Falling birth rates have left much of the world grappling with the problem of isolation. Community hubs play a vital role in the mental and physical health of local residents. They draw a wide array of people, encouraging casual visits, and allow people to get involved in and to build unique, vibrant communities. Explore spaces and projects designed around unique new connections, and discover the community designs bringing life and beauty to local areas.
Today I'm here in Shimokitazawa in Tokyo.
And actually when I moved to Tokyo 17 years ago, this was the place that I wanted to live.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen but this is still one of my favorite neighborhoods.
Shimokitazawa is so eclectic.
It's full of youthful energy.
It's always just buzzing with this amazing feeling.
It's a place for culture and music.
And actually Shimokita is now going through a design transformation.
So let's go explore.
Today on Design Stories, we're exploring Active Communities.
All around Japan, residents are taking on unique local projects to shape the evolution of their communities.
Join us as we explore some of Tokyo's changing neighborhoods!
Shimokitazawa is just 10 minutes on the train from Tokyo's central hubs of Shinjuku and Shibuya.
But it has its own unique culture.
In 2018, the station was moved underground, opening up the old train tracks for large scale redevelopment.
A span of 1.7 kilometers stretching between the stations on either side of Shimokitazawa was turned into new community spaces.
Today, I get to meet the people behind this changing neighborhood.
Hi, I'm Shaula.
- Welcome to Tsubame Architects!
- A pleasure to meet you.
Tsubame Architects was founded in 2013.
They leveraged the area along the old tracks to build a park with space for everything from food trucks to big pipes to keep the kids entertained.
It's a really diverse and vibrant space.
They tell me that they moved their entire studio here to work on Shimokitazawa's community renewal.
It was a serious discussion.
Moving here was a big decision
for all of us.
This is our studio.
The downstairs is a donut cafe.
We wanted locals to drop in.
I thought something smelled amazing!
So it's just the three of you?
We launched the studio
and run it together, yes.
But why did you start selling donuts?
People walking around holding a donut
changes the local landscape.
Buildings are our main focus, but
we also want to work with people.
Communities are more than buildings.
They're an ongoing challenge.
How do you build community from buildings?
First, you have to step into the community ring!
Across the road from the office is a bustling shopping arcade.
Take this handrail.
The wood acts as a counter
for a casual drink.
People can buy a drink and
then hang out along here.
People here often sit and drink outside.
We wanted to incorporate that.
There are also used book fairs
and other events.
People stack books on here.
They can be pretty inventive.
After the studio got involved in the redevelopment project,
they decided against creating one large commercial building, and instead opted for this open shopping area for locals.
This looks like a food market.
Is that right?
Nine very small units
with a shared space.
The result was something
like a food market, yes.
Young folks can't afford to open stores
in new station buildings.
We wanted an atmosphere that
promoted independent businesses.
I hadn't considered that angle.
Redevelopment projects are always fun
because they create new places.
They feel like a positive thing.
But as you say, they often
push out smaller businesses.
It's great that you could use your
expertise to offer them a space.
What a lovely atmosphere - and a perfect path to walk the puppies.
Lots of people come to Shimokitazawa
to spend the day.
But many locals have always lived
and worked in the arcades.
They designed their own streets and stalls.
This has evolved over time
and formed a unique culture.
There's actually a home above this shop.
Usually the shop owners live there.
The old shopping area started out
as a postwar black market.
It wasn't designed as a whole.
Stallholders adapted and evolved.
The neighborhood grew from those elements.
We wanted to reflect that.
You can see that the buildings in this area each have their own design aesthetic.
Apparently shop owners here are free to paint the outside walls as they please,
and use their own unique signs.
Tokyo has a couple of spots like this
with a shared open space.
But the shops all end up feeling
kind of homogenized.
The shops here are all individual and unique.
We wrote a bunch of rules
to keep the area interesting.
And each place can work freely
within that framework.
Rules to keep things interesting.
This intriguing store specializes in published journals and personal diaries.
We hold a diary festival every six months.
Diary exhibitions and talk events
about journals.It draws a crowd.
They visit other stores, and
their events draw people to us.
I think we're all very aware that
we work in the same space together.
It's clear that this neighborhood's eclectic collection of stores places a high value on human connection.
Coming to Shimokitazawa, one thing I often notice is just how green the neighborhood has become.
Particularly over the last decade, locals have come together to manage and cultivate the neighborhood's green spots.
Inspired by this movement, the architects worked with residents to design a new green park space.
Their concept was an open field, with no established path.
People are free to wander, and create their own pathways.
Neighboring the park, they built a small shop...
...selling flowers and herbs from the field to help fund the project.
The garden is fertilized with compost from the shopping arcade's organic waste.
It's a new, virtuous cycle for Shimokitazawa.
- Hi there.
- What are you up to?
We're clipping around this tree
to give it a little less competition.
Our flowers get lots of compliments.
I love it when people say
it reminds them of their childhood.
Do you enjoy gardening?
I live in an apartment. No garden.
So I'm really happy to
have this space to work.
Having different grass heights helps
insect biodiversity as well.
I saw a bee earlier. They're key
to the ecosystem, aren't they?
- We keep bees, actually.
The bees are our colleagues.
They're hard workers!
It's so important to have people take
an active role in shaping their community.
In urban life, we're surrounded by
conveniences and services.
But there's so much more to
an active community.
You have to care for it,
and get involved. It's important.
It's a continual process, imperfect.
Sometimes the grass grows too high,
and that draws people to act.
You really need something that
motivates people to get involved.
Next, let's take a dive into one of my favorite things: sento.
Sento are public bathhouses that have a unique culture in Japan.
Having a bathtub is quite a recent luxury for Japanese homes,
and sento have long been a beloved institution and community space.
This sento first opened a century ago.
The bath at home is for getting clean.
But the sento is a place to spend time.
Although this historic spot was forced to close its doors, it's now ready to reopen them.
A group of sento enthusiasts has volunteered to help clean the place in preparation.
One key member of the group is Kuryu Haruka.
She says that she's watched sento disappear from towns all over Japan.
She noticed that without sento, communities suffer.
Everyone lives in apartments now.
We need places like this.
Places to connect the community.
You meet all kinds of people at sento.
When a town loses all of its sento,
those connections begin to come apart.
Without the stream of visitors,
nearby shops start to close.
Sento are open until late.
They're well-lit, safe spaces.
Without them, people stop
visiting that area at night.
The whole town starts to fade.
Kuryu wants to help these towns and neighborhoods thrive.
One sento that Kuryu helped revive is called Inari-yu.
The beautiful, traditional building was cherished by locals, but it was also aging.
Kuryu went to an international organization that preserves cultural property for support with restoring the sento.
The vacant house neighboring the sento used to be a home for staff.
It's been transformed into a community space for bathers and anyone in the neighborhood to relax and enjoy.
We bathe here regularly since
we started using this space.
An older lady stopped us from
getting in the hot bath.
"It's too hot for little ones!"
It seems that reviving old sento also reforges community bonds.
This kind of hard work is so important to local communities.
Partly it's because
I love sento myself, of course.
But I also love the people who
care for these places, who bathe here.
I want to preserve it for them.
Our next stop is the banks of Tokyo's Sumida river.
Well here I am in downtown Tokyo.
It's a beautiful day and I'm in this area here along the Sumida River.
And I heard there's a very interesting unique convenience store which I wanted to check out and I think it's this one right here.
Yeah, it must be.
Record...used record and convenience store.
The store is owned by Shindo Yasutaka and his mother Yasuko.
A turntable fills the space with analog tunes.
So this is a records
and convenience store?
Yes, we merged a record store
with a convenience store.
I mean, it's definitely
a convenience store.
- Is this?
- This is our record section.
- Your record corner?
- 90% are secondhand.
Old records, huh?
What an amazing idea!
I don't know many convenience stores that hold old-school DJ events...
...or release parties for popstars...
...and even traditional bon-odori dances.
What do you think of it all?
- It's no big deal.
- It's not?
Nothing wrong with people having fun.
- Very true.
- Why not have fun?
There were no record stores around here.
Nowhere to hang out.
- Nowhere nearby?
- So why not do it here?
- Create a fun space.
They even turned half of the store's basement into a DJ classroom.
As more and more office buildings popped up in the area, Yasutaka opted to turn the old family liquor shop into a convenience store.
Somewhere to hang out.
- We began with a flea market.
- You moved the shelves?
No, just like this.
It attracted local homemakers,
and just ballooned from there.
We started hosting events.
Ghost stories, rakugo comedy.
Just providing whatever people enjoyed.
Has it changed the neighborhood?
Yes, there are lots of unique stores around.
- New ones?
They say there's another interesting store across the river, about 15 minutes' walk away in the Morishita neighborhood.
This looks lovely.
Let's take a look inside.
There's a laundry back here.
A fascinating fusion of laundry and retro cafe.
I love the atmosphere.
I could see myself hanging out here
all day while the laundry hums.
Tanaka-san? Lovely to meet you!
The store is owned by Tanaka Motoko.
She also consults on community building.
Her methods are rather unique.
She runs a workshop called "Building Bodies" in which people copy the shapes of buildings.
It's a physical way to explore the complexities of architecture.
Her work has earned her invitations from everywhere from Germany to South Africa.
Another lifelong passion project is her free coffee initiative,
where she hands out free coffee on the street and observes people's reactions.
She renovated an old warehouse and opened the cafe in 2018, hoping to create a versatile, attractive space.
I feel so accepted here.
It feels somehow nostalgic,
and at the same time welcoming.
- Surely that's by design.
- Absolutely fundamental.
I wanted the comfort of
an old-fashioned cafe.
Nothing too stimulating or exciting.
I wanted laidback designs that
encouraged people to relax.
I researched the secrets
of Japan's traditional cafes.
They always have all these trinkets
from who knows where.
The tastes of the staff or owners
are on full display.
I love that aspect of it.
I think that's part of the fun.
My mother made these.
And all these photos.
Old photos of the warehouse.
I considered just putting them up as they were.
But I went for this ornate tape for a frame.
- That breaks up the straight lines.
- It really changes the feel.
The cafe is full of vintage items carefully chosen by Tanaka.
I'm in love with these very comfortable chairs.
The seats are just 40 centimeters high, ensuring that everyone's feet reach the ground.
Looking around, everyone seems completely relaxed and at home.
The whole space has such a cozy, welcoming atmosphere.
Some people even come to do their ironing.
Why iron here?
I don't have one at home.
And it's a great space.
While I iron, I go over my week
and iron that out in my head.
- Seems you have a lot going on.
Do you like the space?
It's amazing. It feels a little unreal,
and a little hyper-real too.
- Like visiting someone's home.
- I get that.
- It feels creative.
- Thank you.
I wanted it to feel unrefined,
and organic. But not sloppy.
Friendly, and homey.
But not dull or lame.
It took a lot of work to
find that balance.
The neighborhoods along the Sumida River have good transit connections to central Tokyo,
something that's sparked a rise in new apartment blocks.
The welcoming atmosphere of the laundry cafe draws in many new residents of all ages.
Everyone's just relaxing.
This is local drummer Ota, and local photographer Shikano.
- I held an exhibition here.
- In this space?
Yes, we hung photos inside and
put them up in the windows.
Everyone gets to choose how they
enjoy the space. That's the point.
- Total freedom.
Some days a concert hall, others a barbershop!
Apparently one of the staff even had their wedding here.
The ceremony took place during the height of the pandemic, through which the laundry cafe kept its doors open.
Just seeing the lights on here
made people feel safer.
There were lots of interesting stories
from around the world at the time.
- Folks singing on balconies.
- I remember.
And applauding. It was incredible.
Those fun neighbors didn't
appear out of thin air.
They reflect a community that was already tight.
Did we have that in Japan?
And if so, were we living the rich
lives that would lead to such acts?
That's what concerned me.
I don't know what will happen next.
But my customers know each other.
They relax, and my staff
leave them in peace.
There's comfort and trust in that.
People know they're not alone here.
A unique space that nurtures human connections.
After my visit, Tanaka takes me to another store.
Here you go!
- Thank you.
- Thank you!
Shishido Yuki's bar has a reputation for quality fare.
During the day, he uses the space's letterpress to run a printing firm.
He started out as a printer, but put his experience working in kitchens to use and expanded the store.
He credits Tanaka for the inspiration.
I heard about a laundry cafe nearby
and it sounded so interesting.
It inspired me to move here.
- I'm so glad. I'm not alone.
Just looking around the ground floor
you can see so many interesting people.
- Thank you.
- A classic dish!
- Isn't it?
- Takes me back.
That's the kind of community
I want to build.
A glance across the ground floor
full of quirky stores and people.
Local kids growing up knowing there's
all kinds of people in the world.
- I find that reassuring.
- I agree.
This diversity shows that people will
go their own way despite obstacles.
Instead of gaps and emptiness,
you can find everything here.
That's it exactly.
I feel my role is to provide a physical
space that promotes those values.
If you want to revitalize your community, examine its historic DNA.
That might just be the key to opening up its future.