Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Building Suburbs in Japan: Continuous Unplanned Change on the Urban Fringe

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Building Suburbs in Japan: Continuous Unplanned Change on the Urban Fringe

Article excerpt

As in other countries, most visitors to Japan spend little time in the suburbs, concentrating their time rather in the city centres and historic areas and possibly visiting prominent sites of great natural beauty such as Mount Fuji or a hotspring resort. However, even the casual visitor cannot help but be struck by the seemingly endless urban fringe areas which fly past bullet train windows when travelling between urban centres. The student of urban growth and planning who takes the time to get off the train at a suburban stop and explore these suburbs will be even more perplexed. Why do Japanese suburbs look so different from those of other developed countries? Why, in a country that has practised land use zoning since 1919 is there such a great intermixture of residential, agricultural, commercial and industrial land uses? Why are there so few large-scale suburban housing estates such as those found in other developed countries, and why are there so few of the exclusive residential developments for the affluent that have recently become common in other similarly wealthy nations? Why does intensive agriculture persist as small patches of vegetables or rice paddy in areas that are otherwise mostly built up while at the same time small clumps of houses are scattered throughout areas that are still mostly agricultural? This paper is a product of a larger research project that sought to provide answers to these and other perplexing aspects of Japanese urbanisation.

Recent research that examined the role of land development projects on the growth of suburban residential areas in Japan since the passage of the New City Planning Law of 1968 (Sorensen, 1999; 2000b) showed that a predominant characteristic of suburban development in Japan has been the scattering of development, with an extreme form of haphazard, unplanned growth being common in suburban areas outside Tokyo. One of the most interesting characteristics of Japanese suburban development revealed by these studies was the extremely long development periods of suburban residential areas such as those studied. The three case study areas, all located between 20 and 40 kilometres from Tokyo Station, each included about 700 hectares of building land. All were experiencing significant suburban development pressure in 1968, yet by 1992 only about half of all developable land had been built up, with an average of 1.2 per cent of the buildable land being developed each year during the 24-year period studied. Furthermore, rates of build up had actually declined to about 1 per cent per year during the most recent 10-year period; at such a rate it would take another half century to reach completion, for a total development period of some 75 years. That seems an extraordinarily long time for what are really rather small suburban areas. The urban fringe in Japan is thus characterised by a continuity of high-intensity agricultural practice with, in Hanayama's (1986, 36) apt description of the process, the gradual 'diffusion' of urban uses into the predominantly rural landscape as farm landowners sell tiny bits of their land holding (in his sample also at a rate of about 1 per cent per year) (Hanayama, 1986, 69). The process continues until only remnants of agricultural use are left in a general sea of urban development.

Such patterns of development seem very different from those found in Europe or North America, where larger planned developments are more common and after an initial period of development and building activity most suburban residential areas are relatively stable in their built form and land use patterns compared with Japan. Indeed, such stability is highly valued in residential environments and local residents are often willing to go to great lengths to preserve their communities and their investments from change (Sies, 1997). Through an examination of the planning and development of a new residential area in Urawa City, Saitama Prefecture-a primarily residential area in the suburbs north of Tokyo-this paper attempts to clarify the impacts of the long construction times described above on patterns of development and on residential environments in such suburban areas in Japan. …

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