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How to Grow a City—Lessons from Japan

By - Dec 3 2015

Toyama City
“The axis of the earth,” said Oliver Wendell Homes, “sticks out visible through the centre of each and every town or city.” Cities, the drivers of commerce, formal governance, citizen security, and civilization in general since their earliest emergence, are undoubtedly essential to development. Around the world, metropolises continue to spur cultural development, economic growth, and innovation at rates unparalleled by less urban centers. Particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), the most urbanized region in the world, cities must play an integral role in any development strategy geared at improving lives. With urban populations expected to swell to 87 % by the year 2050, up from only 40% in 1950, we have a responsibility to ensure this urban growth occurs in a sustainable and strategic way.

That’s why at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), we focus on urban growth as a key element of the region’s broader development. We are doing this through our Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative, which helps intermediate cities in LAC prioritize and structure projects to improve their environmental, urban, and fiscal sustainability. But we are also teaming up with cities from around the world to share lessons and best practices on urban growth. We recently engaged with Mayor Masashi Mori in this capacity, tapping into his experiences as the leader of Japan’s Toyama City as inspiration for how to guide urbanization in our region. Hear now from Mayor Mori himself about Toyama City’s development experience, the lessons LAC stands to learn from his metropolis, and the role partnership has played in making sustainable growth possible.

 

IDB: Can you give us an example of an instance in which partnership played an important role in the sustainable development of Toyama City?

Mayor Mori: In our effort to make Toyama City sustainable by implementing various measures under our overarching policy of “Creation of a Compact City Featuring Renovated Public Transport,” it is obvious that we cannot achieve our goal by administration working alone.  It requires support and understanding of private sector companies and civil society in order for our endeavor for sustainability to succeed.

In this context, what I would like to introduce to you as an example of partnership is Toyama Light Rail (LRT) project, a key partnership example and project related to public transport policy.

About 10 years ago, there was a longstanding rail line in Toyama City which JR, a private railway company, wanted to discontinue due to its dwindling ridership.  Realizing that reduced availability of transport would accelerate the downward spiral of a declining commercial zone, de-population, or even more excessive automobile dependency, we at the city administration ventured to make public investments in a passenger transport business. Though this is normally a private sector business, we succeeded in facilitating the rebirth of the line as LRT.

In doing so, we also asked private sector for their continued support.  As a result, the LRT of Toyama City was launched as the first full-scale LRT system in Japan with public sector-construction and private sector-operation, as the line is operated by a private company using the railway system developed by the municipal government.

Further, in addition to the diverse support the LRT project received, including donations from residents along the line, more than 80% of Toyama citizens said they appreciate the Toyama LRT project.

Among many positive impacts brought about by this LRT project, the ridership of the line has more than doubled since LRT started its service.

 

IDB: In your opinion, what are the main challenges LAC cities face in their journey to sustainability?

Mayor Mori: Over the years, the urban area of Toyama City kept expanding outward along with its urban and residential functions, causing many issues including higher maintenance costs, the deterioration of the city center, and higher CO2 emission resulting from increased automobile dependency, among many others.  Our effort to create a compact city featuring renovated public transport is aimed to address such issues while ensuring sustainability.

From this perspective, it will be essential to developing LAC cities to focus not only on the immediate future, but also on the next 20 or 30 years by identifying the issues specific to each area, and sharing those issues and visions with the public.

 

IDB: We know that Toyama City had great success in the areas of transport and waste management. What role did the public, private, and civil society sectors play in these sectors?

Mayor Mori: In the transport area, we at the municipal administration are working in collaboration with transport operators, as mentioned in the LRT case, among others.  What is more, there is an increase of citizen groups voluntarily cooperating to run bus lines to serve those small communities not covered by the administration or by private companies, indicating how these communities recognize the importance of transport.

In the waste management area, Toyama City has been actively collaborating with citizens to promote the separation and recycling of waste.  If managed properly, waste can be converted into new resources.  It is essential that people learn about waste management from a young age and put their learning into practice.

However, there are hard-to-recycle wastes that need to be incinerated and buried, and this is where some progressive companies stepped in from private sector to not just burn the garbage but also recover the thermal energy released during the process and use it for electric power generation or agricultural applications.

By having each actor playing its role, i.e. families separating waste, private companies contributing through their activities, etc., we make sure that waste  is properly managed in a holistic approach by the community.

 

IDB: We know that Toyama City places great emphasis on networking and knowledge sharing. In this space, we have three questions for you:

  1. What mechanisms for knowledge sharing should we explore to better leverage the knowledge of urban development actors?
  2. What role did knowledge sharing play in Toyama City’s development?
  3. What can LAC cities learn from Japan, in particular Toyama City, about sustainable urban development?

Mayor Mori: In regards to your first question, there is no better way than to have as many occasions as possible to get together to identify issues and share knowledge.  Through this approach, all the different opinions and views gradually come together to a shared understanding, which leads to a successful execution of various policies. I have sat and spoken in hundreds of meetings to facilitate understanding.  I know this takes time, but think this is the most effective way. Although there are many alternative methods in today’s world such as web meetings, none is comparable to face-to-face communication.

Secondly, what we can accomplish as an administration alone is limited.  Toyama City today is made simply because we kept sharing issues and knowledges together with the private sector and civil society, which enabled us to execute various progressive approaches.

And lastly, as I mentioned, LAC cities will eventually face the same issues developed countries have.  Hopefully what we have identified as issues and their corresponding policies and measures can serve as reference.

 

IDB: We know that Toyama City is gearing up to host the G7 Environmental Minsters meeting next year. What are your epxectations for this event and for its impact on Toyama City?

Mayor Mori: It is quite honorable that Toyama City is chosen to host the G7 environment ministers meeting in May next year.  We believe such a decision reflects the recognition our city’s progressive policies and achievements have received.

This event will provide a great opportunity to make our various policies known to both inside and outside of Japan promoting Toyama City and expected to enhance civic pride of Toyama City citizens.

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