Prosperity is a devil’s bargain. You get higher wages. But your rent goes up, your commute gets longer, and your traditional culture gets replaced by an insipid global one.

It’s not that prosperity isn’t a good thing, on net. People strongly prefer it: As Byrne Hobart pointed out on Twitter this week, it’s difficult to think of any pair of countries where net immigration flows from the richer country to the poorer one. Prosperity is good. It’s just a shame that it tends to come at such a high price.

The choice is to live in a backwater, where life is cheap and jobs are thin on the ground, and the old culture hangs in there. Or to live in an expensive rich city, which increasingly resembles any other rich city anywhere in the world. 

The row over The Cobblestone in Dublin’s Smithfield tells the story. The Cobblestone is a vestige of the days when Dublin was cheap and quirky. Now Dublin is expensive. So there’s no room for charming, grotty old boozers.

Of course, there are plenty of places that have clung onto their local culture, and stayed cheap. But they tend to be places that investment has overlooked. It tends to be either one or the other.

This is why Tokyo deserves our attention. It is a rare place that has the best of both worlds. 

It’s the world’s biggest city. A rich city. Wages are high, and unemployment is low. Its population is growing strongly (despite Japan’s shrinking population).

But Tokyo is immune from many of prosperity’s unpleasant side effects. Rents in for a one-bed flat in Tokyo are about 40 per cent lower than in Dublin, according to And because they have many more one-beds, the average household size is 1.9, compared to 2.4 for Dublin, where a common solution is for renters to split up a three bed house.

Cheap housing is the thing western urbanists fixate on when they talk about Tokyo. But there’s more to it than housing. It’s also a city that has managed to preserve its culture and old ways of life. 

Joe McReynolds and Jorge Almazán’s new book is called Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City. I interviewed McReynolds for the podcast this week.

Joe McReynolds

How does Tokyo preserve its culture and keep the chain stores at bay, I ask? “I would argue that Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world for historic preservation. We don’t think of it that way because there aren’t that many old buildings. 

“[Instead of old buildings,] What Tokyo tends to keep are the communities and in individuals and spaces that inhabit those buildings. 

“If you want to see gritty classic 1970s New York today, you can’t. It’s not there anymore. If you want to go see retro Tokyo today honestly, the same businesses same kind of vibe, same everything, it’s mostly still there. 

“And so by just having so many flexible, small-scale, micro spaces and communities, you really have a degree of historic preservation that in other cities is hard to match – if we think about historic preservation in terms of communities and feelings and ways of life, rather than in terms of ‘is that old building still standing’.”

What does it feel like at street level? “You’re expecting it to be this roaring 20’s, everything-all-at-once [type of place]. But actually, it can be incredibly intimate, and calm, and local, and communal. While at the same same time functioning on this level of world’s largest city.

“[To take one example,] where we go out and have a drink makes such a gigantic difference. And liquor licences change pretty much everything about who can drink where in a city, and under what circumstances alcohol can be served. 

“In an American city, sometimes a liquor licence can cost up to $500,000. If you’re paying that much money for a liquor licence, then you’re building a mega bar. Something that can pay back on that investment. 

“In Tokyo it’s a tiny little fee. You file a paper and you’re good. So zoning allows you to open a little four-seat micro-bar, even on the bottom floor of your house if you want to.

“And that’s true in a lot of areas, and niche subcultures, and small personal businesses. A lot of people think of Japan as the place with all the wacky subcultures. But those subcultures exist in America, Europe and China all over the world. It’s in Tokyo that the regulations and microeconomics make it easy to create small commercial spaces.”

When it comes to vibrant street life, says McReynolds, a lot of it is just about getting the right scale.

“We crave smallness and intimacy so much in American cities, because there’s so little of it left. All of our public policy, our economics of small business, all lead toward scale. 

“And also it leads towards kind of spreadsheet thinking: Build here what will make the most profit here. Whether that’s luxury condos, another Starbucks, you name it. And yet there’s something missing when that takes up just more and more of a share of the city.”

“When you’re not a car culture, you can fill a lot more space with a lot more interesting things.”

Specifically, what does the Japanese government do differently that allows this to happen?

“Those conditions could emerge under other circumstances in western cities. For example, we could allow smaller lot sizes and more densely packed districts. Those are regulatory questions. 

“Connecting things to walkable transit also is really key. Tokyo is actually very suburban, but it’s a train suburb culture, not a car suburb culture. When you’re not a car culture, you can fill a lot more space with a lot more interesting things. 

“You can give people the freedom to do what they want with their homes, in ways that make neighbourhoods more interesting and dynamic. So there are a lot of ways to encourage flexible micro spaces in the city that are not just going to be used for what looks most profitable on a spreadsheet, if you’re being creative and attuned to your own city’s context.”

The thing that connects it all — the efficient transport, the cheap rents, the vibrant culture — is Tokyo’s habit of building a lot. It’s about abundance. When space is abundant, a lot more is possible. 

“The main thing I take away from Tokyo is when you get beyond these hard-drawn battle lines that exist because of the environment of scarcity in most western cities – like scarce affordable housing, scarce opportunities, scarce commercial space – when you get out of that scarcity mindset, a lot of curiosity and creative positive thinking is possible.”


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