By James T. White
James is a Lecturer in Urban Design at the University of Glasgow
The double-ageing team’s excursion to the Takashimadaira Housing Complex in north-west Tokyo was the first in a week-long series of field visits and presentations that we undertook in Tokyo to learn more about the challenges and solutions associated with ageing populations and buildings. Our visit took place on the 20th May 2019 and was led by Dr. Sayaka Fujii, one of the double-ageing team members from the University of Tsukuba.
Takashimadaira was completed in 1972 during a sustained period of investment in public housing by the Japan Housing Corporation, a quasi-public national agency that was established soon after WW2 to address Japan’s post-war housing crisis and provide affordable accommodation for its growing population. The Japan Housing Corporation is now known as the Urban Renaissance Agency or ‘UR’. It manages a portfolio of over three-quarters of a million public housing units and is also an active developer of new residential accommodation, often working in cooperation with the private sector to deliver mixed-tenure developments.
In light of Japan’s chronic ageing crisis, UR is increasingly grappling with the issue of how to repopulate ageing high-rise complexes that currently have large numbers of elderly residents and growing levels of vacancy.
Takashimadaira is one of many such housing complexes across the country. Due, in part, to its proximity to central Tokyo (only 30 minutes via the Toei Mita subway line) and because of the scale of the ageing challenges it is facing, Takashimadaira was identified by UR as a pilot project for a series of ‘future-proofing’ initiatives.
Before discussing these initiatives, it’s probably helpful to give a sense of the urban fabric at Takashimadaira. Walking through the neighbourhood you are immediately struck by its sheer size. There are just over 10,000 units in 64 high-rise buildings. 34 buildings are located on the western half of the complex and contain nearly 2,000 owner-occupied apartments, while the remaining 30 buildings on the eastern half of the complex are of a much higher density and contain approximately 8,000 public housing units. Our visit focused on the eastern half of the site.
Like much of the housing constructed during the 1970s in Japan, Takashimadaira conforms to modernist design principles. It is comprised of near-identical 14-storey long-thin slab blocks organised in a largely regimental fashion east-west across the site. The aesthetic is essentially uniform. All of the buildings are finished in a bright white render and are punctuated by continuous balconies that extend along each of the main facades from the second floor upwards. Despite the height of the complex, the strong horizontal emphasis of the buildings generates a pleasant sense of enclosure at ground level. The spaces in between the buildings are softened and enlivened by a generous network of linear park space that is enjoyable to walk through. Few roads penetrate the site and the generally well-maintained landscape, which has gently matured over the past forty years, generates a sense of permeance.
At the time of our visit, on a warm and sunny day in May, the spaces between the buildings were well-populated. Groups of children attending nursery played in the abundant play parks, older people were found tending to plants and shrubbery, while people of all ages were walking and cycling through the park network as they went about their day. Despite the considerable size and density of Takashimadaira, the complex imbued a sense of tranquilly and community in stark contrast to the grim and often dystopian image of modernist social housing development from this era. Our party of visitors felt safe and welcome in the public realm.
Although I might have painted a colourful portrait of Takashimadaira, it’s currently facing a significant ageing crisis. During her tour, Dr. Fujii explained that 44.7% of Takashimadaira’s residents are aged 65 or older (2018 numbers). To appreciate this figure it’s helpful to look back to when Taksahimadaira was a new neighbourhood.
A 2015 study published in the Japan Times stated that the average age in 1972 was 25.5 (Reiji, 2015). During the mid-1970s, 30,000 people lived at Takshimadiara, of which 10,000 were aged 14 or younger. Today, the population has slumped to just 15,000 and only 644 children reside in the entire complex (Reiji, 2015). The study also noted that more than half of the population live alone.
These dramatic demographic shifts have created a series of challenges for UR. Vacancy rates in the complex are growing rapidly because demand is low. The broader ageing population crisis in Japan is the primary cause of this problem, but it’s also compounded by the fact that modern Japanese families no longer want to live and raise children in the relatively small apartments available at Takashimadiara. Moreover, in Japan, there remains a persistent cultural aversion to living in an apartment where someone might have died.
The growing residential vacancy rate at Takashimadiara has also impacted the viability of retailing and commercial businesses within the complex. Many shops and service have closed as the population has dropped. As we witnessed on our visit, a large number of the ground floor retail units in the complex are shuttered. Together these various changes, both social and physical, mean that loneliness and a sense of isolation is a growing problem for those elderly residents who reside at Takashimadiara. From the perspective of viability, Takashimadiara is also increasingly expensive for UR to maintain because the collection of rental income is decreasing as the vacancy rate increases.
As I mentioned earlier, UR is currently trying to address the challenges facing Takashimadiara by trialling various ‘future proofing’ initiatives. Its aim is to use the neighbourhood as a test case for projects that might then be employed at other housing complex facing similar challenges around Japan. The initiatives are bi-directional and aim to establish more mixed and supportive communities.
While UR’s primary focus has been on trialling new ways to support the existing ageing population at Takashimadiara, it has also looked for ways to attract younger people to move to the area.
During our visit, Dr Fujii showed us a number of these initiatives, including: new medical and support facilities for the elderly that have been opened in retail units left vacant by the depopulation of the area; retrofitted apartments to provide barrier free access for older people; and, ‘Cocokara Station’ an innovative safe space for dementia sufferers that has a café and other community-orientated services We had an opportunity to visit Cocokara Station and witnessed the excellent support and care offered to those suffering from dementia. One of the staff members explained that the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology is currently undertaking research on the Station’s work with the hope that it leads to more centres opening across Tokyo.
In addition to its support for the elderly at Takashimadiara, UR is also looking for ways to reduce the stigma associated with living in older housing complexes and encourage younger people to repopulate the area. Considering its relative proximity to Tokyo city centre, as well the abundance of safe play space for young children at Takashimadiara, the complex has the potential to, once again, be an attractive place for families. With this in mind, UR established a partnership with Muji, a popular lifestyle and furnishing company in Japan, to renovate a series of apartments and market them to younger people and families.
Rents for the renovated apartments are set lower than a typical private rental apartment and the quality of the internal space is very high. Nevertheless, the scheme has only had limited success since it was established just over five years ago. Dr Fujii explained to us that between 2013 and 2017 approximately 45 units have been converted and updated. When compared against the many thousands of apartments in the Takashimadiara complex this level of uptake appears quite low and it’s clear that UR are facing an uphill battle when encouraging young, metropolitan Tokyoians to repopulate the neighbourhood.
Our fascinating visit to Takashimadiara gave us a real sense of the scale of public housing development that accompanied population growth in the mid-twentieth century in Japan, and the present challenges associated with maintaining that housing as demographic changes have taken hold. In a sense, Takashimadiara is a microcosm of the complex and multi-faceted challenges facing public housing in Japan, but also an example of the innovative opportunities that exist for social and physical renewal and revitalisation, even if the scale of the problems sometimes appears insurmountable.
Yoshida, Reiji (2015). Japan’s population dilemma, in a single-occupancy nutshell. Japan Times, December 31st, 2015, avaibale online: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/12/31/national/social-issues/japans-population-dilemma-single-occupancy-nutshell/#.XQD2Ly3My7A. Accessed 12th June 2019.