June 28, 2011


Love for Treasured Local Landscapes Creates New Bonds: A Look at Tokyo's Setagaya Ward

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.105 (May 2011)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" (No. 35)

Have you ever felt a special feeling when passing a familiar landscape in your neighborhood, maybe a place where you watch the seasonal transformation of the cherry trees, the annual colorful burst of a plot of flowers along a certain street, or a lively town scene full of happy people shopping and going about their business? Almost everyone has a favorite landscape they cherish as they go about their daily lives. Good things seem to happen when people have the opportunity to share their love for a local landscape with others, especially in hopes that it might be inherited by the next generation as one of the region's precious assets. Here we look at the Setagaya Ward in Tokyo, which launched an initiative decades ago to identify and conserve the landscapes treasured by the locals.

Setagaya Ward is a residential area located in the southwestern region of Tokyo's 23 wards, measuring about 58.08 square kilometers and with a population of about 836,000, the largest among the wards (as of January 1, 2011). Along the Tamagawa River and the Nogawa River, which run through its southwestern part, is a series of slopes called the Kokubunji Cliff Line (Kokubunji Gaisen in Japanese), one of the few remaining natural landscapes in Tokyo. Setagaya was a peaceful rural area before the Second World War, but it became rapidly urbanized because private railways such as the Keio, Odakyu, and Tokyu Den-entoshi lines were run through it to establish good transport links to the urban center.

About 80 percent of Setagaya is now residential with various types of urban scenery represented. The Setagaya/Kitazawa area has become a crowded residential area, almost like a maze because of rapid urbanization, since a lot of families moved into the area after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. In the Tamagawa area, large-scale consolidation of farmland was promoted and the land was subdivided for sale. Eventually it became a suburban residential area. Similarly, after the war the Karasuyama/Kinuta area turned into a residential area built on former farmland.

In Setagaya, an urban beautification committee established in 1980 with citizen input inspired various initiatives to make the town more beautiful. In 1984 a citizen poll was carried out to identify the one hundred most beautiful scenes in Setagaya, and the Setagaya District Awards were established. In 1987 and 1988, a competition was held to select the most beautiful colored designs to paint on the chimneys of local waste disposal plants. Thus the ward implemented various measures along with citizens to think about the landscapes in the local community, and before long general awareness and appreciation of special local landscapes gradually increased.

Landscape Development Ordinance: Identifying Regional Landscape Assets

After these initiatives were carried out, in March 1999 Setagaya formulated the Setagaya Ward Landscape Development Ordinance and launched a number of town design measures under a citizen-government partnership. The ordinance featured the selection of "regional landscape assets" under a unique citizen participation system.

Citizens were invited to recommend and apply to conserve their "most precious landscape." Next they had to create a landscape plan along with any local supporters through an exchange of ideas. Then a selection board -- consisting of citizens, ward officers, and experts -- conducted on-site examinations of candidate landscapes and evaluated the landscape plans. The public was then invited to vote on their favorite regional landscape assets.

Regional landscape assets are selected based on four criteria: (1) a recommended site has recognized value, (2) local residents have common and shared feelings about it, (3) there are ideas to conserve and improve the landscape, and (4) there is an opportunity to nurture community activities. The purpose of selecting regional landscape assets is not to determine which landscape is better than others; it aims to encourage and expand on the activities of people who consider these familiar landscapes valuable and want to work together to take care of them.

As a result of this process, Setagaya in 2002 selected the first 36 sites as regional landscape assets, and another 30 sites in 2008. The 66 sites include lively shopping streets, certain rows of cherry blossom trees, historic buildings, a vegetable field, and sites with a view of Mt. Fuji. New community activities to nurture these individual landscapes were created after being selected.

Seasonal Wild Grass Path

A 300-meter unpaved path in the residential area where people enjoy the cycles of the seasonal wild grass is one of the regional landscape assets identified in the Kinuta district of the ward. This is a narrow earthy path that could easily be overlooked if you didn't know it was there, but it hosts various kinds of wild grass such as Aster yomena and Persian speedwell. Selection of the path for landscape asset activities was inspired by a local homemaker who wanted to conserve this special path, now a precious part of the mostly urban scene.

It was Mieko Nishikawa who first nominated the path as a candidate site in the ward. Nishikawa, who lives nearby, says, "At first, I was uneasy about whether community members would agree on my recommendation or not, but I got up my courage and asked them to join me. When many people offered their support, I was so happy," she adds. After the path was selected as a regional landscape asset, she established a group of local people in January 2003 called "Funabashi Komichi no Kai," who work together to take care of it. The group also started publishing a newsletter titled "Komichi" (Path) about the most attractive features of the path for local residents and installed information boards in the area.

Since the path is designated as a ward road, the group cannot manage it on its own. After discussions with the ward about its selection as a regional landscape asset, the group started cutting grass and removing stones on a regular basis. Through these activities, the group has gradually developed a trusting relationship with the ward. A year and a half later, in 2004, the ward made a contract with the group, entrusting them with some maintenance work such as watering plants, picking up litter, and cutting grass.

The group has provided local residents with a chance to enjoy the path and the plants along it by holding various events, including plant identification walks and workshops on group planting and making jam from the wild grapes that grow there. The path is now a valued neighborhood place where residents can get to know one another. At present, the group has about 80 members, and more than 30 issues of the Komichi newsletter have been published.

Cherished Landscape: A Row of Cherry Blossom Trees

The row of cherry blossom trees in front of the Kami-Kitazawa Station, selected as a regional landscape asset in the Karasuyama district, is a 200-meter-long row of someiyoshino (the most common type of cherry tree in Japan) stretching from the south side of Kami-Kitazawa Station of the Keio Line in a southwestward direction. The trees were planted along the street when the area was first developed as a suburban residential district soon after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. It is a historical row of cherry trees that includes ones that are over 80 years old. Coming into full bloom every spring, the cherry trees have long been loved by people for years as a special local site.

The trees in the row, however, are suffering under harsh habitat conditions. Most of them are over 50 years old and surrounded by asphalt pavement, with little space for their roots to grow any further. They were so aged and debilitated that they could have died under such harsh conditions. In a joint meeting between the ward office and citizens after it was designated as a regional landscape asset, many citizens expressed their concern about the cherry trees, saying, "The trees are significantly weakened."

They agreed to work on restoring the row of cherry trees to better fulfill its designation as a regional landscape asset. After the meeting, the Committee of Kami-Kitazawa Cherry Trees Row was inaugurated, in March 2004, as a community organization dedicated to conservation of the cherry trees. With the help of local tree doctors, the committee began its community driven activities to preserve the trees, in collaboration with the ward, including determining the actual condition of the cherry trees and holding study meetings.

Today, the committee updates the medical records of all 50 cherry trees semi-annually in order for members to monitor their health. They observe how the ward treats the trees with measures to help them recover and closely monitor their condition. It is also taking on the challenge of producing offspring through grafting. "Through these activities, I became connected to a lot of local people," said Mr. Kazunori Wada, an active member of the committee. He also mentioned that the committee's website has been gaining a good reputation in the community.

A Community Creates Its Own Scenic Sites

These types of community-based activity springing from landscape-focused issues may be an effective method to re-establish local ties and relationships that have been rapidly vanishing. The shared experience of enjoying and caring about local landscapes, in particular, is a common topic among local people and serves as a good ice-breaker with strangers. New ideas to make better communities are often created when residents frankly talk about their love for their precious local landscapes. Healthy communities seem to form in towns that value their local landscapes -- something proved by the regional landscape assets project in the ward of Setagaya.

Written by Ichie Tsunoda