Lessons from Tokyo
Exploring how other cities and countries approach housing, planning and development can often provide us with insight to enable us to better meet the housing needs of the residents of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). In early June, a Building and Land Development Association (BILD) delegation visited Tokyo and came away with quite a few impressions.
The population of the city of Tokyo is just shy of 10 million people and the population of the Greater Tokyo Area is approximately 38 million with a population density of 6,158 people per sq. km. This would be compared to Toronto’s three million and the GTA’s 6.4 million with a population density of 4,457 people per sq. km. So, while we have challenges in the GTA you can you can well imagine the magnitude of the task of housing, moving and providing places to work, shop and play for 38 million residents.
One of the first impressions of Tokyo is the transportation infrastructure. It is simply humbling to behold. Thirteen subway lines carry 8.7 million riders daily, by elevated trains and mono-rails, an integrated commuter rail system that fans out from multiple stations to all corners of the region and tripled stacked highways that snake through the heart of the city and bypass sensitive areas with tunnels. It’s enough to leave the average Ontarian with infrastructure envy. Tokyo makes it work. Their transportation system is efficient and it’s amazing.
The second impression is the typical built form for housing. There is literally housing that we refer to as missing middle in the GTA, everywhere in Tokyo. Midrise apartment buildings are the dominant housing type; the average building is about eight stories high and is spread throughout the neighbourhoods and regions of Tokyo. In the GTA, we refer to this type of housing as the “missing middle” because of the almost total absence of this type of housing that includes stacked townhomes and midrise buildings. The key feature of this type of housing is its ability to provide gentle density and increased housing supply when land is at a premium.
The third lesson is how transportation infrastructure and housing work together seamlessly. Homes are built near transit stations that form hubs around neighbourhoods. Everything is within walking distance of rapid transit of one form or another and balances the impact of the movement of people between automobiles and public transportation. While traffic congestion occurs, it’s nowhere near what we experience across the GTA on a daily basis.
Lastly, is the approach of the Japanese toward land use and built forms. At the risk of gross oversimplification, land use is flexed to requirements and when needs change so too do the buildings, torn down and rebuilt to accommodate a differing or changing need. It means there is change in housing stock, urban renewal and the concept of a “stable neighbourhood” like we have in Toronto doesn’t generally exist.
There are many lessons to take from Tokyo, and as our region’s population grows by almost 40 per cent through 2041, these lessons should be kept in mind as the GTA plans to house these people in the future.
DAVE WILKES is President and CEO of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD).