In Laissez-Faire in Tokyo Land Use I pointed to Japan’s constitutional protection of property rights and it’s relatively laissez-faire approach to land use to explain why housing prices in Japan have not risen in past decades, as they have elsewhere in the developed world. A very useful post at Urban kchoze offers more detail on Japan’s zoning system. Here are some of the key points.
Japan has 12 basic zones, far fewer than is typical in an American city. The zones can be ordered in terms of nuisance or potential externality from low-rise residential to high-rise residential to commercial zone on through to light industrial and industrial. But, and this is key, in the US zones tend to be exclusive but in Japan the zones limit the maximum nuisance in a zone. So, for example, a factory can’t be built in a residential neighborhood but housing can be built in a light industrial zone.
…[the] Japanese do not impose one or two exclusive uses for every zone. They tend to view things more as the maximum nuisance level to tolerate in each zone, but every use that is considered to be less of a nuisance is still allowed. So low-nuisance uses are allowed essentially everywhere. That means that almost all Japanese zones allow mixed use developments, which is far from true in North American zoning.
…[The] great rigidity in allowed uses per zone in North American zoning means that urban planing departments must really micromanage to the smallest detail everything to have a decent city. Because if they forget to zone for enough commercial zones or schools, people can’t simply build what is lacking, they’d need to change the zoning, and therefore confront the NIMBYs. And since urban planning departments, especially in small cities, are largely awful, a lot of needed uses are forgotten in neighborhoods, leading to them being built on the outskirts of the city, requiring car travel to get to them from residential areas.
Meanwhile, Japanese zoning gives much more flexibility to builders, private promoters but also school boards and the cities themselves. So the need for hyper-competent planning is much reduced, as Japanese planning departments can simply zone large higher-use zones in the center of neighborhoods, since the lower-uses are still allowed. If there is more land than needed for commercial uses in a commercial zone, for example, then you can still build residential uses there, until commercial promoters actually come to need the space and buy the buildings from current residents.
In addition, residential means residential without discrimination as to the type or form of resident:
…In Japan…residential is residential. If a building is used to provide a place to live to people, it’s residential, that’s all. Whether it’s rented, owned, houses one or many households, it doesn’t matter.
This doesn’t mean that people can build 10-story apartment blocs in the middle of single-family houses (at least, not normally). As I mentioned, there are maximum ratios of building to land areas and FAR that restricts how high and how dense residential buildings may be. So in low-rise zones, these ratios mean that multifamily homes must also have only one to three stories, like the single-family homes around them. So in neighborhoods full of small single-family homes, you will often see small apartment buildings full of what we would call small studio apartments: one room with a toilet.>
In short, as the author concludes, Japan’s zoning laws are more rational, more efficient and fairer than those used in the United States.
More details in the post. Hat tip: Sandy Ikeda.