Challenges and setbacks towards sustainable urban regeneration: lessons from Shibuya, Tokyo

2nd June 2023

Author: Marco Reggiani, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow (UK). 

Marco Reggiani photo

For decades, local governments have embraced urban regeneration as an instrument to manage urban development, transform places, and stimulate economies [1].

Regeneration projects are driven by the idea that social, economic, and environmental improvements can be achieved by developing and/or redeveloping urban areas.

Despite being a popular tool for transforming cities, outcomes of urban regeneration are contested. Scholars and activists, for example, have highlighted that renewal underpinned by neoliberal policy might contribute to gentrification and higher socio-spatial inequities. As urban regeneration is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and while sustainability is often a tagline for recent interventions, critical questions remain on the goals and methods of redevelopment efforts.

Shibuya, Tokyo: an exemplary case of contemporary urban regeneration

Projects of urban regeneration are, once again, transforming neighbourhoods around Tokyo – a trend in part stimulated by the designation of the Japanese capital as the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most iconic districts, has been at the forefront of this wave and, after a comprehensive plan was approved in 2013, redevelopment has proceeded swiftly.

My research focused on the area around Shibuya Station [2] shows that this large-scale project has been facilitated by a mix of favourable circumstances. These include: (i) a relaxed regulatory framework encouraging corporate sector-led urban regeneration; (ii) the availability of areas for redevelopment thanks to the presence of railway companies acting as land developers; (iii) the collaborative strategy of area management established by the local stakeholders.

After being renewed, the urban landscape displays traits that exemplify current redevelopment initiatives in premium urban areas in Japan and beyond. The built environment has been densified, intensified, and verticalised. The regeneration, on the other hand, allowed corporate stakeholders to upgrade and diversify their business portfolio through the construction of new spaces for retail and offices. The reorganisation of the area also resulted in new privately-owned public spaces and a better, albeit ambiguous, valorisation of “natural” resources – such as the renaissance of the Shibuya river or the views of the cityscape that can be enjoyed from the observation deck of Shibuya Sky.

Rebranding was integral to the regeneration project. For instance, if previous buildings’ names usually included those of their owners, they are now compound words that associate Shibuya with images and metaphors that rescript the area as a lively and comfortable urban playground for visitors, sophisticated consumers, start-ups, and the creative class.

Does urban regeneration inevitably beget winners and losers?

The ongoing regeneration around the Shibuya Station area could be regarded as a success story. The area appears visibly transformed, progress has been made to ensure better environmental sustainability – for example, by creating safer and more efficient infrastructures – and new urban life is thriving in the spaces created by the redevelopment. But are these benefits equitably distributed among stakeholders, citizens, and the public? Is the plan a step towards a more sustainable urban regeneration?

When tentatively evaluating interventions under the lens of sustainability, findings suggest that economic growth prevails over social and environmental considerations. Particularly concerning is the increased ability of private actors to profit from premium urban locations thanks to more sophisticated instruments of place management and development. In the context of relaxed regulatory frameworks, urban regeneration interventions arguably risk making Shibuya less equitable, diverse, and inclusive.

However, we should not uncritically subscribe to the idea that regeneration inevitably engenders winners and losers – a self-fulfilling outlook that sits comfortably within neoliberal paradigms that emphasise entrepreneurialism, profit, and competition. Rather, stakeholders, local communities, planners, and experts should co-produce sustainable solutions that address trade-offs, injustices, and contradictions of urban development.

They way forward with urban regeneration

A liveable city is (and should be) a just city. This means an urban environment where principles of democracy, diversity, and equity are upheld [3] and sustainability is taken seriously. The action of local governments is key to delivering progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, for example through the review of local policies, planning, and decision-making processes [4]. Extant research, including mine, suggests this work has to go beyond procedures to include better principles and initiatives for urban regeneration. Only in this way regeneration projects can achieve a better balance among competing interests and address sustainability more holistically.


[1] Roberts, P., & Sykes, H. (Eds.). (1999). Urban regeneration: a handbook. Sage.
[2] Reggiani, M. (2022). Urban regeneration strategies and place development in contemporary Tokyo: the case of Shibuya Station area. Journal of Place Management and Development, 15(1), 40-54.
[3] Fainstein, S. S. (2014). The just city. International journal of urban Sciences, 18(1), 1-18.
[4] Ortiz-Moya, F., & Reggiani, M. (2023). Contributions of the voluntary local review process to policy integration: evidence from frontrunner cities. npj Urban Sustainability, 3(1), 22.

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