained to the Financial Times’ Harding, “People have the right to use their land so basically neighbouring people have no right to stop development.” Just so, “local government has almost no power over development,” said Professor Junichiro Okata of the University of Tokyo.
Housing Research Notes from the Greater London Authority.
Twitter thread by @Union_Tpke, summarizing the research note.
Yes, other countries do housing better, case 1: Japan (2021), by Alan Durning. Part of a series on Sightline.
Explanation of Japanese zoning (2014), from the Urban kchoze blog. There’s only 12 zones, defined at the national level, and they’re inclusive rather than exclusive: for example, housing can be built in almost any zone.
Why is Japanese zoning more liberal than US zoning? (2019), by Nolan Gray. “Japan combines these liberal use and design guidelines with an ‘as-of-right’ system of permitting, meaning that if a project complies with the zoning, it doesn’t need to go through a discretionary review process. In this sense, Japanese zoning gets close to proper planning: policymakers consider upfront what type of development they would like to permit and where, and when developers come up with a conforming proposal, they hand over the needed permits. This provides developers and local residents with a high degree of certainty about what can and cannot be built.”
A video illustration, from the channel Life Where I’m From: