National Policies for Japanese Cities | MIPIM-World Blog

The National Development Plan

Japan is the country which has experienced the same aggressive urban challenges that developing and emerging countries are facing currently. After the end of WW2 in 1945, Japan made a shift to a modern democratic country combined with a liberal capitalist economic system. It led to a rapid economic growth with industrialization and a population explosion, concentrated in major cities. This rapid urbanization was positive in terms of economic development and living standards, but it also brought negative factors such as congestion, environmental pollution, and disparities between the urban and rural areas, which have all emerged as critical national issues.

In 1962, pursuant to the provisions of the Comprehensive National Land Development Act, the national government created and issued the First Comprehensive National Development Plan. This plan intended to rectify the aforementioned problems whilst also promoting industrial development along the Japanese coast. One of the key development tools was the creation of the network by the inter-city high speed train system known as “Bullet Train.” It was believed that improving accessibility from the capital region to the suburban region would lead to “Balanced Prosperity” all over the nation. This was the key development concept until the 5th Comprehensive National Development Plan, the last plan issued under this act in 1998.


The Mega City Region Development Plans and the Capital Region Development Plan

As well as the National Development Plan, national government created the Three Major Mega City Region Development Plans including the Capital Region Development Plan five times while creating the national plans. The first Capital Region Development Plan was issued in 1958 (see The Re-Making of Tokyo : lessons for Asian Megacities). This introduced the green belt system with satellite cities to decentralize the concentrated functions to capital Tokyo. Although the green belt was not a complete success, decentralization policy has been maintained, consistent with the nationwide balanced distribution policy until the 5th Capital Region Development Plan issued in 1999. Today, the population of the capital region already surpassed 40 million which is one third of the national population, which means that the balanced prosperity policy has not fully achieved its goals.

Governance Layers in Japan

The Capital Region is comprised of 8 municipalities, which are Tokyo Metropolitan Area and Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Tochigi, Gunma, Ibaragi, and Yamanashi Prefectures. Each has its own mayor and assembly providing its own public services to citizens. Under this first layer of municipality, there are Special Wards (only for Tokyo), Cities, Towns, and Villages composing the second layer of municipality which are intended to offer more life related services to the residents. This layer is also governed by the elected mayor and assembly. City/Town planning service is primarily provided within this lowest municipality layer to reflect the voices of the residents effectively to the planning. Each City, Town, Village creates its own master plan, to actualize the bigger picture depicted in the National and Mega Region Development Plans by the national government. However there have been significant gaps in the outcomes mostly due to the financial constraints and protests by the local community. For example, the complete “Bullet Train” system has never been built (see yellow line in the above image) and the so called “Triple Loop” highway system in the Capital Region is still very slowly under construction. (see red dash line in the above image)

Shift of the Development Policy in the 21st Century

After the burst of the “Bubble” economy in the late 20th century, the situation of the whole society in Japan has changed, and the implementation of the nationwide development plan is no exception. Not only the economic recession, but also other new issues such as population decrease, falling birthrate, and aging, which Japan has never previously experienced, has led to the need for new planning concept in the national development plan. Furthermore, globalization has brought another issues into the planning system while the previous plan had only been focusing to solve the domestic issues.

In 2005, a new law to frame the national planning, The National Spatial Planning Act, was issued in lieu of the previous Comprehensive National Land Development Act. It requires a National Spatial Strategy and Regional Spatial Strategies; these plans were issued in 2008. The term “Development” has not only disappeared from the title of the plans but also from the main contents, and have been replaced with “Maintenance” or “Regeneration.” The other change in the plan is the establishment of 8 regions (including Hokkaido and Okinawa) with equal status, whereas the previous plans emphasized the development of the three major mega city regions. The aim to encourage sustainable growth of each region, enhancing the strength in their resources and industries.

Some regions, especially the Tohoku region hit by the ferocious earthquake and tsunami, appear to be unready to sustain the growth without relying on the capital region. However, stable society without slums, well developed infrastructure, solved environmental problems, and sophisticated industries are supposed to be spread across the whole nation. Now, it is intended that all Japanese regions will achieve smarter growth based on these fundamentals.

The key to the success would need to be the governance of these regions. As mentioned, current multiple layers of governance system are not always working properly. Based on this new planning act, reformation of the governance layers will include introducing the “State” region governance system. Making the regions more independent and responsible as States would introduce a new competition and that would further reinforce each region to be more able to compete globally.

Top image credit: Photobank gallery

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