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A Different Kind of Density: Lessons From Asian Megacities

By Jordan Sand

Originally published on on June 24, 2020. 


The neighborhood in Tokyo where I lived while a student in the 1980s was a fire trap. Wood rowhouses clad with thin, untreated clapboards fronted directly on streets less than four meters across—many of them too narrow for a fire truck to enter. In winter, people used free-standing kerosene heaters. Houses were dilapidated and a few displayed a worrying lean. Local authorities had plans for clearance and redevelopment but lacked the powers of eminent domain to remove long-time residents and property owners.


If it appeared hazardous, however, as a community, the neighborhood was a paradise. Everyone knew their neighbors by name (or nickname), people minded one another’s children, and doors were left unlocked. The neighborhood was safe because of “eyes on the street.” Not only eyes—old people who wanted company could simply drag a chair into the street in front of the house and be among neighbors. There were no sidewalks and relatively few playgrounds, but since the streets were too narrow for most car traffic, children played in them. Few people owned cars and everyone shopped locally. Mom-and-pop shops lined the wider front street. Many people ran businesses out of their homes—everything from hairdressers to tofu makers to printing shops.


Since the publication of Edward Glaeser’s bestselling Triumph of the City in 2011, density has been the watchword of American urbanism. And until the pandemic, the wind was in the sails of the density argument. Low-density zoning perpetuates economic and racial disparity. Some have argued that historic preservation must share the blame for unaffordable housing by reducing densities—and in cities like New York and San Francisco, the argument is persuasive. Most of all, we have come to recognize that dense settlement makes environmental sense.


But then came the pandemic and the debate suddenly shifted. Now some urbanists are claiming that density is the problem. Nor is it only the experts: the Washington Post recently profiled a dozen young creative industry workers who had come to New York to try and make it but were planning to leave. And contrary to Glaeser’s prediction that information technology would only lead to more demand for face-to-face contact, many people forced to telework by the pandemic are finding it surprisingly efficient. Who among those who escaped the city early is going to want to go back to living cheek-by-jowl with their neighbors again? Just when it seemed every progressive-minded urbanist was pro-density, advocates must now search for new arguments against a commonsensical anxiety about dense living.


The pandemic has raised the stakes of the density question and increased the urgency of the discussion. Individual and collective choices being made right now may have significant impact on the long-term future of the city. What kind of living and working environments will people feel safe and comfortable in, and will whatever relative safety and comfort achieved in the short term weather the next pandemic? The stark divide between those who have the luxury to stay at home and telework and those exposing themselves to risk to make a living compels planners and policymakers more than ever to find urban solutions that reduce inequality. High urban density will shape those solutions both positively and negatively.


Yet framing the issue in abstract terms of density versus dispersal fails to account for the real conditions of global urbanization. In most of the world, we already know that people will continue to live in dense settlements because the overwhelming majority in cities have little other choice. The right question is rather what kind of density to envision. Here is where my old neighborhood in Tokyo offers insights. At its peak in the late 1960s, population density there was 40,000 people per square kilometer. That is close to double the density of Manhattan as a whole today and a third higher than the density of Greenwich Village. Yet the houses remained a uniformly diminutive two stories tall. The great majority were single-family homes. The much-acclaimed Roppongi Hills, a high-rise mixed-use development built in the early 2000s in a tonier neighborhood of Tokyo, with four residential towers, two of them 43 stories tall, has a resident population density of only about 17,000 per square kilometer.


Jane Jacobs recognized the virtues of low-rise, high-density urbanism over a half-century ago, and her argument on its behalf, based on her observation of Greenwich Village, has become the heart of a widely shared vision of what makes good urban communities. But Greenwich Village, for its many virtues, is not the only model for vital, socially diverse, low-rise neighborhoods. The Tokyo model is different. Since the houses are simple, it is cheaper and more flexible, and because the land is divided into tiny lots and the houses themselves have little market value, it is less prone to gentrification. It takes many years for developers to persuade small owners to sell before they can assemble a large enough lot to get a return on investment.

Admittedly, in the 1980s, my old Tokyo neighborhood was already a relic of an earlier urban lifestyle. It was an accidental survival rather than a product of good planning. Many similar Tokyo neighborhoods have since gone high-rise, but many others have rebuilt while staying low and dense. One of the things that makes low-rise, high-density living in Tokyo feasible is a superb rail network. There is nothing prima facie superior about building skyward if you can move millions of people around in a rapid, efficient, and environmentally sound way, as Tokyo does. Proximity to a train station is the biggest determinant of real estate values in Tokyo, and the network keeps expanding to improve connections, keeping disparities relatively low.


My old neighborhood was indeed vulnerable. But in place of a strong, disaster-resistant physical infrastructure, what protected so many people living in flimsy structures in close quarters was social infrastructure—dense networks of interdependent people. Social infrastructure does not require government investment or enforcement; it requires only mutual interest. Preventing fires is one such interest. In tightly packed blocks of wooden houses, a one-house fire can easily sweep away the entire block. Despite the ever-present hazard, the neighborhood did not see a major fire for decades. Residents were vigilant and ready to run to the aid of neighbors because it served their own interest too.


The model of dense, low-rise neighborhoods, built cheaply but sustaining strong communities, can be found widely. Throughout Southeast Asia, there are urban neighborhoods that started out as villages and informal settlements, similarly built of short-lived organic materials (traditionally bamboo), and similarly high-density. Many of them lack adequate services and suffer from economic precarity, but their occupants resist eviction and stick together tenaciously. Indonesia’s Kampung Improvement Program has demonstrated that these neighborhoods can be reformed in situ, allowing people to stay while building attractive and environmentally sustainable settlements for low-income residents.


Standards of living in most of the marginalized neighborhoods of Asian megacities are a far cry from what we should hope for, but these places also have virtues that deserve recognizing. People everywhere like single-family homes. There are many advantages to living close to the ground, particularly in a crisis like the present one. Wood and bamboo are renewable, and the rapidly developing technology of cross-laminated timber is making structures built of organic material as fire-resistant as steel, so the fire hazard need no longer be the community’s binding glue. The amount of energy used in building and maintaining low-rise wooden buildings is often a fraction of the energy needed for heavier structures. Streets not dominated by cars foster neighborliness. And the strong communities that tend to form in these places offer the resilience we need for the next crisis, whatever shape it may take.


The density debate has largely taken place on American soil. But the pandemic has implications for cities globally. How are the dense, socially resilient, but economically impoverished settlements of Asian megacities responding? Will mutual aid make a difference in countering an infectious disease amid inadequate sanitation and medical care? Will people in these settlements have the means to protect the most vulnerable among them? It is too early to know what lessons might be learned. But if, for better or worse, the present crisis really does become a turning point in the way we plan and live in cities everywhere, then the lessons of Asia’s low-rise, high-density settlements may prove relevant far beyond Asia. If we focus only on density without talking about what kind of density, we remain stuck with a model in which the shape of cities is determined by real estate values. Tokyo’s development points to a different process of densification, combining effective transport infrastructure with retro-fitting and infill construction while keeping housing low-rise and communities intact.



Image credits: Rubber Soul, Photozou

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