Wendell Cox has received his fair share of criticism from this blog, but his post last week about Tokyo’s surprising lack of density is very interesting. Sure, Tokyo’s suburbs are dense enough to be connected by job centers by rail, but the core is almost completely low- and lower-mid-rise, and thus not very dense:
Tokyo does not have intensely dense central areas. The ku area [historic core] has a density of 37,300 per square mile (14,400 per square kilometer). This is well below the densities of Manhattan (69,000 & 27,000) and the ville de Paris (51,000 & 21,000). Only one of the ku (Toshima) exceeds the density of Paris.
And then the suburbs themselves aren’t as compact as they could be:
Further, according to the Japan House and Land Survey of 2008, Tokyo has a large stock of detached houses, by definition lower density. Nearly 45 percent of the Tokyo region’s housing is detached. One-third of the dwellings within 30 kilometers (18 miles) of the core are detached. This figure rises to more than 60 percent outside 30 kilometers from the core and 85 percent between 60 and 70 kilometers (37-43 kilometers) from the core (Figure 2).
Some might see this as a validation of New Urbanism (which is sort of a bastardization of Old Urbanism), whose response to tall building enthusiasts like myself, Ed Glaeser, and Alon Levy is that “dense doesn’t have to mean tall.” And it’s true – Tokyo manages a relatively high density with very few tall buildings.
But there are costs that Tokyo bears for its lack of height and downtown density.
First and foremost are the high housing prices. Imagine New York City if Midtown and the Upper East and West Sides were still tenement neighborhoods, and everyone living and working above the sixth floor was competing for housing and space in the outer boroughs. Narrow the streets and replace the prewars with postwar buildings, and that’s Tokyo.
Tokyo’s high housing costs manifest themselves in many different ways. For one, people cram themselves into tinier and tinier homes, and are forced to endure the noise of their neighbors in a way they wouldn’t be if half of them could be elevated into the sky. Smaller homes are ceteris paribus good more energy efficient, but not when so many of the homes in the suburbs are single-family detached, and thus less energy efficient than slightly larger apartments that aren’t leaking energy from all five exposed sides.
High prices also cause people to live very far from work. Many of them still take the train, but the commute is very long, sapping what is becoming an increasingly precious commodity: time. And some commutes are just impossibly long, limiting job opportunities and flexibility.
And then on an aesthetic note, the density caps lead to ugly (not to mention energy inefficient) buildings. Japanese cities have very few historic areas left compared to European and American ones, but redevelopment is limited by the fact that many urban buildings are built to the zoning envelope, and thus tearing them down and building anew will result in higher rents per square foot, but not more square feet.
In this way, Tokyo is a little like the northern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint: huge demand drives up prices for a hideous housing stock that isn’t being expanded even when it is replenished.
Many people say that Japan’s low-rise skyline is the result of its earthquake-prone geology, but from what I understand, the consensus among engineers nowadays is that skyscrapers aren’t actually more earthquake-prone than lower buildings. Shortly after Japan’s earthquake last year, R. Taggart Murphy at TNR wrote that “skyscrapers, if properly constructed, were actually more structurally stable than the six-to-eight-story office buildings that then constituted Japan’s standard office blocks,” saying that Japan accepted this engineering reality in the ’60s when it allowed the first skyscrapers to go up.
And in fact Japanese seem to be demanding downtown high-rises. Even after the earthquake, Japanese buyers didn’t abandon high-rises like everyone thought they would:
In the months right after last year’s March 11 earthquake, sales of [high-rise] condominiums in Tokyo dropped 30 percent compared to the previous year. Much of the drop was in areas surrounding Tokyo Bay, which is basically landfill. Fears of liquefaction caused potential buyers of tower condos to reconsider, and for a while the media surmised that planned high-rise housing projects might be abandoned.
That didn’t happen. According to real-estate analysts, the earthquake convinced many commuters to move closer to their workplaces, so if another major one strikes they would be able to get home quickly and without the need for public transportation. And the waterfront is within 5 km of the central business district of the capital.
Tokyo doesn’t need to embrace all aspects of the “hypertrophic” city. The streets, for example, can stay narrow. But it’s got to at least give up on the obsession with low- to lower/middle-height buildings if it wants to bring down housing prices, cut commutes, and give its inhabitants more space and privacy.
Come to think of it, a modern Japanese take on Manhattan’s Financial District would be pretty cool!