Japan’s cities are being remade for an aging population

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Toyama nests between a deep blue bay and snow-capped peaks, about 250km northwest of Tokyo. In many ways, it is a large Japanese provincial town: its inhabitants are gray, its industry is stable but sclerotic, its food is exquisite. American firebombing aimed at its steel mills destroyed 99% of the Toyama plant during World War II. After that, the town was rebuilt quickly and sprawling as the population grew. But that was then. Since the 1990s the city of 414,000 (and falling) has battled the ills of an aging population: ballooning bills, falling tax revenues and an up-to-date urban plan .

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But Toyama has been fighting much better than most – even managing a small recovery. A new narrow gauge light rail line, the first in Japan, passes through the city center. Skirted by a streamlined medieval castle, snow-white walls, the line runs to a previously neglected port further north on the bay. An old elementary school, its classrooms out of date, has been turned into a snazzy senior center with hot spring exercise pools. On a new central plaza is the crown jewel of the renovated Toyama: a cultural center designed by Kuma Kengo, a star architect, which houses an extensive library and a glass art museum.

The city has adopted what urban planners call a “tight city” policy. Realizing that sprawl is expensive to build, maintain and service, planners try to make cities smaller, denser and less dependent on cars. These goals, long pursued in Europe, are relatively new to Japan. Local governments see themselves as a way to “test municipal responsibilities” amid demographic change, says Andre Sorensen of the University of Toronto. The World Bank calls Toyama a “global role model” for compact cities.

Planners there have followed what they call a “dumpling and skewer” structure, in which denser hubs (the dumplings) are connected by public transport (the skewers). He had to make it work first by winning over many of the locals who were skeptical. Mori Masashi, who was mayor of Toyama from 2002 to 2021 and oversaw the transformation, held hundreds of town hall debates about the plan. “I had to get people to think 30 years into the future,” he explains. He also traveled to study from cities as far away as Amsterdam and Portland.

Thoughtful planning helped. The new light rail has carriages parallel to the station platforms, eliminating the steps that older cyclists can travel. In case young people feel left out, the city also built a skate park, which is rare in Japan. Projects like this made great use of the city’s resources. Old railway tracks were re-laid for the new light rail, a move that reduced costs by 75%, according to the World Bank. While the government handled construction, they outsourced the rail network to an experienced private company. He also offered subsidies to entice people to move into the dumplings.

The policy, although not a panacea for the demographic tension, changed Toyama’s path. The city arrested the flow of people from its center: net migration into the city center was negative before 2008 but has been growing since then. In 2005 only 28% of Toyama residents lived on public transport corridors; by 2019 nearly 40% did. The new developments have made buildings more attractive. Land prices in the city center had been declining by around 2% a year until 2012; in the decade since, they have grown by an average of 2% per year, with gains in some areas reaching as high as 6%. Using more tax revenue from the revitalized city center to support more remote parts of the region is a “basic model for other cities”, says Nitta Hachiro, the prefectural governor of the tour, also known as Toyama.

New urban planning may have other long-term benefits. Public transport use among people aged 60 and over has more than tripled. Sakamoto Kazuko, a 73-year-old local, says the new network has made life “more convenient”. She goes out more often than before, using a discount rail pass for seniors to visit the city center and walk while her grandchildren are at school. Small studies show promising results: seniors who stay active by using their discounted mobility passes need less nursing care than those who don’t.

For those who live far from the center, the benefits are less clear. The city is a “bubble” that outsiders look at with “cold eyes”, says a 73-year-old shopkeeper in the suburbs. Local governments with aging and shrinking populations face tough choices about where to keep water and sewers running and where to close schools and clinics. Even as cities strive to become more compact, they may not reach the density necessary to keep businesses profitable, says Okata Junichiro, also from the University of Tokyo. But they have to try. Japanese cities once became bold. As the population ages and declines, they must learn to decline with grace.

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