Building on the past with an innovative spirit to give towns “continuing habitability”

Department of Architecture
Takashi Ariga


In a word, my research theme involves what I call “continuing habitability.”
With today’s declining population due to the aging of society and reduced birthrate, the question of how to maintain municipal functions in the face of changing social circumstances has become one of great importance. Maintenance of a habitable environment presents particular challenges in old towns that have their origins in Japan’s medieval past.
The central areas of Japan’s old town are often of cultural and historical significance, as well as being homes to traditional occupations that in themselves represent a cultural and historical heritage. And many regions are also homes to shrines, temples, and traditional festivals. People occupy such places and maintain livelihoods there. However, it is no easy task to provide such places with the kind of environment that will support lifestyles sought by young people.
Let me give some specific examples.
I am currently involved in community development for the town of Shirakawa in Fukushima prefecture, an old castle town that encompasses former samurai lands and traditional wooden townhouses. City blocks in the town are divided into building lots that have frontages of around 7 meters and extend back for 20 to 30 meters. Utilization of such narrow lots for anything other than shops is very difficult. Because of the need to maintain the historical atmosphere of the town, it is difficult to provide space for parking of private vehicles at the front of shops, another obstacle to convenience. Moreover, the lots are all owned by different people, making it impractical to change the way in which the town is divided.
So what happens if a lot owner decides to build a condominium on his lot without regard for preservation of historical atmosphere? The first such buildings built will have good exposure to sunlight. But if other owners follow this example, the historical town will hidden from view behind a wall of apartment buildings. I doubt that many people would like living in such an environment.
Under such circumstances, providing a town with “continuing habitability” requires taking an imaginative and innovative approach to developing a life environment suitable for modern living while maintaining the town’s historical character.

It is vital that residents be involved in and satisfied with urban planning

The objective of our research is to study approaches to town planning that provide for living convenience in towns that are subject to a variety of such conditions and restrictions.
The first step in this process is to build a platform for planning by gathering together property owners, residents, government administrators, architecture/town planning specialists, and other stakeholders. After aggregating various opinions, we open a design workshop to develop a range of planning proposals or scenarios. Based on these scenarios, we create computer graphics and scale models to illustrate how the town’s appearance will change and to show how the changes will affect the life of each of the town’s residents. Through iterations of this design process, we make adjustments to take account of the complex interests involved until we have a basic plan that is agreeable to the parties involved.
As you can see, there is no single solution to town planning, and solutions must be arrived at individually in each case. The most single important point is to provide a planning process that allows the area’s residents themselves to make planning selections. In other words, the question is whether residents themselves are able to determine the character of their town.
When the residents themselves have chosen the future character of their town, they become self-motivated participants in working to achieve their town’s planning objectives.