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Yukarigaoka proves 'new towns' can age well

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

Tama, in western Tokyo, is currently trying to find a way to rehabilitate Parthenon Tama, the city’s public cultural complex. During headier times, Parthenon hosted world-famous classical musicians and theater companies, and in addition to a large auditorium and a small auditorium, it contains a museum, a gallery and numerous conference rooms. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the 30-year-old facility is now in need of more than ¥7 billion worth of renovations that the local government says it can’t afford. As it stands, it spends ¥400 million a year just to maintain the facility, and if it doesn’t act soon, the complex may become unusable.

Parthenon’s problems are common to many local governments in Japan. Built as part of the Tama New Town development project, which started in the late 1960s, the complex was the jewel in the project’s crown. When it was constructed, however, Tama was thriving as a popular bedroom community for people who worked in Tokyo. In addition to Parthenon, Tama New Town, which accounts for 60 percent of the city in terms of land area, boasted seven libraries, which have since been consolidated into three.

The city’s fiscal problems come down to the fact that while many people flocked to Tama New Town when it opened, over the years, residents who have moved out or died haven’t been replaced by younger working people. Moreover, the properties of those who did remain have lost value. All these factors have conspired to erode the tax base. Most of the new towns and other planned communities in Japan were built around the same time, and their facilities are also reaching their sell-by date. All are in need of infrastructure repairs and other investments, but they don’t have the funds and are asking the central government for help.

There is, however, one development that remains vital 35 years after it started: Yukarigaoka in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture. Launched in 1979 with 200 housing units, it has grown into a self-contained suburban metropolis of 7,200 households comprising 18,000 residents on 245 hectares of land, and continues to grow.

Though often referred to as a “new town,” Yukarigaoka is slightly different. New towns were planned and built by the central government housing authority, but Yukarigaoka (which means Hill of Eucalyptus) was planned and built by Yamaman, a private company that started as a fabric wholesaler in Osaka in 1951 and, after moving to Tokyo in the mid-’60s, expanded to become a residential real estate developer. Its first large-scale housing project was in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Yamaman started planning Yukarigaoka in 1971, built the first single-family homes in 1979 and the first condominium in 1982. It also erected a monorail that encircled the large piece of land earmarked for the development and connected it to the Keisei Honsen train line, which links Sakura to Tokyo. Though Yamaman worked closely with the Sakura city government, it paid for everything itself and, in fact, Yukarigaoka is the only residential project of its size in Japan completely operated as a private endeavor.

The secret to Yamaman’s success is in the planning, which stresses community above all other considerations. New towns planned by the central government were built to attract young families without taking into account how those families and the neighborhoods would evolve over the years. Yamaman, however, understood that a vibrant community needed a mixture of different ages and family types, so it built housing and facilities that would appeal to all demographics.

By satisfying the needs of a wide range of families right from the beginning, the company hoped to guarantee a system of “population replacement,” meaning when the kids grew up and left the nest, the parents could sell their home and move to a smaller place within Yukarigaoka. Most people who make a home in a community want to remain in that community because of the social networks they’ve formed over the years. It was Yamaman’s job to give them that option. So they built smaller condos and even nursing homes for older residents.

One of the main problems that became apparent with centrally planned new towns is that most of the residents find it difficult to sell their apartments or homes when they get older and retire. Yamaman has a system wherein any resident of Yukarigaoka who wants to sell their house or condo can sell it back to the company at 100 percent of its assessed value. It then renovates the property and resells it.

Most buyers are young families who are impressed with the development and simply want to live there, but some are young people who grew up in Yukarigaoka and want to remain. According to the Sakura city government, Yukarigaoka is the only part of the city where property values have gone up in recent years. Yamaman not only handles all real estate transactions in the development, it also plans expansions at a rate the development can absorb, adding new neighborhoods and apartment buildings only when the development is ready for them. The idea is to keep property values stable.

The planning, of course, also extended to aesthetics. As the name suggests, the community is built on a plateau that still has lots of farmland, which guarantees a minimum amount of verdant fields and forests. It has a “downtown” area that boasts a major city hotel and a department store-anchored retail complex. It even has its own university. When it built the monorail, Yamaman negotiated with Keisei to open a new station on the Honsen line that would serve it.

As a result, Yamaman actually turns a profit with Yukarigaoka. UR, the semi-public housing company that succeeded the housing authority that built the central government’s new towns, is trillions of yen in debt.

This isn’t to say that the private sector is automatically a more effective builder of communities than the public sector. Subdivisions in Japan are planned and built by developers whose only aim is to sell product, and while local governments, which have a stake in the health of these new communities, will work with them in order to ensure that what is created are viable, in most cases commerce trumps city planning. Local governments need developers, especially now, in order to lure new residents, and they tend to give the developers what they want.

By concentrating on the long-term needs of the community rather than the short-term needs of the developer, Yamaman has succeeded in the simplest way. However you want to classify it, Yukarigaoka stands as the epitome of the Japanese new town and, at the same time, the exception to the rule.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.

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