Tokyo: City planners stay grounded but ambitious

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The landmark Tokyo Tower is lit up at dusk in Tokyo last month. AFP

The sound of hammering resonates from a construction site covering about 8.1ha in a part of Minato Ward, Tokyo, that used to be home to artisans since before World War II. Tokyo Tower and the Roppongi Hills complex in the Toranomon and Azabudai districts stand nearby.

Planned for this area in 2023 is a new “town,” in which 20,000 people will work, with a 330-meter-tall building at its centre.

“Many children used to frolic in the alleyways here,” 95-year-old resident Kenichi Magatani, whose family has lived in the area for generations, said as he looked at the construction site.

When he came home from the battlefront at the end of the war, the young Magatani found his neighborhood all burned out. However, the reconstruction of the area later generated economic momentum, particularly around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, ushering in the high-rise buildings of the Toranomon and Azabudai districts.

The neighborhood now has only three children – all of whom are great-grandchildren of Magatani – but will soon become globalized and see more children because an international school is set to open at the new complex.

“I will go on living, till I can see my neighborhood regain its vigor,” he said.

Urban development has been led by the construction of towering buildings. These huge structures have attracted many companies and working people, thus helping to revitalise their neighborhoods. This history is traced back to 1963, the year before the Tokyo Games.

Prior to that year, restrictions regarding the scale of buildings were based mainly on height. However, in 1963, the Building Standards Law – under which those restrictions were based on the floor-area ratio or the ratio of the total floor space of a building to the plot of land on which it is constructed – was revised. The higher the floor-area ratio is, the taller the building that can be erected.

In 2002, the government launched a new system aimed to rejuvenate urban areas, under which the floor-area ratio is allowed to increase as long as an envisaged construction project is expected to contribute to urban development. This scheme has paved the way for the construction of a number of towering buildings in the Otemachi and Marunouchi districts in central Tokyo, Abeno Harukas in Osaka, and Midland Square near Nagoya Station.

According to Sanko Estate Co, a leading office building broker in Tokyo, the capital’s 23 wards saw 93 hectares of office space newly created in 2018 alone, while the office vacancy rate hit about 1 percent, a record low.

Yet future prospects look uncertain. An increasing number of companies are adopting teleworking – whereby people work at home or from locations other than their offices, and there’s also an expected population decline in Tokyo after a peak in 2025. “A hollowing-out of the buildings might commence,” said a real estate brokerage in Tokyo.