We visited Japan for a conference in January while the Covid-19 crisis was still nascent. Our hotel room in Tokyo was the smallest we had ever seen. Yet, every inch served a purpose. Barely noticeable cupboards opened up in the most unlikely directions, electrical appliances were neatly tucked under a table and trash cans were concealed so well that we almost missed them.

It all worked. And it all worked when we walked out of the hotel. The efficiency and order of that room was a microcosm of Tokyo – a $1.6 trillion economy.

With a population of nearly 38 million, the Greater Tokyo Area is one of the most populous metropolitan regions in the world. But, unlike in many other big cities, the novel coronavirus has been largely contained in Japanese cities.

As of August 19, Japan saw nearly 57,000 cases and a little over 1,100 deaths. Evidently, Japan is doing something right, in the planning of both its hotel rooms and cities. As researchers of urbanisation, on our trip, we spotted three key lessons – how to maximise space, the importance of integrated public transport systems to aid mobility and a relentless emphasis on quality of life for residents.

Maximising space

Space appears to be a function of what is made of it in Japan. The areas between buildings formed public gardens – the ground levels of residential buildings were used for parking cars and those of commercial buildings for shops and restaurants.

This is a critical lesson for cities such as those in India where planning policies hinge on archaic setback rules, which is that buildings don’t open up to roads but to defined compounds or courtyards. The intention was to reserve stretches of land for parking cars and private playgrounds.

To effectively utilise space, parking lots can be built vertically, on different levels, freeing up land for wider roads and other open spaces such as parks.

Floor space index is a measure of the limit on space that can be built in a city. It is a ratio of built-up space of a structure to the plot of land it rests on.

Mumbai has an FSI of about 1, Venice 2 and Sao Paulo 4. Tokyo reaches the sky with 20. A low FSI restricts the amount of land available per person as well as the concentration of firms and people from which productivity ensues.

The skyline of Mumbai. Photo credit: Vidur Malhotra/Flickr

An average Mumbai resident has just about 14 square metre of land area to themselves, compared to 87 square metre per person in Tokyo. Relieving FSI can increase the availability of space, but it can also very quickly cause densification of buildings and, consequently, people.

Today, density has been accused of encouraging the spread of Covid-19. But it is not density which is problematic, poor management of that density is.

At the time of writing this piece, Seoul, with a population density of 43,208 per square mile, had barely 2,400 cases, whereas New York, with a population density of over 27,000 per square mile has more than 456,000 cases.

Evidently, administering and planning dense areas better is more vital than attempting to contain urban growth. Densification, especially in populous Indian and Chinese cities, is often blamed for causing congestion and pollution. One way to overcome these issues is through efficient mass transit.

Intricate public transport network

Public transport in Tokyo is an intricate yet easily navigable network of public and private lines connecting various parts of the city, enabling 51% of the trips to be made by public transit. Interoperability between different routes and modes of transport is why the complex system is convenient to use.

Making our way from the tranquillity of the Senso-ji temple to the bustling Shibuya crossing, we found that tram and bus stops are often connected to subway stations. Both emerging cities (such as Manila in the Philippines and Guatemala City in Guatemala) and established ones (like Los Angeles in the United States) face shortages of this infrastructure, let aside integrating multiple modes of transport.

In 2016, 65% of commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area drove alone to work. Only about 12% of them used public systems. On the other end of the spectrum, in 2018, 80% of trips in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, were made via foot, which would severely reduce access to job opportunities.

In addition to clogging roads and causing air pollution, lack of adequate mass transport acutely affects the functioning of cities and lowers the productivity of commuters. In cities where public transit systems do exist, they often face last-mile connectivity issues.

In a Covid-19 world, the Japanese have, like everyone else, moved to remote operations. For those not able to work from home, officials have instituted staggered commuting schedules. Public transit systems did not shut down.

Research shows that robust mass transport can strengthen public service delivery, which is all the more essential in the wake of the pandemic.

The Tokyo skyline with Mount Fuji in the background. Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The Japanese recognise that while infrastructure is important, ultimately, cities are for people. They place immense focus on creating enabling conditions for people to thrive in cities.

The little things matter – temperature-controlled seats in trains gave us a much-needed respite in the January cold, granular signs painted on the floor served as handy directions and we even saw a designated repacking area at airports assisting those with overweight luggage.

While walking outside Shinjuku Station, a large train station in Tokyo equivalent to Grand Central Station in New York City, we noticed that the pavement was wider than the road on which cars travelled.

The majority of the population, even those from privileged socio-economic backgrounds, used public transport to move around, simply because of its widespread connectivity. Hence, anticipating high footfall, the pavement outside the station was likely widened to serve the growing demand for walking space.

In contrast, in most Indian cities, even in their busiest areas, pavements either do not exist or are occupied by hawkers and shops, forcing pedestrians to walk on streets with traffic speeding past. Further, while exploring Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, we were put at ease because public spaces are flooded with lighting from streets and shops and restaurants that stay open till past 3 am.

Conversely, some Latin American and South African cities with high crime rates struggle to cultivate safe, vibrant local cultures where residents can move around freely, which hampers ease of living.

Following directives

Today, while preventive actions were taken for the Covid-19 emergency, Tokyo did not have a city lockdown. Citizens followed government directives and the police did not need to enforce rules.

Shopping malls, salons and restaurants remain open. Thoughtful policies appear to be keeping people safe without infringing on their quality of life.

For instance, in addition to sanitisation, temperature checks and other protective measures, new orders restrict eateries from playing loud music, which compels people to raise their voices to be heard. This follows research stating that talking loudly produces droplets that can potentially transmit the virus.

Even before the outbreak, a mask-wearing culture has existed in Japan for years. People cover their faces in the winter to protect themselves from the flu, and in the spring to avoid getting hay fever.

These Japanese examples of urban policy and planning stem from innovation, attention to detail and efficient implementation. While Covid-19 may have exacerbated various problems, best practices, though idealistic, are a useful benchmark to work towards.

Every city and culture faces a unique set of challenges, but the process of overcoming these challenges and transforming them into advantages can be useful lessons for cities around the world – and for more optimal hotel rooms.

Kadambari Shah is a senior associate and Harshita Agrawal is an associate at IDFC Institute.