Tokyo’s Urban Development, Successes & Challenges

Tokyo city growth, origin, expansion, challenges, success, developing urban metropolitan environment, and urban planning and management
Tokyo started as a small settlement. The city grew and expanded with considerable successes and challenges for public administration and urban planning and development. (Photo: Public Domain)

Tokyo’s urban development is remarkable because of its status as one of the world’s biggest megacities and its continuing growth and expansion. Tokyo’s urban development sheds light on the successes and challenges urban areas face over the years. The evolution of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area is seen as an example of how urban centers can proceed to address people’s needs. Nonetheless, Tokyo’s development is also seen as a non-optimal path because of the issues related to urbanization. These issues emphasize the challenges urban planners and administrators face as cities become more densely populated. While cities like Tokyo have experience and expertise needed to ensure a well-planned approach to urban development, the nature, complexity, and scale of the development creates new problems that administrators or urban managers have not yet encountered in the past. Thus, it is of critical importance to maintain flexibility in addressing emerging challenges, while remaining effective in fulfilling the current needs of the urban population.

Tokyo’s urbanization and sprawl create challenges in management and governance. Despite the megacity’s success as an economic and socio-political hub, the continuing development of its urban environment presents issues that affect quality of life, such as water supply adequacy and sanitation.

Tokyo’s Beginnings

The city of Tokyo began as a settlement near the mouth of the Sumida River, along the body of water now known as Tokyo Bay. One good reason why this was the original location of Tokyo was that the plains near the Sumida River were rich in soil for farming. The Japanese had rice fields in the area to provide for their food needs. It is notable that early settlements in areas where cities are now located were typically of importance in accessing food and the transport of goods. Thus, the original reason for the location of Tokyo was food production. Food production served as a factor that attracted people to the area. Eventually, businesses and the local economy grew, leading to the development of the city and, over time, the Tokyo Metropolitan Area.

The beginnings of Tokyo are similar to those of other major cities around the world. Many megacities started as small settlements. These settlements grew because of economic benefits, such as efficient access to food. In a broader point of view, the urban populations grew because of efficient access to goods and services. Local governments provided some of these services, and imposed requirements and plans for the growth and expansion of the resulting urban population.

How Tokyo Expanded

The city of Tokyo gradually expanded toward the Tokyo Bay area and to adjacent areas near the Sumida River. At present, there are groups of grid roadways, but non-grid roadways interconnect these groups. The expansion of the city was not in an orderly fashion. It was partly haphazard. The grid started in the 1900s. At that time, there were separate groups of grids in the area of what is now known as Tokyo.

A possible reason for the combination of the grid-like roadways and the haphazard roadways is that there were small settlements scattered across the area in the past. Each of these settlements had their own grid-like roadways. These original settlements led to the creation of separate groups of grids. The non-grid roadways were then used to connect these original settlements to each other. As the city expanded, these non-grid interconnecting roadways remained and influenced the development of new roadways around them.

Rapid Growth of the City

It was in the period of 1880s to the 1900s that the city of Tokyo experienced the most growth in terms of population increase and the city’s geographic expansion. At that time, the city merged with the surrounding areas to form the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. This merging of the areas is one of the major events that influenced the growth of the city. Another major event that influenced the city’s growth was the Second World War. War-related damage and population shifts affected the development of Tokyo and nearby cities.

Challenges Facing Tokyo’s Development

A challenge facing Tokyo today is the high population of the city and its metropolitan area. Tokyo’s metropolitan area is the most populous in the world. This is a challenge because of the limited land that can be used in the area. The result of this high population is overcrowding. Tokyo’s roadways, pedestrian lanes, and other public spaces experience daily overcrowding as people flock to the area during peak hours.

Tokyo’s high population density also affects safety. Disasters in the region can readily endanger the lives of millions living in the city. A single earthquake, tsunami, or storm can easily impact many millions of people in the megacity.

This high population also significantly affects the economy of Japan, especially in terms of land prices. Real estate in Tokyo is one of the most expensive in the world. High prices of real property are due to limited land combined with high demand due to high population density. Thus, the high population of Tokyo is a major challenge for the city government in continuing urban development.

Tokyo’s Successes

A major success of Tokyo is that it has become one of the top city economies in the world. The metropolitan area is one of the major financial centers in the world. In spite of limited natural resources and a very high population, Tokyo’s metropolitan urban economy continues to develop as home to many businesses, including large multinational companies, like Sony Corporation.


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