The Slippery Slope to Concrete

Since I started working as a gardener in Japan, I saw one frightening trend in exterior design in Tokyo.

Today I would like to talk about the slippery slope to concrete — why so many people cover their property with concrete and which problems might arise from this.

But first, let’s travel back in time and have a look at how properties once used to be.

Shakujii Edo PeriodWhen Edo became Tokyo, the suburbs were a place for agriculture. Most of Tokyo‘s wards once were on the upmost outskirts.

The farmers had land where they grew vegetables and had a fairly large house with a fenced-off yard where the landlady had her garden, probably an own well, and some livestock.

Over time, Tokyo grew bigger and bigger, and at some point incorporated the agricultural villages.
The prices for property rose constantly.
This wasn’t a problem when Japan had a good and, so it seemed, stable economy. The bubble-economy… And then it burst..

In the last somewhat years, the situation completely changed.
People are forced to move to big cities to get a job. But the land is few and the prices rise uncontrollably.
More and more people are forced to live far away from one of the centers of Tokyo to be able to pay the rent.
If you want to buy property in one of the 23 inner wards, you must be either rich or get a very, very small lot with only space for a tiny house. Or you‘ll be away from the next train station around 30 or 40 minutes.
Apartments in a common size throwing a similar problem.

As in most of the developed countries, Japan has the „problem“ that people get too old and there aren’t enough young people to cover all the costs with their taxes.

And these young people are also facing the problem of paying the horrendous amounts for an apartment or house. They have to pay the horrendous amount for their children’s education, saving for when being old, because the pension will not be enough, and maybe have to pay for the care facility of their parents.

But what has this all to do with concrete and gravel around houses?
A lot, actually!

People, who still had their big farmhouse properties, sold them when getting old to have some money when the pension is not enough to live. Or the children had to sell it to be able to pay the inheritance tax.

On such property, either one to four, sometimes even more, family homes are built. Or a big apartment building. Sometimes, the previous owners find a place in one of these too.
Where one house once stood, two new arises. With no garden but a 50cm wide space around the house and a place for parking a car in front of it.

In these houses with usually between two and four rooms, small families are living. The mother often not working since the children were born (it’s still hard for working moms in Japan, and yes, there is still only one gender role commonly accepted), totally exhausted because all friends and family living far away and no one is there to help. The husband working from dusk till dawn to somehow make enough money to feed his family.

Both mother and father, don’t know gardening as a method to balance their hard daily life in the city. And where should they do? Their lot is too small to have a real garden..
They spend their weekends with other activities. It’s easy in this huge city. So many distractions, so many offerings.
When not relaxing on the sofa at weekends, you always want to go somewhere and experience something new.
Only when the children are out of the house and parents get calmer, people think of gardens as a possibility to spend time.
But before, they don’t want a nasty garden.

They want to spend their leisure time either with something exciting or, just want to do nothing. And they don’t want to spend money on a gardener. They want to use this money for their kids, weekend activities, travel, or savings.

This is the point when they decide to cover everything in concrete or gravel.
Soon, they will learn that also concrete and gravel will need some maintenance but no one has told them..



I am a mother in Tokyo myself. I am still not too old and I too want to experience as much in Tokyo and around on the weekends as I can.
I really can connect to our example-family! Although I don’t have a garden 😉

But as a gardener, I also know how important plants around the house are. I know the difference in summer between a concrete hell and a green city. I don’t want my kid growing up without knowing how plants look like and I don’t want to force it to spend the summer inside because it is too hot outside thanks to lacking trees and all the Airconditioner outside units blowing the hot air into the streets.
I believe I could find a solution for families who think a garden would be too much work by creating low maintenance spaces with plants.
If I could convince them that Houttonia, for example, is not a weed but the perfect plant to replace the gravel around the houses 😉

Not low maintenance, but this is a fast sketch how I would design the exterior for the new, small houses.

If you feel interested, read more about how plants around the house might have a positive effect on the microclimate in our article Sealed surfaces and the problem with heat in Tokyo.

This article was first published on Patreon!

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