This Japanese town has banned urban sprawl

Urban planning

Osaka, Japan (Andrew Leu, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Charlotte Edmond, Formative Content


Waves of up to 50 feet virtually wiped the Japanese port town of Onagawa off the map in 2011.

At a magnitude of 9.0, Japan’s largest-ever quake and resulting tsunami killed 16,000 people and destroyed 122,000 buildings. Sitting on the Tohoku coastline, close to the underwater epicentre, Onagawa was almost obliterated by the full force of the disaster: nearly 70% of its buildings were destroyed and 10% of its population killed.

Eight years on, a new town has emerged from the dust and rubble. But faced with an already declining population, the reconstruction is about more than rebuilding; it’s about rejuvenating.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity’s greatest achievements – and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities.

Onagawa’s population had dropped from 16,000 to 10,000 between 1980 and 2010, and a third is now over 65. Faced with the worst natural disaster Japan has ever seen, the municipality was keen to stop Onagawa becoming a ghost town.

Its solution? Forcing people to the town centre to shop, work or use any services. The town has banned pretty much anything except houses from its outskirts, concentrating all activities around a core central district. In effect, Onagawa has outlawed urban sprawl. In this way, the hope is that even if the population continues to fall, the town centre will remain bustling.

Image: Statista

Although many existing businesses didn’t survive the tsunami, the town has used the opportunity to rebrand itself, attempting to attract younger people with good shopping and trendy restaurants.

Before the tsunami much of the town centre was privately owned, meaning there was little the municipality could do about the gradual decline as places closed up shop. Now it has taken ownership of the land a community development company owns and manages the shops and their tenants.

By taking a bold approach to town planning, Onagawa is keen to be seen as a model for rebuilding communities.

Making cities liveable

The negative effects of urban sprawl – poorly-planned town growth – are seen around the world. Poor connectivity between houses, jobs, shops and services puts more cars on the road and increases congestion and air pollution in urban areas. Out-of-town developments in lower-rent areas have taken the heart out of many town centres. The loss of green space, as well as having negative effects on people’s well-being, is also bad for the environment and increases the risk of disasters like flash flooding.

At the same time, driven by better job opportunities and hopes of greater prosperity, more and more people are moving from the country to towns. Currently, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas; by 2050 it is expected this will reach 70%. Sixty percent of land that will be urban by 2030 has yet to be built on.

Image: Statista

This shift is happening far more quickly in the developing world than elsewhere. Few countries are adequately prepared for the challenges this presents. And fewer still are properly managing this growth, putting in place the administrative tools and infrastructure required.

Urbanization is not bad per se: cities generate 80% of the world’s GDP. However, they also consume most of the world’s natural resources and produce three quarters of CO2 output. The best-planned and most successful cities of the future will bring together smart and sustainable innovation and technology to leverage urban economic productivity at scale.

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