“Sponge cities”: New perspectives on the progress of urban de-growth in Japan

Sophie Buhnik (MFJ, Tokyo), member of the INCAS Project, released an article on “Sponge cities” in Japan on the website of the French Academic Network on Asian Studies (GIS Asie).

In recent years, preventing the relative and absolute decline of small to mid-size cities within national urban systems has become a top priority of many national agendas, even in France, where high birth rates and postwar regional planning policies aiming at balancing territorial development have for a long time concealed the extent of devitalization trends in smaller urban areas (Béal et al. 2017). Although they are still perceived as places of quiet urban life, the small to mid-size cities that are geographically and functionally remote from global urban networks are particularly concerned.

The decline of « non-metropolitan » cities has become an important matter of public interest in various countries ; it is tightly linked to rising worries about the unexpected effects of austerity budgeting imposed on public institutions. According to countless scientific papers or reports, territorial reforms and devolution policies inspired by New Public Management ideas played a major part in reinforcing development trends that distinguish global city-regions on one side, from shrinking urban or rural regions on the other. In the latter case, local resentment towards a perceived « abandonment » by central powers is thought to have exerted a significant influence on populist votes.

Finding locally adapted solutions and giving a more nuanced vision of “territorial divides” have been important motivations behind the recent surge of academic literature that tries to analyse urban decline more systematically. Within this field, the place of Japanese case studies is paradoxical : their exploratory value is blurred by residually essentialist beliefs in the singularity of urban life in Japan. As the first country to cope with a naturally decreasing population, Japan epitomizes all the challenges that await aging megacities and in particular, the so-called phenomenon of « sponge cities » (suponjika) : i.e. the perforation of local urban fabrics by residential or commercial vacant lots, such that daily living conditions and access to urban resources become more difficult for the remaining residents. Until the early 2010s however, attempts to build cross-national typologies of shrinking cities often insisted on the specificity of Japanese examples, especially the weight of the demographic factor and the apparent lack of social unrest in decaying urban areas.

Sophie Buhnik, French Academic Network on Asian Studies

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