Japan could rebuild its cities to be better

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It is just beginning to become possible to grasp the medium and long-term effects of the catastrophe of Kobe: in the first instance what the disaster will mean for Japanese economic policy over the next few years; and then, beyond that, some of the implications for the rest of the world. A thoughtful Japanese friend put the task facing Japanese policy-makers like this. "The scale of both the physical damage to Kobe and the human toll was of course far greater than anyone had envisaged, and this in part explains why in the short term the response of the authorities was so inadequate. But because of this, we realise that it is all the more important to use the knowledge we have gained in a positive way. In the first instance this means that we must approach the rebuilding of Kobe carefully to make sure that we avoid this sort of disaster in the future. And beyond that, we must use the knowledge we gain for the rebuilding of the other cities in Japan, including Tokyo itself, for some day there will the next great earthquake on the Kanto plain."

This makes a lot of sense. Up to now most of the discussion about the physical effects of the earthquake has been in terms of building codes: the extent to which the newer buildings, built to higher standards than the old ones, have been able to withstand the shock. In other words, the discussion has been in the language of civil engineering: what do you need to do to enable buildings - or raised motorways, or railway lines - to be quake-proof. That discussion will continue, and when Kobe is rebuilt everything practicable will be done to make sure the buildings incorporate best-available anti-earthquake technology.

But there is a second level of debate: town planning. The problem for Japanese cities is not just that too many of their buildings may fall down; it is that the physical layout of the buildings, the use of land, and the whole design of the cities is extremely wasteful. As anyone who visits Tokyo will know, this vast agglomeration, the largest community of human beings in the world, has been made to work.

But this is at the cost of enormously high land values, which redistribute wealth in a capricious way; by enormous investment in urban transport systems which are, at rush-hour, pretty uncomfortable; by requiring workers to commute very long distances; and by confining people to roughly two-thirds the living space per person that they would expect to have in a European city.

Since the Kobe earthquake, the Japanese establishment, certainly the business community, maybe the bureaucracy too, has been realising that other Japanese cities have to be rebuilt. At one level this is simply a question of strengthening existing buildings, and the most urgent action will be on this score. But it would be an enormous missed opportunity were Japan just to rebuild in the same way, but to a somewhat higher standard. The opportunity is there to rebuild Japanese cities so that, for example, they involve shorter commutes, give people larger homes, and create more public-access green space.

Absurd, impossible? Well, no. Tokyo is not a dense city - it is less densely populated that London or Paris. It is very short of public access parkland, with roughly one-tenth as much per person as London. Because most of the homes are one or two-storey houses on individual plots, the use of space is much less efficient than the London three or four-storey terrace house, or the Paris five or six-storey apartment building.

Because housing uses space inefficiently, there is little road space, and little open space. The result is sprawl, This sprawl, combined with land use restrictions which limit office and shop development in residential areas, has in turn led to the very long commuting times.

The situation is made worse because much of the open space that does exist is private. The most obvious example of this is the fact that the main part of the imperial gardens in the centre of Tokyo is closed to the public, but more serious for most Tokyo-dwellers is the way in which tiny farms still exist in the metropolitan area. These are kept largely for tax reasons, for they not only attract subsidies for their produce but also enable the families that own them to enjoy other tax breaks.

There is a whole string of interconnected legislation involving taxation, land use and building regulation, which need to be changed. But it has not been possible to do anything about any of this legislation: the required political consensus does not exist. While a number of strategic plans have been developed, some of which have sought to cut commuting distances by moving office development out of the centre and into residential areas, it has not been possible to make much progress.

Now there is an opportunity. The fact that many buildings will need to be rebuilt gives an opportunity to reshape not only Tokyo, but also other large Japanese cities. They need to be made safer, of course, but they can also be made nicer places to live and work.

Whether this will happen naturally remains to be seen. But the fact that this is starting to be talked about has an influence that goes well beyond Japan itself for this reason: if Japan decides to rebuild its cities, the country will shift to a period where it tends to look inward rather than outward.

It is not a thought that is voiced much in Japan, but anyone who looks at Japanese history will be aware that it has experienced periods where it has looked out to the rest of the world, interspersed by periods when it has looked inward, developing its own culture and nurturing its own traditions. I would not suggest that Japan is going to turn its back on the rest of the world.

But it is plausible to see it spending a decade devoting much more attention and money to rebuilding cities to withstand serious earthquakes . . . and inevitably leaving fewer resources for investment abroad.