Japan wants to help the elderly by making cities more dense

The city of Toyama is trailblazing a new nationwide push

Trams aren’t commonly thought of as beautiful places to be. But in Toyama, Japan, city hall found a way to change that. Since 2012, the city government has been offering free rides to people who buy bouquets from participating florists to fill the trams with flowers.

The gesture is part of a wider project to make the inner city more attractive. Toyama’s “compact city” plan aims to get its 420,000-strong population moving in to designated areas with good transport links using a system of subsidies and other incentives. In doing so, it hopes to improve access to services, especially for the elderly.

The central government in Tokyo is pushing the compact city concept across the country. It’s seen as one way of tackling the twin demons of Japanese public policy — namely, a population that is both ageing fast and declining.

According to the OECD, the majority of developed countries “implicitly or explicitly” promote compact urban policy — encouraging cities to concentrate populations and development in a smaller area — for a range of reasons from the economic to the ecological. But Toyama shows that keeping development contained can have health benefits too.

The big squeeze

During the 20th and early 21st centuries, Japan’s population swelled from 82.8 million in 1950 to a peak of 128.6 million in 2009.

That rapid growth came alongside a big move to cities. Between 1950 and 2014, the proportion of the population living in urban regions almost doubled from 53% to 93%. Development was swift and haphazard: vast, dense new residential areas sprung up at distances further from city centres.

But as Japan’s population falls — it began dropping in 2010 and could go as low as 88 million by 2065, according to a government estimate — cities that have been run with high population densities in mind are starting to suffer. The country’s private bus companies, for example, cannot operate at a profit in areas of low density.

Meanwhile, the population is ageing. With 28% of people over 65 years, Japan is the oldest country in the world. In cities that span a wide area, large numbers of older people might live a long way from good transport routes or vital services.

By concentrating a city’s population within carefully selected areas, “compact city” plans are supposed to tackle both issues. Toyama first announced its plan in 2007, somewhat ahead of the curve, but 186 Japanese cities have now published similar strategies.

Central government can provide cities with support in researching and drafting a plan, as well as subsidies for some infrastructure built within designated parts of town.

Carrots, no sticks

During an interview in his expansive offices in central Toyama, Mayor Masashi Mori summed up his approach to the compact city plan with a broad smile: “all carrots, no sticks”. He seeks only to encourage residents to move, and those who don’t aren’t punished for their inertia.

Toyama wants to bring residents to live in the city centre, or in selected zones positioned along key transport routes.

Mori’s strategy has three “pillars”: providing subsidies for buying or developing houses within the target areas, improving transport, and revitalising the city centre to make it more attractive for people to live in.

The people of Toyama appear to be taking the city up on the offer. Between 2005 and 2017 the proportion of the population living in the city centre or other designated zones jumped from 28% to 38.6%, and Mori wants that to hit 42% by 2025.

But Mori is looking at other metrics, too. Between 2006 and 2017, the proportion of over-65s in the city jumped from 22.5% to 29%. That’s not a trend he’s likely to reverse. But what he can keep an eye on is how healthy those older people are.

There’s an argument to say that simply encouraging older people to live nearer to services and public transport will help keep them healthy.

But the city is deploying more targeted interventions as well. A travel pass for over-65s, currently used by 24% of seniors, cuts the cost of a trip on buses and trams to 100 yen. That keeps seniors active and connected to the services they need. GPS/pedometer devices developed by the city and a university-led consortium encourage seniors to walk more.

Encouragingly for Mori, the proportion of Toyama’s population requiring primary nursing care has stayed roughly flat at around 18.5% since 2014, and keeping the percentage stable is one of the key goals of the compact city plan.

And several city museums and attractions offer free entry to grandparents with their grandchildren. That gets older people out of the house and keeps them active, but it also brings additional economic benefits — they’re more likely to spend money on buying the kids ice cream or other goods.

Managing tradeoffs

Of course, the compact city approach requires tradeoffs. Encouraging citizens to move to particular areas could lead to other parts of the city being left behind, for example.

But Aziza Akhmouch, an analyst in the OECD’s Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development team, said the benefits outweigh the downsides. A 2018 OECD review of 400 studies from around the world found that 69% of them saw positive effects associated with compact development.

Still, the review found that compact development in some cities could adversely affect health and wellbeing — boosting density can result in a loss of public space, for example. Toyama, in promoting healthy lifestyles even as it encourages more compact development, is looking to strike the right balance between efficiency and good living.

With other countries from Britain to Korea harbouring fast-ageing populations that could one day catch up with Japan’s, the question of how to keep older people’s hometowns liveable as their mobility declines is crucial. Free flowers on trams might prove too gimmicky for more cynical populations. But policymakers elsewhere could still have much to learn from Toyama’s approach.

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons/名古屋太郎)

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