Sunday, April 6, 2014

Japanese zoning

This articles is a follow-up of this one about standard zoning practices in North America. It is advised to read the previous article to better compare the two.

First, I cannot call myself an expert on Japanese urbanism, what I know of it comes from a document from the ministry of land and transport of Japan, that they published in English. You can find it at the following address:

I will underline certain characteristics of Japanese zoning that makes it different from North American practices and that I find particularly interesting.

1- Zoning is a national law, not a municipal by-law

This might be the single most interesting characteristic of Japanese zoning that differentiates it from zoning in North America. Here, cities are essentially the sole masters of their zoning, they conceive it, adopt the bylaws and then apply them as they see fit. This isn't quite wise considering how many cities, particularly smaller ones don't really have the expertise to plan a city decently with euclidean zoning. In Japan, the national government created the zoning law, which it could do by mobilizing expertise to make a good set of laws.

That being said, cities aren't completely cut off from the business of zoning. Though the law is adopted by the national government, its local application is left to city governments, as long as they respect the national law. So cities still have some power, but they have guidelines, which seems to me to be a good compromise. The only issue is that it eliminates possibilities of experimentation which could find better ways of doing things, as cities cannot try a different approach, they are bound by the approach established by the national government.

2- There are only 12 different zones

In North American zoning, there are often hundreds of different zones with different characteristics. In Japanese zoning, cities can only define 12 different zones, going from low-rise residential zones to exclusively industrial zones. There are certain variations between these zones, like the maximum ratio between the building's area and the lot's area, or the Floor-Area Ratio (ratio between the sum of floor areas of every story of the building to the lot's area), but overall the rest of the zone, especially the uses allowed in it, are the same. The ratios I named just above are crucial to define what kind of density is allowed. And even though these maximum ratios can vary, cities can only select certain values.

For example, for Category I low-rise residential zones, cities can only choose a maximum ratio between the building and lot areas of 30, 40, 50 or 60%. The lowest possible maximum FAR (Floor-Area Ratio) is 50%. For comparison's sake, in the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu zoning I described earlier, following the rules, the maximum building-lot ratio is 33%, though in practice, it is generally about 20-25%, which is typical of Québec suburbs.
The 12 Japanese zones
3- Zones still restrict uses, but they tend to allow a "maximum" use instead of an exclusive use for each zone

In North-American zoning, zones clearly specify which use is allowed on it. In general, zones allow only one or two uses. For example, a residential single-family detached home zone tolerates only single-family detached houses. Don't try to put a convenience store or a school in one, nor a duplex. Similarly, multifamily zones allow only apartments, don't try to build a house in one. In commercial zones, only commercial buildings are tolerated, any kind of residential use is prohibited. Etc...

If we want to illustrate this principle of zoning with exclusive uses, this is what we'd get:
Principle of North American zoning: exclusive use per zone
The columns represent different zones, the rows represent the different uses. When the square at the intersection of a certain column and a certain row is red, it means that the given use is forbidden in that zone, when it is green, that means that the use is allowed.

Note that I've put the uses in an order of increasing "nuisance", the lower you get, the more the use is one we tend to want to separate from residential areas. Nuisance is a very loose definition, even just increased activity is considered "nuisance" because of the noise and circulation it brings about. That's why schools are considered greater "nuisance" than residential areas, even if in fact we want to keep schools in residential areas, to keep kids from having to take buses to get to school.

If we wanted to illustrate the principle of Japanese zoning in a similar way, we'd get something like this:

Principle of Japanese zoning: zones include all uses up to a maximum "nuisance level"
The difference is evident. There is a lot more green. That is because Japanese do not impose one or two exclusive uses for every zone. They tend to view things more as the maximum nuisance level to tolerate in each zone, but every use that is considered to be less of a nuisance is still allowed. So low-nuisance uses are allowed essentially everywhere. That means that almost all Japanese zones allow mixed use developments, which is far from true in North American zoning. Euclidean zones CAN allow mixed uses... but in practice, it is very rare that they do so.

This great rigidity in allowed uses per zone in North American zoning means that urban planing departments must really micromanage to the smallest detail everything to have a decent city. Because if they forget to zone for enough commercial zones or schools, people can't simply build what is lacking, they'd need to change the zoning, and therefore confront the NIMBYs. And since urban planning departments, especially in small cities, are largely awful, a lot of needed uses are forgotten in neighborhoods, leading to them being built on the outskirts of the city, requiring car travel to get to them from residential areas.

Meanwhile, Japanese zoning gives much more flexibility to builders, private promoters but also school boards and the cities themselves. So the need for hyper-competent planning is much reduced, as Japanese planning departments can simply zone large higher-use zones in the center of neighborhoods, since the lower-uses are still allowed. If there is more land than needed for commercial uses in a commercial zone, for example, then you can still build residential uses there, until commercial promoters actually come to need the space and buy the buildings from current residents.

So in a way, regarding use restrictions, North American zoning tends to be "exclusive", Japanese zoning tends to be "inclusive"

By the way, here is the actual image from the Japanese norms. As I said, when an use becomes allowed in a certain zone (yellow square), it remains allowed in all higher zones (squares to the right remain yellow). The only exception to that is the exclusive industrial zone, which is meant for heavy industry that is best kept separate from other uses.
Allowed uses in every Japanese zone
Note that this means that when a city wants to zone for, say, big commercial stores, they are forced to allow a variety of "lesser" uses in the same zone. Same thing for offices, if they want to build offices, they must zone for at least a Category II mid-rise residential zone, on which the smallest maximum ratio they can put is 100% of FAR (but they can go higher, up to 500% FAR), which means in practice apartments with at least 3-4 stories. If they want to allow bigger offices, they must also allow bigger residential buildings and stores in the same zone. This "bundling" of uses imposes mixed use developments on cities.

4- Japanese zoning doesn't differentiate the types of residential use

I already mentioned how North American zoning tends to treat single-family and multifamily as two separate uses to keep segregated. Even different forms of both can be treated as different uses, town homes can be forbidden even in single-use zones, duplexes can be banned from zones planned for apartment blocks. In Japan, there is no such segregation. Residential is residential. If  a building is used to provide a place to live to people, it's residential, that's all. Whether it's rented, owned, houses one or many households, it doesn't matter.

This doesn't mean that people can build 10-story apartment blocs in the middle of single-family houses (at least, not normally). As I mentioned, there are maximum ratios of building to land areas and FAR that restricts how high and how dense residential buildings may be. So in low-rise zones, these ratios mean that multifamily homes must also have only one to three stories, like the single-family homes around them. So in neighborhoods full of small single-family homes, you will often see small apartment buildings full of what we would call small studio apartments: one room with a toilet.

Single-family houses and low-rise apartments coexisting in Sendai
Same area, as seen from the sky, in green, single-family homes, in red, multifamily apartments
Once again, this type of zoning reduces the need of competence from urban planners to have a decent city. In North American cities, if the planning department doesn't plan for enough multifamily or single-family zones, you can create big problems. There may be shortages of either multifamily or single-family zones, pushing prices up for that kind of housing. In practice, it's most often rental units that get the shaft, resulting in sky-high rents as there is a rental unit crisis. In Japan, since they don't differentiate between the two, people build what they actually need rather than what is commanded from above. And if there is not enough multifamily housing or that land is running out, pushing prices up, buying rundown houses and replacing them with multifamily housing is a sound business plan.

However, in practice, this largely means that multifamily homes tend to congregate around schools, commercial sectors or train stations. This makes sense, because as I said earlier, the revenues per square foot of land of multifamily uses is higher than for single-family homes. So multifamily promoters will tend to be willing to pay more per square foot and thus will beat single-family promoters for desirable lots, especially since multifamily residents will tend to favor proximity more than single-family residents.

5- It includes rational rather than arbitrary height limits

In North America, the number of stories buildings can have is limited, but these limitations are completely arbitrary. For instance, if buildings in a zone have 2 stories maximum, then there is likely going to be an height limit of 2 stories put on the zone. Why 2 stories? "Because that's what is built here, so that's what you can build". The height limits make no sense.

Now, there is a reason why one would do height limits. Height limits to allow the sun to shine on the street makes sense, and one can argue that you need some space between buildings to allow some air flow. Those are defensible arguments for height limits... but they do not justify the arbitrary limits put in place in North America. When houses are separated by 80-90 feet, don't pretend that you absolutely need to limit buildings to 2 stories for "air flow" or shadow avoidance!

In Japan, the height limit that exists make sense, it's an easy rule that can be applied everywhere, it's easier shown than explained:

Height restrictions in Japanese zoning to avoid eternal shadows
So, the farther the building is set back from the street, the higher it can be. The wider the street, the higher the buildings that can be built next to it. These rules are sometimes omitted from certain places where they want to build higher buildings, like offices in skyscrapers for instance.

Note that this guideline also exists in North American cities, but is often bypassed by arbitrary height limits written in every zone..

6- Cities still conserve the right to require certain geometric criteria

Despite the national guidelines, cities aren't completely powerless. They can identify zones where certain rules will be waived to allow higher densities, or alternately, establish certain criteria like a minimum quantity of green spaces on each lot, minimum setbacks, etc... But the basic rules of zoning are still defined by the national government.


This was simply a description of another zoning model to show how things can be done differently.

Personally, I believe these practices make a lot more sense than the current standard zoning practices in North America. The creation of a national law establishing a limited number of zones is, in my opinion, a great idea, as well as the elimination of the single-family/multifamily distinction and the inclusive zoning for uses rather than one-use zones. Using general rules to solve problems regarding sunlight instead of allowing cities to put arbitrary limits on height is an excellent idea. When you have a problem, the rules must be set up to directly solve the problem and be universal rather than arbitrary numbers which only have a loose connection to the actual problem.

In short, Japan's zoning laws are more rational, more efficient and just plain better than what we do now.

Now, this isn't the only model around. New Urbanists push for form-based zoning to favor walking and to allow mixed used developments. Houston in Texas is known as a city without zoning because it doesn't restrict land use through its planning agency, anything can theoretically be built anywhere (though there are private covenants that limit what land can be used for and there used to be stringent minimum lot and minimum parking rules that severely restrained density).

What's important to take away is the incredible mess that our indefensible euclidean zoning has made of our cities and that there are many better ways to zone our cities that are out there. The question isn't whether we should change our zoning laws or not, it's how they should be changed.

UPDATE: For an example of the great mix of housing that results from the lack of regulation on housing types, see this article on the housing mix of a small neighborhood in Sendai.


  1. Fantastic post, especially coupled with the one about Euclidean zoning. I really liked the point you make about Japanese zoning being "inclusive" contrasting with American-style "exclusive" zoning.

    And clearly, the Japanese model has created/protected urban settings that are waaaay more people focused & walkable on a scale that dwarfs the few such places we have here in North America (such a vast continent compared to a relatively tiny island chain).

    1. Thanks for your comment, the first I got!

      Yes, the Japanese do build more walkable, human-scaled communities than North Americans. I think they seem to have bypassed the "modern" phase westerner urbanists and architects went through, where they decided to reject all that was traditional and change cities from top to bottom to accommodate motorized transport (the Le Corbusier, GM Futurama vision). Most of Japan is more "post-modern" in approach, where they try to fit motorized transport while still retaining traditional characteristics to their cities, making for more of a compromise.

      Nonetheless, some of their cities in Hokkaido are pretty car-dependent with wider streets, but even then, they are nowhere near car-dependent like what we build. On the French section of my blog, I have a comparison between Québec City and Asahikawa (in Hokkaido) which compares how even Japanese car-oriented cities are more pedestrian-friendly than North American ones. I've not translated it because it addressed more Québec urbanist and transport practices than North American ones, though we do share a lot of the same characteristics, to different degrees.

  2. I live in Japan and I'm interested in urban panning, but I didn't know the details. Thanks!

    Soon after coming to Japan I realized that mixed-use communities are a big reason the streets are more active and pedestrian friendly (density, narrow roads, and transportation-oriented development are other reasons).

    But I actually wish Japan had somewhat stricter zoning, as many neighborhoods are pretty ugly. In cities outside of the major metros, rail is used, but there is less transportation-oriented development, so taller apartment buildings are scattered throughout smaller cities in a seemingly random way. Even worse, big-box stores have been allowed on the suburban roads that they continue to build, leading to nasty sprawl, which is ruining city cores and causing other problems. I would love to see an urban-growth boundary and a stricter rules on big box stores again.

    Some cities do have their own urban codes, and not everything is at a national level. Historic areas can ban big buildings, certain signs types and colors, etc.

    1. Actually, I didn't mention it, but there is some kind of urban growth boundary. Essentially, there are two large "zones" over it all: Urbanization promotion zones (cities) and urbanization control zones (rural areas, where development is not supposed to be permitted).

      Unfortunately, their zoning, though much better than North American zoning, is no surefire way to avoid car-dependent cities. I like to say "development follows transport axes", in that development tends to happen in reaction to the dominant modes of transport. In rural areas where train stations are rare, trains are not frequent or stations are not well located, development will be more car-oriented by default. Parking craters, though relatively rare, still happen in smaller cities (but I'm no expert, I just like looking at cities with Google Maps and Street View). That's why car dependence is so insidious, it is self-replicating. People travel around by car, so businesses make sure they have large parking lots. These parking lots increase distances and make walking and biking less comfortable, inciting people to drive around. It's hard to reverse this. Japan has an advantage however that it never has built high-speed roads in cities, especially not highways (which are tolled anyway), so cars are not that much faster than bikes or transit, they go at maybe 25-30 km/h on average. Which means that even if cities are built oriented towards cars, they are still relatively dense because even cars don't go very fast in cities, so people tolerate less distance than North Americans where most cities have highways through them.

      As to the apartment blocs appearing at random, I've noticed that they seem to sprout near supermarkets and combinis. Probably because:

      1- the zone gets upzoned to allow commercial use, which also allows apartment blocs.
      2- Apartment dwellers tend to be poorer and so prefer proximity to shops that they will go to often, and the builders know that and make sure to build blocs there.

      Still better than over here, where developers asked to build more density frequently build condos near highways, basically as sound barriers to protect single-family homes from the visual, auditive and actual pollution of highways. Which means the condos are close to nothing at all except the highway.

  3. Hi simval84 - thanks for dropping by and commenting on my blog. I'm a fan of yours.

    Do you think zoning is necessary?

    Do you think there are other ways to control form/density other than zoning?

    I believe without zoning (or any other restrictions on land use, height, density, setback), if we designed our street system around cars (wide car-oriented streets, lots of freeways) we would develop a car-oriented form, where as if we designed our street system around people (shared human-scale streets, made them pleasant for people to occupy, invested in plenty of transit, didn't lay out new streets unless absolutely necessary) we would develop a human-scale form.

    Although Houston lacks zoning, the expansive network of freeways and limitations on density/lot size prevent it from truly urbanising.

    But, I wonder what Vancouver would look like without zoning? Likely, the extremely high real estate prices would result in greater density, not greater sprawl.

    Honestly - I think the average American city will be better off without zoning. We've already hollowed out most of our down towns.

    1. Thanks for your kind words.

      Is zoning necessary? Most cities grew without zoning in the past, so it's not literally necessary. But I'm guessing you meant more generally, is it necessary to favor good urban developments.

      I do think that zoning may have some reason to exist. There are certain uses which ought to be separated from others like heavy industrial uses which can emit a lot of pollution. There are some considerations zoning can help with like protecting access to the sun, like Japanese zoning does, but it can be done simply in relation to street size and building setback.

      Zoning is generally about restricting density, and there is some legitimate reason why cities would do that. For example, if sewers and aqueducts aren't enough for very high densities and you'd need to replace pipes to accommodate higher densities, then it might make sense to restrict density in some way. Zoning may also help guide developments to concentrate on certain areas (though that is questionable as normally developers will also try to concentrate high density developments near sites where they make sense).

      I think one of the problems of zoning-less cities may be land prices. Land prices tend to vary a lot depending on what can be built on the lot, so by capping density, zoning tends to keep land prices lower than they otherwise would be. It's not necessarily a good thing, surely zoning can create artificial land shortages resulting in sky-high land prices, especially in zones where high density is permitted but surrounded by very low-density zones that cities refuse to upzone. But when an area is not built out, zoning keeps land prices lower.

      But what I've heard of Houston is that they have a bit of problem with Transit-Oriented Development because all land owners near their recent LRT lines all price their lands for high-rise developments, since Houston has no zoning and that's the highest density that could be built. But going from a parking crater to an high-rise isn't ideal, it would be best to infill the parking crater first with mid-rise construction, with high-rises coming later when there is already an urban fabric in the area. Land owners will thus keep their land as parking until a buyer with an high-rise project agrees to spit out the cash the owner asks for. Meanwhile, the parking crater remains.

      So in that case, zoning might actually be helpful, by capping density, you cap land prices and it's easier to find a few developers willing to buy moderately priced small lots for mid-rise buildings than finding developers with the funds to buy huge lots to build high-rises on them. So capping density, you can get construction started way faster.

      So zoning can be useful. Density caps can be justified in some cases. But those in charge of the zoning need to be intelligent, and dynamically upzone lands to prevent buildable land shortages. So as a zone reaches maybe 50 or 60% of the allowed density, the zone should be upzoned to increase the maximum allowed density to prevent shortages. That kind of thing. It's something I'm thinking about that I may write about later on a series of what I think are measures to make urban neighborhoods more affordable.

  4. Nicely detailed post. I lived in Japan for 5 years and found the same benefits you mention but there is the issue of 'messy' urbanization. You also have a problem that doesn't exist in the States; sex video shops next to kindergartens and small factories blowing smoke onto houses surrounding it. Zoning is not ideal but necessary to keep everyone comfortable and happy. Japan needs more zoning in my view.

  5. What Kevin said above. I've always been amazed by what seems to be a total lack of zoning in Japan. For example a red light district right next to an elementary school. Or apartment blocks with people hanging their futons out on balconies right next to a massive smoke stack belching black smoke. At least in America zoning laws tend to keep residential apart from industrial.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      From what I've seen of Japan, the issue you mentioned is extremely rare, heavy industry is confined to industrial zones which are relatively few in number. In some of these, residential uses are banned, but in others, they are still allowed, however, developers and prospective buyers KNOW that this is an industrial zone. This reduces the value of the housing, makes residential development less profitable and so less likely to occur.

      In the modern world where motorized transport (public or private) is accessible to most, I don't think you'd even need zoning to keep industrial uses away from residential uses, it will happen spontaneously because people can choose to live farther from their jobs, especially if there are a lot of negative externalities produced by their place of employment. Still, industrial zoning can be justified on two points even today:

      1- To prevent an heavy industrial development from occurring near established residential settlements. Sure, most residents would likely move away soon afterwards, keeping industrial uses separate again, but they would lose a lot of home equity in the process.

      2- To protect industrial development from having to compete with more profitable (per acre of land) developments like high-density housing and offices in places where it may make sense to protect industrial uses (near ports and freeways).

      As to the proximity of red light districts and schools, I think it's not as big a problem as you seem to think. Red light districts tend to be active at night and during the week-end, schools are active during the day and only during the school week. So there is little overlap, and most of Japan's sex activities occur inside. It's not like in North America where traditionally prostitutes would hang around on sidewalks and give blowjobs to johns in their cars parked in an alley somewhere.

  6. It's is great to learn about land use planning in Japan so thank you for the summary and providing a link to the document created by Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. As I am a Town Planner who trained in England but began my education in Canada, I think you would be very interested in the British Planning systems. While the Germans and Japanese use less land use districts than Canadians, land use districts are not even used in the British Isles. Personally, I am fascinated how the development of the city that I believe to be the greatest in the World, London, strongly questions the 'necessity' of land use zoning.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      I have heard a bit about the British planning system, what I have been told is that there is no zoning because every single development must be submitted to a planning committee's approval. As a result, there is essentially no by-right development, everything needs to be reviewed by planners.

      So the result is a very orderly city and, due to British planners' bias towards townhouses and semi-detacheds, relatively dense suburbs. However, I can see many issues with such a system, and London is a perfect example of that. The planning approval system is cumbersome, especially for redevelopment, which aggravates the housing crisis and results in London being one of the most expensive cities in the world. Population density is also too uniform, with density at Tube stations frequently being no greater than elsewhere, and as a result, bus ridership is very high, but the average bus trip is barely over 1 mile long, which is a sign of a massive "last mile" problem due to a lack of concentrated density at transit stations. Meaning that people who would live within walking distance of a transit station if they could are forced at a greater distance away by the lack of density at stations.

      I analyzed the density patterns of a Tokyo suburban train station vs a London Tube station in this post:

  7. Land Use Districts aren’t used as the British system tries to provide a high level of flexibility. For instance, it is actually easier to switch between similar uses in the UK as the Use Classes Order allows By-Right development without the need to obtain Planning Permission. While land in North America is classified as a certain Land Use District and you can build something that is a Permitted Use after applying for a Development Permit (i.e. technically not By-Right development), the way in which you are using the land/building in the UK falls into a classification (e.g. A3 – Restaurants and Cafes) and you can switch within the same class or between certain classes without seeking Planning Permission (e.g. A3 to A3, A3 to A1 – Shops, A3 to A2 – Professional & Financial Services). While you will need to sit down with a town planner to obtain Planning Permission to switch between a Storage Site and a Shop or to complete a development that requires a “material change”, it is not as burdensome as it may seem.

    Pre-application meetings allow the developer and Local Planning Authority to determine the merits of the proposal, set parameters for what can/should be done and push forward with projects that have enough merit. Although this process begins slowly, it is very much a case of going slow to go quickly. If you are interested in doing a cookie-cutter greenfield development in North America, a pre-application meeting may be unnecessary as cookie-cutter developments fit well into the boxes of Euclidian Zoning. However, dynamic urban developments that respond to evolving community needs tend to be complex and do not fit very well into predefined boxes and categories. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen urban developers in Calgary spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to fit their project into the predefined boxes of Calgary’s Land Use Bylaw, often losing quality elements in the process, or having to create what is basically a new Land Use District in the form of a Direct Control District. This is where I believe the British system to be superior.

  8. Hey,

    i like to read your article very much. Thanks a lot for sharing with us.

  9. I think this post tends to overlook the very real geographic and demographic differences between America and small heterogenous countries like Japan. In urban planning as in most policy questions, ignoring the cultural and physical differences between countries is a recipe for disaster.

  10. Interesting difference in perspective but it wouldn't work in the USA as written because the US is not a monolithic country. It is a dual sovereignty system with 51 sovereign entities. However, there is no reason why the principles couldn't be adopted in 2nd tier cities as part of an effort to compete and make that city stand out. This would be more compatible to the US ethos of competitive development and the political system of division of powers.

  11. See also: