Lessons Of Tokyo’s New Urban Centers For China – Analysis


By Kung Chan and Xia Ri

Amidst the great changes experienced by the country, China’s real estate industry has gradually shifted from decades of prosperity to bleakness since the COVID-19 pandemic. While there were signs of recovery in the industry during the first quarter of 2023, this momentum did not sustain well. A

ccording to statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics, from January to May, the country’s total real estate development investment was RMB 4.57 trillion, a decrease of 7.2% year-on-year. Residential investment was RMB 3.48 trillion, down 6.4%. The sales area of commercial buildings was 464.4 million square meters, a drop of 0.9%. Real estate development enterprises’ funds in place amounted to RMB 5.6 trillion, down 6.6% year-on-year. The future of China’s real estate industry heading downhill has become a common consensus, leaving many in confusion about the prospects of design, planning, decoration, and sales management industries related to real estate.

Similar to China, Japan’s real estate industry also went through a downturn after a period of prosperity, but it experienced a remarkable resurgence thanks to the successful implementation of the urban center plans of Tokyo. Introduced in 1976 as part of the Third Tokyo Metropolitan Area Master Plan, this visionary approach emphasized the establishment of a multi-center structure of urban complexes. These core functional cities, known as “Shintoshin”, or “New Urban Centers,” included the Makuhari New Urban Center in Chiba Prefecture and the Saitama New Urban Center in Saitama Prefecture. ANBOUND’s founder Kung Chan pointed out that a distinct difference between the New Urban Center and concepts like satellite cities or sub-centers is that, the former is conceived as a parallel concept with cities, characterized by its forward-looking approach. It endeavors to create a novel space with comprehensive attributes that empower cities to achieve self-sustaining prosperity in various aspects.

One aspect is to construct functional zones for residential living. The new urban centers boast comprehensive urban functionalities, equipped with state-of-the-art public infrastructure for housing, education, healthcare, and more. It establishes residential functional zones centered around the core of the urban living area, achieving a balance between work and life. Taking the Makuhari New Urban Center as an example, the central city typically possesses cultural facilities at the core of residential areas. The inner city consists of courtyard-style residential units along the streets, creating a vibrant city center ambiance. The adjacent areas to the city are characterized by clusters of high-rise office buildings, forming a continuous skyline. Near the riverside, tranquil residential areas are created, and in proximity to parks, three-dimensional conditions are utilized, resulting in spaces for leisurely dining and strolling. Near the roads, various activities give rise to splendid and diverse areas. Near the seaside, the advantageous location with views of the ocean forms residential areas with a vacation-like atmosphere.

Another aspect is to construct a “city within a city” structural layout. Such new urban centers emphasize the intimacy and integration of buildings and streets, forming enclosed street block layouts with an urban atmosphere. Firstly, a central block mainly, composed of the city’s central avenue and its street facades, is established. The central avenue is generally designed with straight intersections, while the street facades consist of continuous multi-story residential units along the streets, achieving a high-density design at a pleasant scale. Secondly, there are spatially scaled neighborhoods. The residential area adopts multi-story enclosed building forms. At the same time, the residential area is divided into appropriate clusters, forming scaled and spatially oriented neighborhoods that blend private and public spaces. Thirdly, residential and commercial streets are set up reasonably. Commercial and office facilities are typically arranged on the lower levels of the street-front residential buildings, creating a lively and comfortable pedestrian environment through the use of arched walkways and similar features.

The third aspect is to create an open and beautiful streetscape space. New urban centers adopt spatial design principles that emphasize contrast and openness, creating a delightful landscape experience throughout. Firstly, the streetscape divides the entire block into two parts: the regular area, which is a high-quality urban high-density block with mixed functions and vibrant places; and the irregular area, which is an ordinary neighborhood focused on open spaces and centered around residential living. Secondly, the streetscape clearly distinguishes roads primarily for vehicle traffic and main streets centered around spaces for residents’ daily interactions based on their spatial characteristics. Thirdly, the streetscape incorporates various types of urban landscape designs, such as square-type, corner-type, and entrance-type, to guide the overall atmosphere of the block. Moreover, the streetscape introduces diverse architectural forms, styles, and colors to create distinctive and characteristic neighborhoods, such as European architecture and Japanese gardens. Lastly, in terms of skyline design, the streetscape establishes an outline with higher buildings on the periphery and lower buildings in the central area, with a well-planned density, scale, and shape for residential areas.

Through the construction of these new urban centers, a balanced and eco-friendly, open, and future-oriented international city that integrates work, residence, education, and leisure has been established. This provides valuable insights for urban development in China:

Firstly, the application of advanced comprehensive planning concepts. A new urban center could not have achieved its urban lifestyle without the use of advanced planning concepts. It emphasizes complexity by providing various functions within residential areas, creating a mixed urban space for living, activities, and entertainment. Additionally, it focuses on openness by arranging buildings along streets as much as possible, creating an open street layout. It also emphasizes the uniqueness of places by implementing diverse and distinct facades, creating memorable and impressive locations for people.

The second aspect involves adopting a government-enterprise collaboration model for development and operation. Unlike the conventional construction model where either private enterprises or the government solely takes responsibility and provides funding, the new urban center development utilizes a special approach of joint investment between the government and private capital. The government provides land to private capital, which funds the construction. After completion, a portion of the buildings and public land ownership is returned to the government. Meanwhile, the government and private enterprises establish a joint company to ensure the sound operation and management of related infrastructure. This land exchange method has yielded excellent results, addressing funding issues, improving construction efficiency, and allowing the government to retain partial ownership and management rights. Consequently, both construction efficiency and quality, as well as management and operation, are maintained at a high level.

The third aspect involves establishing a multi-level coordination mechanism. To ensure the effective implementation of planning and design, the new urban center construction has set up a multi-level coordination mechanism with a planning and design committee as the core, spanning across neighborhoods, zones, and blocks, thereby strengthening the interconnection of various neighborhoods or buildings. The committee regularly convenes coordination meetings to review and approve the planning and design that has been coordinated at the neighborhood level, as well as to adjust and improve the overall design scheme or corresponding urban design guidelines. Relying on a coordinated architect system, each architect fulfills their respective duties, overseeing and implementing the interrelations within and between neighborhoods. This approach allows architects to demonstrate their individuality while maintaining the unity of the overall design guidelines.

Final analysis conclusion:

The construction experience of Tokyo’s “Shintoshin”, or “new urban center” mainly involves building residential functional zones with a lifestyle focus, adopting a three-dimensional “city within a city” layout, and creating open and beautiful street scenes. Against the current backdrop of China’s declining real estate industry, this experience of Japan offers three main insights for domestic development: the application of advanced comprehensive planning concepts, the implementation of a government-enterprise cooperation model for development and operation, and the establishment of a multi-level coordination mechanism. By drawing on the lesson from it, there may still be opportunities for prosperity in China’s real estate industry.

Kung Chan and Xia Ri are researchers for ANBOUND


Anbound Consulting (Anbound) is an independent Think Tank with the headquarter based in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research, and enjoys a professional reputation in the areas of strategic forecasting, policy solutions and risk analysis. Anbound's research findings are widely recognized and create a deep interest within public media, academics and experts who are also providing consulting service to the State Council of China.

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