Since early July, floods and landslides caused by heavy rain have forced tens of thousands of people from Kyushu to Tohoku to evacuate, with nearly three dozen deaths confirmed in western Japan. The financial damage to Oita Prefecture alone now stands at over ¥20 billion, prefectural officials announced last week.

For cities and prefectures already struggling with the needs of their shrinking and aging populations — often spread over a wide area — natural disasters made worse by climate change have created an additional financial burden they cannot afford to pass on to the younger taxpayers they are desperately trying to keep.

Many regional leaders are thus exploring ways to both slow population decline and mitigate the damage being caused by increasingly severe weather.

One city all too familiar with these problems is Toyama.

Situated in the Hokuriku region about three hours by train from Kyoto, with the Sea of Japan to its north and the Japan Alps to its east and southeast, Toyama has a population of about 420,000. Historically known for its “traveling medicine peddlers” who ventured around the country selling remedies for various ailments, the city remains a key pharmaceutical hub. It is also known for its agricultural products and glassworks.

But Toyama, which has two rivers running through its center, has suffered from floods and landslides throughout history. An 1858 earthquake created one of the worst landslides ever recorded in Japan when a 700-meter section of Mount Tombi collapsed into one of the rivers above Toyama, creating a natural dam that broke twice, causing devastating floods. In 1969, heavy rainfall also caused severe flooding and damage .

In addition to dealing with natural disasters, Toyama, like most smaller cities in Japan, has to deal with its shrinking population. When Masashi Mori was elected mayor in 2005, the need to address both issues, but especially the latter, led him to come up with the idea of redesigning Toyama so the city’s activities would be more concentrated in its easily accessible center.

“Over the past five years or so, Japan’s population decline problem has received a lot of attention. But in fact, around 20 years ago, it was known that this would be a future issue. When I became mayor 15 years ago, the national government predicted that by 2050 Japan’s population will have declined by around 30 million,” Mori said in an interview with The Japan Times.

“But it was also predicted that Tokyo’s population wouldn’t decline all that much, and that most of the 30 million decline would be in other parts of the country. I realized 15 years ago that unless measures were taken to halt the population decline, (regional) cities would disappear,” he said.

Toyama’s solution was to rebuild its transportation infrastructure and encourage residents and businesses to relocate closer to tram and bus stations near the city’s center, as well as set aside more areas for pedestrians and parks.

“The city of Toyama, before 2005, had been a typical ‘automobile society.’ Every household had two or three cars. Roads had to be extended, and the amount of garbage that had to be collected swelled as the city’s borders expanded. This meant municipal maintenance costs increased,” Mori said.

This was happening at a time when Toyama’s population, especially its younger taxpaying population, was declining, creating concerns it would be tough to attract younger workers and families. The ratio of Toyama residents older than 65 is nearly 30 percent and expected to reach 40 percent by 2045. At the same time, long-term nursing care costs have risen by more than a quarter since 2007.

“If there’s a sense among younger people that their local tax burden will increase, they won’t move into a city. Therefore, what was needed was a plan that would not create worries about an additional tax burden but would take into account the realities of population decline,” Mori said.

The efforts included upgrading the city’s light rail system, offering financial incentives to those willing to move within 500 meters of a public transit station, and offering services for the elderly, like walkers. Even though it was predicted in 2005 that Toyama’s population would drop 7.5 percent by 2025, the ratio of residents living in its center — 28 percent in 2005 — is expected to rise to about 42 percent by 2025.

“In developing a city plan for the elderly, we emphasized a city that would encourage them to get out. A city that contains nothing but unhealthy elderly residents faces high medical and health care costs, creating a sense of burden for younger residents. The point was to create a place where they could walk and have opportunities to meet people rather than just stay at home because they don’t drive,” Mori said.

Another area the city is focusing on is renewable energy. The prefecture’s environmental plan calls for its miniature hydroelectric power plants to be expanded from 23 as of 2012, to at least 45 by 2021, and for solar capacity to be more than tripled. A March report by Chiba University and the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies said Toyama was one of Japan’s top prefectures for the supply of mini-hydropower electricity.

In 2014, Toyama was selected for a U.N. initiative known as Sustainable Energy for All. Other cities include Copenhagen, Vancouver, Paris, Milan, Manila and Warsaw. The initiative commits selected cities to provide universal energy access, double their energy efficiency and double the share of renewable energy.

Then, in December 2014, Toyama was chosen for the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which led to the appointment of Joseph Runzo-Inada , a former adviser, as its chief resilience officer. His job is to help the city re-examine and realign its policies, particularly for responding to natural and man-made disasters, within a framework that allows for a broader range of cooperation with the business community and nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations. It also means that Toyama can tap into the best practices and expertise of other cities around the world that have faced similar problems and share what it has learned.

“What Toyama has done is really unique because its resilience plan covers all issues, and its transportation system is not only efficient, but also takes into account an elderly population. Plus, the system reduces carbon dioxide emissions,” Runzo-Inada said.

Mori and Runzo-Inada traveled and received much advice on how to create a more resilient city from other municipalities as diverse as Pittsburgh, Wellington, Bristol in England and Surat in India. Mori also said that he received explanations on how to build a compact city from officials in Dublin, Freiberg and Strausberg in Germany, and Portland, Oregon. The last city, in particular, is the one Mori likes to measure up against.

“I like to compare Toyama with Portland, because we have similar kinds of trains and have the mountains in the distance,” he said.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.

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