Public parks represent a vital recreation space in a metropolis as densely populated as Tokyo, but beneath the surface some are also equipped to play important roles in responding to disasters as well as improving the health of elderly residents.

A number of parks can provide emergency sanitation and food preparation facilities, with benches and manholes that can be converted into stoves and toilets for use by disaster evacuees.

Some parks are also serving as places where elderly residents can join exercise classes to build up their bodies using special equipment.

In Hikarigaoka Park straddling Nerima and Itabashi wards, 36 benches can be used as big stoves once the seat boards are removed.

In the park’s secondary role as a disaster evacuation center, residents can use the stoves to boil water to prepare meals or treat injured people.

Manholes in the park have “emergency toilet” written on their lids. A toilet will appear once the lid of a manhole is opened and a tent is put up around it. If the water system is knocked out, it can be used as a cesspool.

There are currently 52 such toilets in Hikarigaoka Park.

The park also boasts solar-powered lights, fire prevention water tanks and even stocks of water and food.

“We have prepared goods and equipment enough for evacuees to survive at least three days until emergency aid arrives,” said an official in charge of maintaining the park.

A 31-year-old woman who was walking with a 5-month-old baby praised the concept.

“I had no idea the park had these features,” she said. “I feel secure if we have these things prepared for emergencies.”

Thirteen parks run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, including Hikarigaoka, have been designated as disaster centers equipped with stove benches and emergency toilets.

In a park in Shinagawa Ward, elderly residents in T-shirts meanwhile gather for an exercise class organized by the ward.

After warm-up exercises, they walk slowly on a balance beam about 20 cm off the ground while spreading their arms, and hang onto iron bars to stretch their bodies.

After finishing climbing up and down stepladders, an 87-year-old man from the neighborhood said, “I had been almost bedridden as my muscles weakened while at the hospital, but I feel like I have gotten healthier” after participating in the exercise class.

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