Suburbs Return to Spotlight in Coronavirus Era in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Electric wheelchairs are used in a transportation experiment conducted by the Kamigo Neopolis district in Sakae Ward, Yokohama, on Oct. 30.

The pandemic is not just affecting people but the cities they live in as well. Urban planning has been focused on reinforcing public transportation systems, centralizing human resources and knowledge and improving functionality through advanced technology. However, with the spread of the novel coronavirus, various categories need to be reexamined. This is the first installment of a series that takes a look at how people are responding to the ongoing changes in the nature of the cities.

■ New current amid the pandemic

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nobuyuki Yoshii, seen in this photo taken in Sakae Ward, Yokohama, on Oct. 30, is in charge of a team working to revitalize Kamigo Neopolis.

Kamigo Neopolis is a suburban district in the hills of Yokohama about 40 kilometers from central Tokyo. Here, the landscape is speckled with old houses and shops that have gone out of business. This is one of many “new towns” that sprung up across the nation through large-scale development projects but now are getting old together with an ever-graying population.

The popularity of these districts has been declining as people reconsidered their housing situation. A return to urban areas was fueled by such factors as the growing number of dual income households and the desire to live near workplaces.

However, the housing industry has taken an interest in this district since the spring, when the pandemic spurred people to rethink the benefits of living in the city and to consider moving out of urban areas.

“The buses used to be jam-packed during rush hour in both the morning and the evening,” said Nobuyuki Yoshii, 73, head of a council tasked with rejuvenating the district. “Even if revitalization were to be triggered by the novel coronavirus, we hope this area can become lively again.”

Daiwa House Industry Co., a leading housing developer, started selling lots and houses in Neopolis in 1972. As of last year, there were about 870 houses standing. Neopolis’ population started declining from around 2000, when children of the generation that bought these houses started coming of age. Since then, elementary and junior high schools in the area have integrated or been abolished, while shops and restaurants have closed down. Today, it’s called an “old town” as people aged 65 and over account for more than half the population.

In April, the month when the state of emergency was declared, Neopolis’ prospects started to shine again. According to Suumo, a housing information website, the number of page views of newly built, stand-alone properties in Sakae Ward, Yokohama, jumped 1.6-fold in April from January. Neopolis is located in Sakae Ward. In July, the number had risen 1.9-fold from January levels.

Atop such rankings was Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, where Tokyu New Town Chigasaki is located — another “new town” where sales of lots and houses started in 1970.

This interest in “new towns” could be a new movement away from urban centers as people head to the suburbs to mitigate infection risks and take advantage of the increasing availability of telecommuting.

“New towns” hit their peak in the 1970s and were a symbol of a new lifestyle in which people worked in urban areas but lived in the suburbs. As of fiscal 2018, there were about 2,900 residential “new towns” measuring more than 5 hectares in area.

“Suburban cities and towns, including ‘new town’ districts, are convenient places to live and have a nice environment. People find them reasonable” said Yoichi Ikemoto, editor-in-chief of Suumo. “The recent trend may become a new current in the movement of people moving away from urban centers.”

But to breathe new life into these old “new towns,” it is vital to rejuvenate them.

■ Revitalization project

Six years ago in Neopolis, Daiwa House Industry and residents including Yoshii began a revitalization project, in which universities and other organizations take part.

In October last year, the town opened a convenience store that is staffed by residents. The store is also designed to serve as a base for exchanges among residents.

Neopolis has also carried out experiments using carts that can accommodate multiple riders and electric wheelchairs to augment transportation options in place of buses, which operate in the district but whose services have declined.

“If bases where people can gather and transportation means are provided, people may choose to live in this district,” Yoshii said.

The numbers show there is an outflow of people from city centers.

According to a report on the internal migration in Japan derived from the basic resident registers, which is released by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, 23,594 people moved out of Tokyo in May, while 22,525 people moved to the capital that month. This marked the first time that the outflow outnumbered the inflow since 2013, when the calculation method used to draw up the report was revised.

In June, the number of people who moved to the capital outnumbered those who moved out, but the trend reversed again in July, August and September.

Although the survey methods differ, the last time Tokyo saw a population outflow was around June and July of 2011, months after the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred.

■ New office life

Demand in the office space sector is also changing.

According to Miki Shoji Co., a leading broker for office space, the vacancy rate of offices in central Tokyo — Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato, Shinjuku and Shibuya wards — rose for eight consecutive months until October, while the same rate increased for six months in a row in Nagoya and Osaka, as well.

Overflow, Inc., a company that acts as an intermediary between information technology engineers and firms, canceled its plan to relocate its head office to Nakameguro in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, this spring and abolished the head office in Minato Ward. The company’s about 100 employees work at home.

“We found that we can do our work at home,” said Yuto Suzuki, 34, chief executive officer of Overflow, who also works at home. “We thought it would be easier to have business discussions, thus increasing our business opportunities, if our office was located in central Tokyo. But we’ve completely changed that viewpoint.”

How will the current trend of moving away from city centers change the future of urban areas?

“Major cities exposed to international competition have had diverse elements ranging from business to culture drawn together and have enlarged themselves,” said Kazuo Mizuno, a professor at Hosei University who studies urban areas from an economic perspective.

“Now that this trend has been found to constitute a weakness, the alleviation of the unipolar concentration in major cities and the correction of disparities with rural areas will surely advance. Movement among large companies to relocate their head offices to provincial areas and to introduce telecommuting will progress. This may be the dawn of a new era when more uniformly sized cities exist in various parts of the country,” he said.