COVID-19 could be a historic turning point in urban policy

 October 14, 2020

COVID-19 could be a historic turning point in urban policy

Chie Nozawa
Professor, School of Political Science and Economics,
Meiji University
 

The novel coronavirus pandemic in 2020 provided us with opportunities to reconsider how society should be. One of them is the issue of community development and urban policy. In Japan, where the population has been rapidly decreasing, the issue is actually an urgent one even discounting the spread of COVID-19.
Urban policy to be reviewed in light of the COVID-19 spread

The spread of COVID-19 in Japan in 2020 has exposed the vulnerability of overcrowded cities, where many functions such as jobs, dwelling, commerce and leisure are concentrated.

This is also one of the urban issues that have already been viewed as a problem for a long time but have not been tackled seriously since Japan’s high economic growth period.

To date, large cities in Japan have expanded by concentrating many functions in the center of the city, thereby increasing convenience and efficiency, attracting the population, and encouraging suburbs to become bedroom communities.

It became a lifestyle for many people to live in a detached house or new community in the suburbs and work in advanced offices in the city center.

However, this has led to disorderly and unplanned urban expansion or so-called urban sprawl.

In addition, the lifestyle of separation of work and home due to the concentration of workplaces in the center of the city has forced people to commute on overcrowded trains for hours, the so-called "painful commuting."

However, due to the COVID-19 spread, staying home has been recommended and remote work has become widespread. This may have triggered a review of lifestyles accompanying painful commuting.

In the first place, most people may have wondered whether or not it was really convenient or comfortable to do anything in an overcrowded city where too many facilities are concentrated. In other words, such city, where people always lead a busy life without ease of mind and time to spare, cannot be a really mature city from a global perspective.

Then, what kind of environment can enrich our mind? One of the findings from the COVID-19 spread is that the environment of proximity between work and home without painful commuting realized by remote work is open and comfortable as a matter of course.

For example, the reason why high-rise condos in the city center are popular is in fact mainly because they are close to the workplace and convenient even though their good views and status are advertised.

If suburban bedroom communities, whose residential environment has already been developed, become closer to work, more people may be able to live more comfortably with fulfillment in mind than in the city center.

It remains to be seen whether remote work will take root after the COVID-19 spread, but one of the directions of community development is to make towns in the suburbs that specialize in "living function" get out of bedroom communities.

This will require a multifunctional community. It is essential to accelerate the development of decentralized cities so that people can make a living in their neighboring areas without long-distance commuting.

Even if you work from home, you may find it difficult to focus on your work if you have small children or other family members at home during the day. From a business perspective, the reliable security of the Internet environment is essential.

Therefore, if you are provided with work functions such as satellite offices and shared offices, which are equipped with a fully secure Internet environment, at least in the vicinity of nearby stations, you will be able to work remotely on a long-term basis. As these offices are built, they can encourage the location of various service facilities around them for support.

In other words, in addition to the convenience of a living environment provided by the bedroom community, the location of various facilities that meet the needs of people who want to live close to their workplace will lead to an increase in the value of the community.

However, it is essential that local community development organizations, private companies, or local governments supports these initiatives, that the initiatives can properly function as private businesses, and that remote work takes root in society.

These initiatives have no new aspects just because of the COVID-19 spread. All of these initiatives have already been implemented as model projects.

It can be said that from now on, each community will be tested on how serious they are on how specifically the public and private sectors will tackle the issue, looking forward to the future of the community.
It is not an easy task to utilize vacant houses
Despite the declining population and an increasing number of vacant houses in Japan, many high-rise condominiums are being built in urban areas, and detached residential areas are being disorderly developed in suburban areas and agricultural areas in regional cities.

I call this situation the "Society with Excessive Residential Supply." From around 2023 in Japan, the number of households will start to decrease in addition to the decreasing population. This means that a decline in housing demand is inevitable in the near future, and the time has come to focus on utilizing or removing houses rather than building new ones.

In the context of the "Society with Excessive Residential Supply," to enable the suburbs to get out of bedroom communities will not only meet the needs for proximity between work and home, but also, in fact, will lead to the resolution of the issue of the declining population and the problem of vacant houses that Japanese society is facing now.

In this regard, many of you may think that we may as well renovate the growing number of vacant houses, including those in suburban bedroom communities, for other uses such as shared offices, satellite offices, support and community facilities for children and elderly people, and stores.

However, in reality, it is very difficult to utilize vacant houses.

In the first place, the problem of a vacant house begins when the inheritance is commenced and when the heirs decide to postpone solving an inheritance issue by leaving it as it is for the time being because an agreement cannot be made among the heirs, or because they cannot sort out their feelings or the late parent’s belongings.

Even if someone wants to buy or rent a vacant house, it is difficult to contact the owner of the house in the first place, and they often cannot even get to the negotiating table because the housing registry remains the same as it was long before the inheritance was commenced, or because no one knows the contact information of the heirs who live far away from the property.

If the vacant house is left as it is for 5, 10, or 20 years, the house will start to decay, and it will become difficult to sell or rent it. As the heirs get older, they will lose strength and energy, it will become difficult to even maintain the house. When they start to live on a pension, they will often end up further putting off the issue owing to the increasing burden of demolishing costs.

In addition, when the heirs die, the inheritance right will be transferred to their family members or relatives and may be shared jointly by many inheritance right holders.

In this case, if someone wants to buy the vacant house, they have to get an agreement from all the inheritance right holders. In the end, they cannot afford to waste time and money.

These problems of vacant houses are occurring nationwide now. Actually, not only in regional areas and suburbs, but also in the 23 cities of Tokyo.

As you can see, even though there are many vacant houses, it is not easy to actually utilize them.

However, if the current situation is left as it is, it is concerned that the problem of vacant houses will worsen not in terms of individual sites but whole areas. If the number of vacant houses increases in the same area, the value of the entire area will decline, and the influx of new residents will be inhibited. As a result, the owners of vacant houses or their family members or relatives who will eventually inherit them will have difficulty in disposing of them.

In fact, in residential areas in the suburbs of large cities, many houses have become vacant because of an increasing number of owners who want to leave them as they are for the time being. As a result, the value of the entire area has declined, and even if demolition is possible at public expense, they cannot find any options for which the site can be utilized. This has led to the emergence of areas for which nothing can be done.
Planning for the end of housing can change a community
In order to prevent the increase of vacant houses and to promote the utilization of vacant houses to contribute to the multifunctionality of communities, planning for the end of housing will be essential in the future.

In short, it is important for everyone to recognize that we have entered an era when planning for the end of housing is needed.

"Planning for the end of housing" refers to a series of activities from the time before the inheritance is commenced to the early stage of a vacant house at the latest, in which the owner of the house or their family members who are supposed to become the heirs examine options for smooth transfer of the house to a responsible owner or user, arrange the prerequisites for that purpose, and share the necessary information.

Of course, the heirs have fond memories and an attachment to the inherited house, which seems to be filled with the late parents’ thoughts, and they may have difficulty in selling or renting it soon.

However, the problem of vacant houses has the characteristic that the more time passes, the more effort, time and expense will be required to solve it.

If everyone who owns a house conducts to plan for the end of housing process, that will not only help the family members who are supposed to inherit the house in the future when they sell it, but also help the community to prevent the occurrence of vacant houses and shift to a multifunctional community through the utilization of vacant houses, which in turn will promote generation change within the community.

Recently, an increasing number of local governments have set up a consultation service called “vacant house bank.” Some of them provide one-stop consultations in cooperation with local real estate brokers, judicial scriveners and lawyers.

If you or your family members do not know who to consult, it may be a good idea to visit such a consultation service.

The reason why we are now facing the problem of vacant houses is because our previous generations neglected the plan for the end of housing. If we neglect it in the same way, the problem will become ever bigger and eventually be pushed onto the next generation. Let us do whatever it takes to change this trend.

In addition to the unprecedented situation of the global pandemic, Japan faces extreme uncertainty, such as the unprecedented aging population and frequent and intensified disasters. The COVID-19 spread has provided us with an opportunity to consider an ideal community where we can live more fulfilling lives.

Taking this unprecedented situation as an opportunity, I think it is a mission for us living in this age to make this situation a historic turning point for our urban policy to remake present cities into sustainable cities where everyone can live at ease.



* The information contained herein is current as of September 2020.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.


Chie Nozawa
Professor, School of Political Science and Economics, Meiji University
 
Research fields:
Urban policy and urban administration

Research themes:
Research on land use control in the age of a declining population and frequent disasters, and research on the promotion of planning for the end of housing for the prevention of vacant houses

Main books and papers:
◆“Land Use Control and Housing Policies for the Era of Frequent and Intensified Disasters” (“Journal of architecture and building science”, September issue, Architectural Institute of Japan, 2020)
◆“Issues on the Measures to Induce Residence and Urban facilities with Formulating the Location Normalization Plan” (Coauthor, “Papers of the City Planning Institute of Japan”, No. 54-3, City Planning Institute of Japan, 2019)
◆“Old Houses and Revitalizing Cities – Planning for the End of Housing” (Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, 2018, Awarded by the Japan Association for Real Estate Sciences)
◆“Book on City Planning and Community Building” (2nd Edition) (Coauthor, SHOKOKUSHA Publishing, 2017)
◆“Aging Houses and Deteriorating Cities: the fate of a Society with Excessive Residential Supply” (Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, 2016)
◆“Inspiring Lecture: Is city planning necessary for the future of Japan?” (Coauthor, Gakugei Shuppansha, 2014)

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