Joe McReynolds on what cities can learn from Tokyo

On this week’s episode of Free Lunch by The Peak, we sat down with Joe McReynolds, a co-author of the book Emergent Tokyo, to talk about what Western cities can learn from Japan’s capital — including how the city manages to keep rent super low for residents. 

How has Tokyo achieved a balance of population growth and density? 

“They build a ton of housing. Zoning in Japan is handled at the national level, and if you want to keep NIMBYism in check, that's the best way to do it. If you want to build housing on a plot of land and the zoning allows for it, you just go ahead and build. It's not tied up in years of permits and debates with local groups, and people have just kind of come to accept that.” 

How does this support the flourishing of unique small shops?

“Most residential zoning in Japan is ‘exclusively residential.’ Except to them, exclusively residential means that on the bottom floor of your row house, you can have a small restaurant, bar, workshop, boutique, you name it — as long as you're not causing a big nuisance, which is a grey area that you just kind of talk with your neighbours about.”  

What else contributes to Tokyo’s ability to ramp up supply to meet demand? 

“Huge subsidies. And that's the political economy of Japan. In America, we talk about the military-industrial complex. In Japan, it's the construction-industrial complex. Major builders are deeply connected to the Japanese political establishment, and so, historically, you get a kind of balance where they employ tons of people in exchange for their major subsidies.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Listen to the full conversation here.