Plans for public space need the public’s input

Dear Prime Minister Naoto Kan,

The heated debates over the construction of a massive aquarium in Kyoto’s Umekoji Park, the plans to level parts of Shimokitazawa in Tokyo for a questionable road project, and the infamous quasi-privatization of Shibuya’s Miyashita Park suggest that public space in Japan has become an endangered species.

It was your predecessor Keizo Obuchi that set up a commission in 1999 under the chairmanship of the late thinker Hayao Kawai to seek ways to overcome the lost decade and prepare Japan for a competitive and global future. The final report called for “individual empowerment and better governance in the new millennium,” with civil society on a par with government. “Tough yet flexible individuals (would) participate in and expand public forums on their own initiative” and thus help to create “a society that addresses pioneering challenges, and is more creative and imaginative.”

With utopian fervor, the paper advocated a spirit of self-help and empathy that presupposed “a dynamic public space” as its incubator.

What was meant is obviously a metaphoric space; a sphere in which the public good is collectively and openly negotiated. But it is equally clear that such empowerment requires “real” public spaces like parks, squares, promenades or other venues that support rich public cultures and nurture active individuals.

How can we imagine an open society if there is no space to assemble? How can tolerance or empathy develop if we don’t come in contact with people of other walks of life? Where can we make political claims heard and seen if not in streets and squares? Beyond comfort, recreation and environmental purposes, public space is thus a laboratory of democracy and civility.

Yet another lost decade later I ask you, what has become of these promises? Aren’t those ideas more important than ever before?

Having experienced Tokyo for over a decade, I can say that many public places have become real beauties and are intensively used. Not small was, for example, the contribution of a well-known Seattle coffee brewer who, upon entering Japan in 1996, introduced the broadly unknown pleasure of sitting on sunny open terraces, sipping latte and enjoying watching others passing by. Many cities followed this model and created “open cafes” soon after.

Also, developers, architects and urban designers learned that catering to new outdoor lifestyles with the design of Roppongi Hills-style corporate commons increased profitability. Today farmers’ markets, art events and “heaven artists” (performers auditioned and accredited by the metropolitan government) have become familiar scenes in Tokyo. They reanimate dead public spaces that were little more than empty expanses for pedestrian circulation. Japanese cities have surely changed for the better — or so it seems.

Look close enough, however, and you notice those hostile dividing bars across park benches that prevent people from sleeping. Somewhere along the way, we must have forgotten Kawai’s wakeup call for active, compassionate citizens and inclusive public spaces. Instead, entrepreneurial and creative cities began competing for scarcer resources and urban beautification became an end in itself. Brushing up the city image paid off quicker than empowering citizens in lengthy processes.

The controversial case of Tokyo’s Miyashita Park shows that many politicians still haven’t learned their lessons. Two Shibuya Ward assembly members initiated the sale of the naming rights for 10 years to a world-famous sneaker manufacturer, who also promised to foot the bill for the park’s renovation and the provision of sports facilities.

Hasn’t this unsightly place, stretching along the Yamanote Line, looked like a “misery park” for most of its history? Cleaning it up and turning it into a sports park would raise its number of users, increase real estate values and invigorate the brand image of both city and sponsor; a classical win-win situation, it seemed.

However, the stakeholders must have miscalculated the impact of new forums for protest such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and the resilience of dedicated individuals who creatively coordinated action against the plan for over two years.

I blame the swoosh brand less than the Shibuya government, which escalated the situation through obscure and secretive politics. Can you empower citizens by handing over a prominent public space to private control without broad, careful and open debate? Does it solve social problems to simply declare the homeless in the park a nuisance, just as economic uncertainty and insecurity are growing? Should the last oasis of quiet and the starting point of many political rallies become just another event space?

I am not saying that corporate sponsorship of public space is bad per se. What concerns me instead is the lack of knowledge and interest among the citizenry. If taxpayers decide that it is desirable to privatize parks, expel homeless people and protect such privatization processes from legitimate protest with hundreds of police officers, then so be it — but have they been asked?

Almost 40 years ago, pioneering local governments set out to develop utterly new ways of managing parks, squares and promenades together with their citizens. Reform-minded politicians like Ichio Asukata in Yokohama and Ryokichi Minobe in Tokyo were concerned by the lack of grassroots democracy and, just like today, were boxed into a corner by mounting municipal debts. By inviting citizen participation in the design and upkeep of public space, they tested a new form governance that reduced costs, increased popular attachment to public space and created trust in government.

Over the last decades Japanese society has grown more fragmented. Half a century after the AMPO protests (over the Japan-U.S. security treaty) and Shinjuku Station’s famous “folk guerrillas,” politics have re-entered the city. The bars on park benches are a clear political statement. If we accept that public space is not mere official property, but in actual fact a breeding ground for tolerance and the foundation of democracy, then it is the job of governments to safeguard its existence.

Mr. Kan, the future of the collective resource of public space should be broadly discussed by all members of society and not decided from the top down by a few.

Public space has become an endangered species and it needs your protection.


Christian Dimmer, Ph.D., is an urban designer and Tokyo University research associate. Send submissions of between 500 and 600 words to community@japantimes.co.jp