ISCN Global Mixer- Livability in the Age of Shrinkage: Showcasing Urban Design and Planning Strategies from Japan

In this episode of the Global Mixer, Marco Capitanio, Architect and Urban Designer from Japan, talked about diverse stages and patterns of shrinkage in municipalities and communities and explored innovative planning strategies to manage demographic change in Japan. These strategies may serve as reference for other areas about to face their own age of shrinkage, within Japan and beyond.

Event details

21.02.2024, 10:00 - 10:30
Event type
Online (virtual)


Key-take aways

Digital initiatives and automation can play an important role in the increase of livability in shrinking areas.

Test-and-try-approach: The living conditions in shrinking areas are diverse, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Local strategies have to be tested and are dependent on multiple factors. An inspiring variety of approaches and strategic levers is emerging.

Coherent national policy: To deal effectively with shrinkage, local initiatives are not enough. They must be backed by ambitious and innovative national policy strategies.  

Shrinkage is a global phenomenon in which certain areas experience a decline in population, economic activity, and infrastructure. About half of the world is experiencing shrinkage, mainly due to demographic, spatial, and economic factors that are closely interrelated.

In Japan, the main reasons for shrinkage are an ageing society, socio-economic issues, and natural disasters. In fact, half of Japan’s municipalities are classified as depopulated. Already now, 14% of the nation’s housing stock is abandoned, and not only in rural areas, but also significantly in metropolitan areas like Osaka.

The guiding question of this episode of the Global Mixer was: How can the challenges of shrinkage be addressed through urban design strategies and digital initiatives?

Marco Capitanio, architect and urban planner, led us through a variety of six case studies, including remote areas, regional cities, and central metropolitan districts which addressed shrinkage in their own way.

The strategic levers encompassed among others 
a) urban design to address spatial accessibility and compactization,
b) new (people-based) policies for consolidated resource allocation or the support of 
c) individually driven bottom-up initiatives for revitalization and new rural-urban links,
d) management of resilience parameters and fiscal health, 
e) strengthening the local character and attractiveness of places to induce tourism
f) automation and robotization.

The case studies included the city of Toyama, which faced issues such as car dependency, sprawl, and infrastructure maintenance costs. 
To adress these problems, master plans were developed, and a light railway transport system was established in just three years, reusing existing railway tracks. Additionally, a sensor network was implemented, with IoT devices placed throughout the residential area to monitor the utility network, traffic, and transportation usage. The data collected was made available on an open data platform, fostering relationships with local universities to develop other projects with the data. 
An app called Tohokatsu was also developed, which rewards the use of public transport or walking with points that can be redeemed at local businesses.

Marco Capitanio stressed in his conclusion that local initiatives alone are not enough to tackle shrinkage effectively, and that a coherent, complementing national policy is necessary. Livability conditions are diverse, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A test-and-try approach is needed, where different strategies are implemented and evaluated to determine their effectiveness. Automation can play a role in improving livability in shrinking areas, for example through the use of drones for delivery.

It is worth noting that while the initiatives in the case studies have shown positive results, they require political will and financial support to be implemented on a larger scale.

In conclusion, shrinkage is an unavoidable prospect for many parts of the world, but it does not necessarily mean decline. Japan's initiatives are on the forefront and can serve as a reference for other areas. Livability in the age of shrinkage is possible through innovations in policy design and urban planning, digital initiatives and a plethora of levers.