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Trending: Lessons from Japan: An Interview with Salin Geevarghese

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Lessons from Japan: An Interview with Salin Geevarghese

In this column, Salin Geevarghese, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International and Philanthropic Innovation, talks about his recent visit to Japan for the OECD Green Growth Conference.

Image of 13 individuals standing on a bridge with red rails; the mountains of Tateyama are visible in the background.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for International and Philanthropic Innovation Salin Geevarghese (4th from the right) visits the mountains of Tateyama during his stay in Toyama, Japan for the OECD Green Growth Conference.

Based on your recent visit to Japan and your discussions with housing officials there, what do you see as the major similarities and differences between U.S. and Japanese housing policy, especially in light of each nation’s respective approach to planning, community development, and housing affordability?

My meeting with the officials in Japan was with an agency that would be considered the equivalent to HUD, with one exception: the Japanese ministry manages land, infrastructure, and transportation together. We see this policy combination more often abroad, and it has possible implications for the way U.S. agencies work across silos.

Another structural difference is that Japan is largely driven by their federal policy. The state, or (the prefecture, as it is called) functions like an arm of the national government. Unlike in the United States, the relationship between the federal and state governments in Japan is not a source of tension. Partnerships with the federal government tend to be different for U.S. officials than for the local Japanese officials with whom we met.

What drew me to Japan is that it is known as a super-aging country. Their demographic profile puts them ahead of many countries in terms of how they deal with an aging population. Japan is confronting issues similar to those in the United States. They have seen sprawl, but they are now creating incentives for people of all ages to return to the cities. They are intentionally creating multiage communities and neighborhoods in urban areas. This strategy takes advantage of proximities to key amenities, much as we do in our neighborhood revitalization strategies. Our development (and redevelopment) strategies are very similar, although their tools and some of the investments they are making are probably a little bit ahead of ours, depending on your perspective.

Given the aging of the population in the United States and similar demographic shifts taking place in Japan, are there any particularly innovative housing models or strategies taking shape in Japan that we might want to pursue here in the United States?

Toyama, Japan, the convening location of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conference, is at the forefront of innovative strategies. Like many areas in the United States, it is a place that has been aging and depopulating over the past several decades. The mayor, who has been in office for several terms, has set out to recreate Toyama as a compact city to reverse regional patterns of sprawl. Previously, residents were aging and were far from the critical services and supports they needed. So, as part of the compact city plan, the city invested in light rail and retrofitted its downtown area to cater to the elderly. All of their buses, rail cars, and platforms are designed to maximize accessibility. The investment in transportation infrastructure signaled to people from around the region that the city welcomed them, and the population density of the city center started rising again. At the same time, the city’s investment in cultural and art amenities downtown has also started to bring younger people back.

Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism has projected that 80 percent of Japan’s land areas will lose population or become uninhabited by 2050. As a result, Japanese planning efforts are focusing on compact urban networks that integrate housing and transportation to promote regional revitalization. How is Japan’s approach similar to HUD’s vision for a Century of Cities, and how do our strategies differ?

Much like here in the United States, the Japanese are recognizing the trend toward urbanization. Rapid urbanization and the hollowing out of suburban and rural communities are huge concerns for Japan’s national government, both in terms of how cities can adapt to their rise in population and what the implications are for the places that these residents left behind. In other words, how do we avoid setting up an us-versus-them dynamic between the big cities and everywhere else? The Japanese officials were very keen on this issue.

The Japanese are using similar tools across a range of scales, such as regional revitalization efforts across jurisdictional lines that span a much larger area than just the city centers. They also have made huge investments in transportation infrastructure. They are very aware of the cost of living and how that will present a challenge to housing affordability. In much the same way as in the United States, Japan’s urbanization can heighten inequality, and the Japanese are examining what it takes to ensure that people can afford to live and prosper in a place of their choosing.

It was also interesting to see how having national health insurance impacts housing and community development policy. The Japanese have recognized that constructing the built environment in a particular way will result in better health outcomes. In many ways, they are ahead of us in that recognition. They also have data systems that have been aligned over a longer period of time than those in the United States. These are huge learning opportunities for us to further understand the relationship among housing, transportation, health, economic development, and environmental policies and investments.

While in Japan, you took part in a government-sponsored Urban Development and Green Growth conference. Beyond transit-oriented development — which has been widely embraced in Japan and is gaining broader acceptance here in the United States — what do our Japanese counterparts see as driving the future of sustainable, green communities?

Part of the OECD Green Growth Conference was an acknowledgement that some of the biggest drivers of economic growth in the coming decades will be related to how we combat climate change and how the green and sustainable development movement will affect the ways we innovate. We saw real estate developers presenting innovative systems for monitoring energy consumption and beginning to assess the associated cost savings. This is something that we are trying to do within the United States for a number of property and tenure types. We are wrestling with the question of how best to monetize and recapture those cost savings so that, over the life cycle of an asset, we are able to continue investing in energy efficiency.

We have an opportunity for a larger conversation around standards, metrics, and data. We should ask how the United States, with its fragmented structures, can learn about the energy efficiency interventions of other countries and what cost savings they realize over the long term.

Are Japanese housing officials pursuing strategies similar to HUD’s own place-based initiatives (such as Choice Neighborhoods or SC2), or are they taking a different approach?

During the aging society’s forum in Toyama, I used our place-based initiatives as an example to discuss equity issues. The United States and a few other representatives around the table asked the question, “How do we make sure that our redevelopment initiatives actually serve everyone?” Although we discussed existing income disparities, Japan’s income gap isn’t as large as that of the United States (at least, according to their officials’ own report). So, when we speak of mixed income and mixed finance — in particular, mixed-income redevelopment programs such as Choice Neighborhoods — it wasn’t clear from the participants what poverty in Japan looks like.

The pursuit of resilience resonated with many countries at the table. Even during the Aging Society Conference (and, of course, during the Green Growth and Climate Change Forum), quite a bit of attention was devoted to Japan’s efforts to increase its resilience. When we spoke of U.S. tools to increase resilience and how we deploy them — for example, through the National Disaster Recovery Framework or the recently announced National Disaster Resilience Competition — every participant’s ears perked up because they are dealing with similar challenges.

Japan incorporates aging into its discussions about resilience. U.S. officials are increasingly expanding the definition of resilience beyond climate and environmental issues to include economic and social resilience.

The time that you and the OIPI team spent in Japan seems to have been highly productive and worthwhile. Are there any takeaways we haven’t discussed that you’d like to share with our readers?

I think that there is tremendous potential for partnership. In fact, shortly after returning from Japan, Secretary Castro fielded a visit from the Japanese ambassador. The Ambassador and his ministry colleagues were very excited about the possibilities of partnering with the United States. We have learned that the most successful partnerships are structured around our mutual interests and our learning opportunities.

The first thing we should think about is what we can learn from Japan’s efforts to adapt to an aging population and how we can apply those lessons to our own programs, such as Section 202. We have already begun having those conversations with the program office. Second, concerning the connection between health and housing, HUD and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have recently struck data-matching agreements. How might our experience in Japan inform the relationship between our agencies? Third, a number of our key stakeholders and partners (AARP, OECD, and philanthropic partners) have already begun investing in these issues and working with Japan on them. I think this visit offers us the opportunity to sort through all of these possibilities and bring capacity to a partnership agenda. I am hopeful that with the Secretary’s support, Kathy O’Regan’s leadership, and the backing of the rest of our team, we will be able to apply the experiences and ideas gained from our visit in a way that can serve us well now and into the future.




The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.