The slender and clean lines of the commercial towers crowding the skyline of the central Mirai Minato 21 district bear little memory of Yokohama’s troubled past. Japan’s second largest city, Yokohama has experienced a lot to become today’s neat, modern and well-functioning urban area.

Largely reduced to rubble by US firebombing raids in the Second World War, the city piggybacked Tokyo’s post-war recovery to enjoy an economic and demographic boom between the 1950s and 1980s. However, local authorities experienced the flip side of the city’s rebirth in the form of traffic congestion, pollution and what was often chaotic urban development. The way they would successfully engage with the private sector and other stakeholders to instigate massive investment campaigns to alleviate these problems is now used as a template for dozens of cities across developing Asia that are battling with the same challenges.


A problem shared

As a result of its sustainable urban development success, Yokohama has teamed up with the local private sector to reach out to peer cities across Asia to develop a co-operation platform to share governance experience and technology, thus becoming a powerful enabler of overseas investment by Yokohama-based companies.

“Sometimes [municipal] governments in south-east Asia don’t properly understand what they should do,” says Yasuto Ando, the managing director of Yokohama-based JFE Engineering.

“But the city of Yokohama knows everything [because of its] long history. So it can teach, lead and educate municipal governments in south-east Asia. That’s the reason why we [work] together with the city of Yokohama [when it goes] to south-east Asian countries, [where we] introduce JFE’s technology. [The authorities] also introduce software from Yokohama, so that a total solution can be achieved.”

Borne of necessity

Yokohama’s population doubled between the two world wars to 1 million people, and then reached more than 2 million people between the late 1940s and 1970. Intense population growth and rapid economic development put the local government under severe stress as the city grew increasingly dysfunctional and chaotic. In 1965, local authorities eventually laid out a long-term strategy, combining massive infrastructure investment with regeneration programmes – the development of the central business district of Mirato Minaio 21 was first conceptualised then, though parts of its have yet to be completed.

As the implementation of this urban development gained momentum, the strategy improved the city’s overall liveability and paved the way for new policies such as the G30 programme, aimed at reducing levels of waste production and improving disposal methods, or the Yokohama Smart City Project, which became a blueprint for sustainable urban development across Asia. The experience and know-how accumulated by both the city government and local companies have now become a springboard to reach out to other cities across developing Asia through the Yokohama Partnership of Resources and Technologies initiative, also knows as Y-Port.

“Partnership is the key word here,” says Toru Hashimoto, an executive director of Y-Port. “To overcome pollution issues, the city has come up with a partnership with the private sector to push them to lower their emissions, and that has created a model to make innovations through partnerships. Partnerships were also key in reducing garbage levels, with the G30 programme asking citizens to sort their domestic garbage [according to 10 different categories], which helped us reduce waste production by 43% in the past [few] years.”

An appetite for development

Engagement with different stakeholders is only one of the seven elements making up Yokohama’s recipe for sustainable urban development. The other six include developing basic urban infrastructure through the integration of strategic projects, urban design and town management.

Y-Port is now using this platform of experience and know-how to link up with cities across Asia that are having to deal with the same issues that Yokohama had to face decades ago. So far Y-Port has closed co-operation agreements with the likes of Cebu (Philippines), Danang (Vietnam), Batam (Indonesia) and Bangkok (Thailand), thus giving local companies a channel to export their technologies and engage with city governments outside Japan.

“Initially [cities in developing Asia] need bridges and roads, then a water supply, then sewage and water treatment and power, and finally waste management,” says JFE’s Mr Ando. “We will supply our technology proportional to their growing pattern. At this moment there are many developing countries in south-east Asia, and we can supply our technology to all of them depending on their requests.”

Private push

JFE is only one of the many companies belonging to sectors such as engineering, recycling and water treatment that have teamed up with Y-Port to propose projects and explore business opportunities overseas. Cities in developing Asia are renowned for their chaotic and dysfunction growth. From the infamous traffic jams in Manila and Jakarta, to Beijing’s polluted air and Mumbai’s open sewage, the region is crippled with infrastructure and governance challenges that are not only a cause of serious concern for the environment and local communities, but also affect their economic competitiveness.

“The essence of Y-Port is not only to export existing technology, but to co-create technologies with the private sector and [maintain] dialogue with city governments in Asia,” says Mr Hashimoto.

Y-Port and Yokohama-based companies will not be able to fix Asia's urban development problems, but they can provide a blueprint combination of infrastructure investment and public governance upon which they can build their way to sustainability.