2022Re-examining the ever-changing “present day”
Considering " Continuous design "

"Bothersomeness" fosters continuous design across generations — Tatsuro Baba x Ai Iishi


Focused Issues is an activity to consider and recommend new possibilities for design through the GOOD DESIGN AWARD screening process. Ai Iishi, an Urban Designer and Focused Issues Director chose "Continuous design" as the theme in 2022. She thought it was more important to seek design that continues to change to fit changing situations rather than aiming for a long and heavy culmination or growth in order to survive in a murky society.
Iishi thought that she might get hints from a public housing complex for families, Onoji Apartment Complex in Kamiyama Town, which was built in the Onoji area of Kamiyama-cho, Tokushima. Its concept is "a municipal housing complex that will be lived in and inherited for another 100 years to come." There is Akuigawa Common, a public space open to the town, and a field that incorporates a landscape perspective around 20 rental housing units for the child-rearing generation.
Iishi visited the site to find hints of “Continuous design.” She talked with Tatsuro Baba, Representative Director of Kamiyama TSUNAGU Corporation, who was in charge of direction.

We want to accept people from other towns, but we don't have enough houses

IishiI am usually involved in the operation of Real Public Estate, a media platform that promotes the distribution and use of public facilities, as well as projects related to community development throughout Japan. What I always feel is that making a town, space, or building is not a goal in itself. Rather, I think we should focus on the lives of people who live there, which will continue in the future.
Based on awareness of these issues, I set the theme of "incomplete design" as the 2021 Focused Issues Director for the last year's GOOD DESIGN AWARD. One of the key elements I found in this quest is a mechanism for long-term continuity. It is important not to consider the finished product as a completed product but as one that is continuing through improvement. With that in mind, this year I set the theme "Continuous design."
How can people flexibly change the town and project to put “Continuous design” into practice as the trend of the times continues to change so drastically that no one can read it? I'm here to obtain some insights. First of all, could you tell me how this project started?

Ai Iishi, Urban Designer / Coordinator, Real Public Estate / Director, nest.inc

BabaThe fundamental premise is that Kamiyama is at risk of disappearing owing to population decline. There were 21,000 people living here in 1950, but now there are 5,000. If the number continues to decrease, it is estimated that the population will decrease to about 2,400 by 2040 and about 1,100 by 2060. With a sense of real urgency that if nothing is done, Kamiyama is really finished, the Kamiyama revitalization strategy called the Project to Connect the Town to Future Generations was formulated in 2015.
However, when we thought about how to achieve the goal of maintaining a population of 3,000 or more as of 2060, and reaching a state of equilibrium in which the number of students per class at elementary and junior high schools is at least 20, we found that we needed to accept 44 people as new citizens every year in order to achieve the goal. Realistically, I thought it would be difficult for a rural town where the population has been declining to attract that many people to move into the town every year.

Tatsuro Baba, Representative Director of Kamiyama TSUNAGU Corporation

IishiI see. However, Kamiyama has been actively taking on new challenges to revitalize the local community. It is called “the forefront of community revitalization." For example, according to Seiji Kanda's book, “Kamiyama shinkaron: jinkō genshō o kanōsei ni kaeru machizukuri (Kamiyama Evolution: community development to change population decline into opportunities (tentative translation)” (Gakugei Shuppan, 2018), various efforts have been made to address the declining population, such as the activities of Kamiyama Artists in Residence, which have continued for 23 years since 1999, the satellite office support project by NPO Green Valley Inc. established in 2004, and the establishment of the Kamiyama Migration Exchange Support Center.

BabaThankfully, there were many opportunities to attract attention, but the big problem was a shortage of houses. There were no houses to attract people in Kamiyama. There was almost no private rental housing, and the occupancy rate of municipal rental housing was almost 100%. Even if we could build new rental housing, there was little prospect of investment recovery because the rental rates were too low.
Therefore, we decided to take up the shortage of properties in consultation with Yoshiaki Nishimura, a work style researcher with whom we had discussed the revitalization strategy. Then, we decided to build a housing complex for 20 households and 80 people so that they can easily fit into the local community.

IishiI see. That's why you have planned to build new rental housing to accommodate the younger generation from inside and outside of the town.

Why it took four years to build

The community space Akuigawa Common is a place where lot of people, including families with small children, interact with each other. It was designed for families with small children to connect with the community because they tended to live only in the family.

IishiWith a background like that, I thought the construction process of this housing complex was also interesting. The construction work started in 2018 and was scheduled to be completed in 2022. For public works of this scale, it is common to place bids and orders so that the process can be completed in a single year. Why did it take four years?

BabaIt was because we stuck to the conditions of using wood from Kamiyama and building by local carpenters. It is true that if we had selected a large scale contractor who could undertake this housing development, we could have built it quickly, efficiently and cheaply. However, in that case, both money and jobs would go out of Kamiyama. If the scale of orders is reduced, and orders are placed with small builders in Kamiyama, it helps circulate hundreds of millions of yen in the community and contribute to the succession of carpenters' skills as well as the continuation of their business.

IishiFor the GOOD DESIGN AWARD screening, you emphasized some points such as making things by using what you have and incorporating public works into town projects. I think that using the resources and people of Kamiyama to build a housing complex is truly making things by using what you have. But it’s terribly difficult to implement, isn’t it?

BabaYes it is (laughs). For example, at that time, there was not enough stock of wood from Kamiyama to build a housing complex. On the other hand, if the builder starts by procuring wood from the town, such as cutting down trees and drying them, it will take too long to meet the public works schedule. Therefore, the town office procured wood from the town in advance and issued separate orders to builders.

IishiSo, the whole construction schedule includes things like the drying of trees (laughs).

BabaIt was really hard.... We reviewed the conventional way of ordering and did all kinds of things, such as separating orders and dividing the construction period into four phases, to achieve it.
However, there are some advantages due to the longer construction period. First of all, I think the psychological burden for existing residents eased because the number of residences gradually increased over four years rather than suddenly having a large housing complex emerge. Also, as a good opportunity to foster the public nature of the town, we opened the construction to the public. Because children lived next to the construction site, we took the necessary measures to ensure safety. They saw carpenters working. Everyone watched the building process of building.

Wood from Kamiyama

IishiAs I mentioned earlier, this story falls under the category of incorporating public works into town projects. Kamiyama TSUNAGU Corporation was established in the revitalization strategy. We were probably able to proceed with the project utilizing people, resources, and others in the community because the local government and the private sector worked together.

Designed to support relocation

IishiNext, I would like to ask how life is going in this housing complex. I think the residents are limited to families with small children, right?

BabaYes, they are. The requirements are households with high school or younger students (including those attending out-of-town schools) and married couples whose older partner is under the age of 50. If these requirements are no longer met, we ask them to leave.

IishiThere are age limits. Why did you set these requirements?

BabaThis is because we believe that it is important for residents to change and circulate in order to realize the concept of “a municipal housing complex that will be lived in and inherited for another 100 years to come.”
There are many cases where people of the same generation move into a housing complex in a new residential area at the same time, and as the years pass, they all age, and the entire area becomes a marginal settlement. Also, I often see elderly people living alone in a big house. I thought that what was needed was a culture of relocation.
Depending on the stage of life, the requirements for a home will change. It would be better for a married couple to relocate to a suitable house after all their children have left. Then, people of the child-rearing generation who need a house will move in. I think it's important to design this cycle well.

Letters distributed by residents at Akuigawa Common and equipment for handicrafts

IishiThat's wonderful. I’m often asked for advice on how to solve problems of municipal housing across the country. There are really many cases where the whole municipal housing is aging. For example, people who have lived in the same house for more than 40 years often make it their final home. So, it’s difficult to replace people. Also, because they do not have a sense that someone may live there after they move, they don't care about the maintenance of their house. As a result, after the residents leave the house, which is decrepit, we have no choice but to rebuild.
However, by setting a rule whereby even people who want to live there for a long time have to move home, we encourage people to relocate throughout the town. Then, the houses will continue to be lived in for 100 years. As the cycle of relocation starts and houses are handed over to the next child-rearing generation, I feel that it is designed to connect things like invisible relationships.

BabaThank you. In fact, our key word is to “live in and inherit.”

IishiAnd at the GOOD DESIGN AWARD screening, what impressed me was that each house was equipped with a guidebook for maintaining the house, such as how to take care of the house and garden and how to use the house’s facilities. Aiming at the ideal of making your house more beautiful after living there, people maintain their houses while they live there. I thought that it would promote such a culture.

BabaThe guidebook describes how to maintain wooden houses and gardens and how to use facilities and equipment. In addition, records of the alterations and repairs, as well as families who lived there, are compiled. The aim is to pass down the history of each house to successive residents.
Of course, if a household with children lives there, the house will get dirty and damaged and show signs of deterioration. However, people can accept damage with a little peace of mind if they know about the families who previously lived there and their children scratched or did something like that. It’s better to know how the house got damaged. I believe it’s important to design a system to ensure that visible scratches and deterioration are viewed positively because it is to be lived in and inherited.

IishiWhen something is wrong with an ordinary rental house, you just call the landlord or the management company and ask them to fix it. But with a little extra work and effort, new residents feel safe and feel like they're passing the baton to the next family.

Why is there a growing sense of autonomy?

BabaI really think this house is demanding (laughs). There are so many questions about the values of living. However, this is one of the answers we came up with after we thought about what kind of buildings should be left for Kamiyama in 100 years’ time.

IishiHow do residents react to a “demanding” and “bothersome” house?

BabaI feel they understand what we want to cherish. I really appreciate the current residents who have chosen such a house. In particular, people in the first period decided to sign the lease before the building was completed just because they empathized with the concept. Maybe because of that, I have the impression that many people still have positive opinions.
Of course, the residents have various opinions. Some residents may see the housing complex in Onoji as just safe and comfortable housing. They may see the house as “bothersome.”
Residents adjust differences of their opinions at the residents' meeting held once a month. They get together and discuss their current problems and requests for the town, continuing to support each other.

IishiMeeting once a month. They meet quite often. I feel their attitude of sparing no effort and of communicating with others.

BabaNow the residents lead the meetings. Recently, they’ve held online meetings via Zoom. They can join by listening or see the minutes or video recordings later.

IishiThey are highly motivated. I feel the residents take the initiative in acting. They are not just the tenants.

Akuigawa River flowing next to the housing complex

BabaThey actively participate in their own side projects. For example, they have set up Midori no Kai, a group who care for greenery in the residents' common area. With the designer’s advice, they do selective weeding to identify and remove highly fertile weeds. Local high school students participate while they are hanging out, and their parents participate while chatting and asking how they are doing.

IishiI feel a sense of autonomy is well developed. Instead of always leading the residents, the members of Kamiyama TSUNAGU Corporation will hand over the initiative to the residents when the community warms up. Not by forcing the initiative but by watching them, you see that they take the initiative and the whole community is kept in good condition.
I have seen many cases of regional revitalization. In the successful regions, I often don’t know who the leader is. I see the same thing in Kamiyama. If someone livens up festivals and shopping districts, people will have a sense of obligation to participate. Some people may not be able to take on this psychological burden.
You inspire the initiative of the residents and do not impose it on them. This maintains a proper distance so that they can help each other if something happens. I think the communication design is exquisite in Kamiyama. And the Project to Connect the Town to Future Generations is a catalyst for “Continuous design” by connecting people.

Fish raised by residents at Akuigawa Common

BabaMaybe so. However, I think the most successful factor in establishing a sense of autonomy is the presence of serious people in the local community. Some old men enjoy supporting artists locally. Many people are drawn in without knowing it.
Everyone loves Kamiyama. I think this is the source of our power to do something on our own.

Transfer the baton to the next generation in order to “be continuing”

IishiThis time, I chose the words "be continuing" instead of "continue" as the Focused Issues theme. If a person with a will actively generates power, they can “continue” something. However, I didn't think it would be a truly sustainable approach.
From the start, a housing complex in Onoji had to be continuing when we launched it with the concept of "a municipal housing complex that will be lived in and inherited for another 100 years to come." Again, what do you think is important to "be continuing"?

BabaFirst of all, it’s a cycle of people. I think it’s important for generations to change. We cannot "be continuing" if there are no successors to lead the next generation. For Kamiyama TSUNAGU Corporation and the housing complex, we are conscious of creating an opportunity for generations to change and to foster the successors.

IishiI’ve read that the Project to Connect the Town to Future Generations has been updated in various ways in the second phase since 2021. You have assumed the post of representative director as a successor, haven’t you?

BabaYes, I have. However, I think I will eventually step down as the representative director. Even so, it will be nice if the Project to Connect the Town to Future Generations always remains in good standing. I am thinking about how to pass the baton to the next generation at an appropriate time.

IishiIn order for the project to “be continuing,” you think it’s important to pass the baton to the next generation that we have yet to see, not simply to be successful during our lifetime. I think the great thing about Kamiyama is that you not only achieve it through dialogue but also incorporate a mechanism to change generations into the system of the housing complex.
I hope that the values and systems developed by Kamiyama will be passed on as the compass of the next society in the midst of major social changes.

[Writer/Editor] Tetsuhiro Ishida [Photographer] Misa Shinshi

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