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A Philosophy for Community Building

Asuke, a place where one still encounters the traditional way of life of a mountain village. Along the riverbank stands a picturesque row of houses. The residents and officials of Asuke have joined hands in the conservation and utilization of historical vistas like this one.

Asuke: Balancing conservation and development

Inuyama: Youthful air in a historical space

Nagoya: A city of greenery and charm

It was in Aichi Prefecture that "participatory community building" got its start in Japan. Back in 1962 a citizens' movement promoting the renewal of the Sakae-Higashi area of Nagoya coined the term machizukuri, or "town making," and it thereafter became a key word in a nationwide burst of enthusiasm for participation in urban planning by ordinary citizens. Today this spirit lives on in areas throughout Aichi, where residents continue to strive in a variety of ways to shape distinctive communities making the most of a rich historical tradition and a beautiful natural environment. Underpinning all these community-building efforts is a genuine philosophy shared by ordinary people and public officials alike.

Asuke: Balancing conservation and development

Asuke is a town nes-tling between green mountains.

Asuke is a town of just over 10,000 residents lying between verdant mountains in northeastern Aichi, about an hour and a half by car from Nagoya. It began to flourish in the distant past as a connecting point between the Mikawa region of eastern Aichi and the Shinshu region (present-day Nagano Prefecture) to the northeast. In the Edo period (1603-1867) in particular, it prospered as a post town on a highway on which salt was transported from Mikawa Bay to the hinterland. Much of the townscape that could then be seen exists even today, along with its lush greenery, presenting a nostalgic vista that constitutes Asuke's most attractive feature.

White-walled warehouses and tile-roofed homes of former merchants stand silently here and there. Walls of old houses along narrow lanes mix black wooden parts with white plaster parts, presenting a mosaic of contrasts like that of a wood-block print. Such traditional sights have been preserved thanks to the conservation movement started in the 1960s by local citizens, who got the whole town involved in efforts to protect and pass down a pocket of culture that could only have come into being in such a mountain community. The many historical wooden buildings still standing are kept in good repair by the townspeople themselves, and almost all remain in use as homes, shops, or showplaces. Many Japanese cities and towns are rapidly losing all trace of their former scenery because of the "scrap and build" approach that has been repeatedly employed over the course of fast-paced modernization and urbanization. Asuke is an exception to the rule, however, a place where residents have spontaneously and continuously sought to conserve the historical setting, and as such it has drawn nationwide attention.

"To be sure," remarks Nobuyuki Aoki, who works in the town hall, "development requires that roads and other infrastructure be provided and that housing be newly constructed. Even so, can't you say that preserving the distinctive historical environment, which adds to the character and attractiveness of the town, is part and parcel of development? That, at least, is what many people in this town believe."

Working together, residents and officials drew up the Asuke Town-building Code. When a home is remodeled or enlarged, for instance, the code stipulates the use of traditional tiles for roofs and a combination of white plastering and dark wooden siding for exterior walls so as to keep the home in harmony with neighboring structures, and it urges that natural materials be employed for fittings as far as possible. Almost everybody in Asuke agrees that obeying the code only makes sense, because it was drawn up to prevent the construction of buildings that detract from the town's historical ambience. The town hall is in complete agreement and even makes subsidies available for construction conforming with the code.

Within this mountain community the visitor comes across an unaffected atmosphere making one somehow feel both comfortable and nostalgic. Sustaining this atmos-phere in a visible form is a community-building philosophy shared by the town's residents and officials.

Inuyama: Youthful air in a historical space

The landmark of Inuyama, an ancient castle town, is the castle seen in the background, designated a national treasure and ranked among the four most famous Japanese castles. The residents of Inuyama are also striving to conserve and utilize the city's other historical legacies.

The city of Inuyama is a castle town imbued with a long history symbolized by the castle. Just as in Asuke, participatory community building is underway to make the most of the area's historical legacy.

Inuyama is one of Japan's most popular tourist attractions. It is known for its cormorant fishing, which gives a special touch to summer, for its boating rides down the Kiso River through one of the country's three most scenic rapids, and for Meiji-mura (Meiji Village), an open-air museum featuring the architecture of the Meiji era (1868-1912). While there are any number of places to see within the city, undoubtedly Inuyama's foremost symbol is the castle, graced by Japan's oldest surviving castle keep and designated a national treasure. One of the keys to community building is guiding development in a way that preserves the individuality and character of the integrated setting of the castle and its town.

"The city center, where the castle town was located, still retains the layout and appearance of the time of the castle's construction," reports Yoshitaka Ichiyanagi at Inuyama's city hall. "We hope that by means of conserving and utilizing the historical legacies centered on the castle and promoting the famous Inuyama Festival, this part of the city can be developed as an area representative of Inuyama's history and culture." But the residents of the area are growing older and declining in number, and this presents the grim prospect of a city with a hollowed-out center. Quite a few of the old merchants' houses in the area are standing empty, with nobody left to live in them. The city as a result has initiated a search throughout Japan for people willing to move into the vacant dwellings and put them to good use, in the process contributing to the area's rejuvenation. "Just because they used to be merchants' houses doesn't mean they have to be shops today," Ichiyanagi explains. "In fact, we'd rather have young artists and others move into them and turn them into places like galleries and ateliers."

Last May one young couple moved from Nagoya into Inuyama. The new home they selected is a townhouse built more than 70 years ago in the castle-town area, one that stood empty over the last dozen years or so. Now it is a shop with an atelier for woodwork and lacquerware. Katsutoshi Kurata (30), the husband, relates, "When we first looked over the house I was slightly surprised by how worn down it was. But it had an aura that only an old wooden structure can produce, and my wife and I fell instantly in love with it. I can say after actually living here for a while that Inuyama's foremost attraction is, after all, its ancient look and feel, which bring thoughts of history to mind, and its long-preserved tradition as a castle town. I'd like to see this beautiful side of the city live on. Toward that end, it would be nice if more new residents like us moved in."

In this regard, a ceramics class has just started up next door to the Kuratas in another townhouse that had long been vacant. The owner is apparently a woman in her twenties who came from another prefecture. Toyokazu Aoki, head of the local neighborhood association, is convinced that "the inherent sightseeing appeal of the castle town is sure to grow if young people like these help to make it a livelier place."

It goes without saying that the community's long-time residents are also enthusiastic about conserving the historical setting and traditions. They have organized a community-building study group and are carrying out activities in concert with the city, one of which involves the operation of Dondenkan, a community center with a hall in which Inuyama Festival floats are on display. Thanks to efforts like these, Inuyama's castle town placed among the top 100 in an official ranking a year ago of Japan's most picturesque urban scenes.

Nagoya: A city of greenery and charm

The central divider on Nagoya's main street, one of the 100-meter-wide avenues, has enough space for a well-appointed park. The residents thoroughly enjoy having this oasis in the city center.

Having looked over the scene in Asuke and Inuyama, let us conclude this tour with the participatory community building in Nagoya, Aichi's capital. Reputed to be a "model city for postwar Japan," Nagoya has an exceedingly functional and rational street layout anchored by a grid of two 100-meter-wide avenues and nine 50-meter-wide avenues. The advanced level of Nagoya's urban functions has gained wide notice, but this represents just one aspect of the urban planning. The city's residents, companies, and officials have also teamed up to create "verdant space with charm" by means of activities including the improvement of parks and the provision of greenery.

The blueprint guiding the current efforts in this sphere was drawn up in 2000 and is known as the Basic Nagoya City Green Plan. The policy underpinning the plan is "partnership." This is the notion that if citizens, businesses, and government offices pool their ideas and combine their power, the neighborhoods around Nagoya can be provided with a luxuriant natural setting.

"In terms of participation by the public," comments Yasuo Ando at Nagoya city hall, "all around the city you can find residents undertaking the greening of private lots and volunteering in community greenery projects. Companies, for their part, are enthusiastically adding greenery to their premises on their own initiative. And on the municipal side there are projects for improving parks and planting flowers and trees in open public spaces. The city also makes subsidies available for the projects of citizens and businesses and facilitates the conclusion of all sorts of agreements with other community members."

The Todagawa Green provides one example of the fruits of a public-private union. The green is being developed in western Nagoya on a broad 60-hectare site by the banks of the Toda River. A forest is being cultivated, and assorted recreation facilities are available to make the best possible use of the riverside.

"The city has teamed up with the prefecture on facility building, while each year local residents head up the activities to plant trees for the forest area. All of the saplings are donated by local companies. This is a case in which the policy enunciated in the Basic Green Plan has been put into practice in a nearly ideal manner," Ando proudly reports. Last year the Ministry of Construction (now the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport) announced that Nagoya ranks number one among all Japan's major cities in terms of the ratio of parks to total urban land area, outclassing the likes of Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka. The practical efforts dedicated to urban greening by the people, businesses, and public offices of the city have begun to produce visible results.

(Photos by Tomohiro Muda, Text by Masaki Yamada)