While Japan’s third largest city, Osaka, waits anxiously to find out if its bid to host the world Expo 2025 will be successful, it is pressing ahead with ambitious urban regeneration projects that stand to benefit the city whether it wins the bid or not. Osaka is among three finalists — the others being Baku and Ekaterinburg — that are in the running, and a decision is to be announced in November 2018.
A city of 2.7 million people, Osaka is located in the Kansai region in the central part of Japan, 2.5 hours by bullet train from Tokyo. Though ranked third by population, Osaka’s economy is Japan’s second largest, with a gross regional product of $160bn.
Located close to the sightseeing hubs of Kyoto, Nara and Kobe, Osaka is coming into its own as a tourism destination with the number of overseas visitors increasing more than five times in the past five years, according to local authorities. The New York Times named the city as one the top “52 places to visit in 2017”. Some 11 million people took the advice in 2017, drawn by the city’s rich gastronomic culture, sights such as Osaka Castle, and theme park Universal Studios Japan. Known as an “aqua metropolis”, Osaka’s downtown is surrounded by rivers and it also has a bay area. Rivers and canals make up more than 10% of Osaka’s total area.
Historically a commercial trading hub, the city centre is seeing a resurgence. Though the overall metro population remains stable, the number of residents in downtown Osaka is increasing. Several large-scale urban development projects are underway to cater to this shift and boost the city’s status as a business destination and knowledge hub.
The Umekita development project, centred around Osaka rail station, is now in its second phase. The northern area of Osaka station, commonly called Umekita, was previously used as a freight terminal and is considered the last prime land available in Osaka to develop. As part of phase one of the development scheme, Grand Front Osaka — a multi-purpose complex consisting of a convention centre, a hotel, offices, commercial facilities, apartments and a so-called “Knowledge Capital” — opened in April 2013. The Knowledge Capital is designed as a centre for creating innovative new technologies and services and will be further developed in phase two of the Umekita development project.
In 2013, city planners called for private-sector proposals for the second development zone in the Umekita area and chose 20 of them to feed into the community planning policies for this phase. The overarching objective for this zone is to the create a hub that combines green space with innovation. “Greenery will function as the catalyst to generate new products, services and businesses that [will help] realise an improved quality of life,” says Toshiyuki Usuda, chief of the city planning bureau of Osaka.
In December 2017, a call went out for a second batch of proposals, for the design, construction and operation of the site and its urban parks, due in May 2018. All development is slated to be completed by 2027.
Other signature projects for the city currently underway include the redevelopment of Nakanoshima into an art, culture, technology and science zone set to include a museum-complex zone and a global communication zone; and the development of Yumeshima, a 390-hectare man-made island near the Port of Osaka.
Meaning “dream island” in Japanese, Yumeshima is billed as a smart resort city and is the designated site of the Expo 2025 event should Osaka be chosen as the host city. There are also hopes of building an integrated resort with casino there by 2024, if legislative approval is granted by the Japanese diet (parliament). “We would like the Japanese government to designate our dream island Yumeshima as the site of an integrated resort. That is our dream,” says Mr Usuda.
Having such as a resort operational in six years’ time, followed by millions of visitors touching ashore for Expo would indeed by a dream come true for Osaka’s ambitious city planners.