Life with Green

Good public spaces give rise to the emergence of new people.

Masataka Baba

Good public spaces give rise to the emergence of new people.

Mr. Masataka Baba, architect, is President of architectural design company “Open A Ltd.” and Director of “Real Tokyo Estate”, as well as operating “Real Public Estate”. He has also written many works on the relationship between architecture and society incorporating interesting viewpoints by drawing on his rich unique theories and imagination. By repeatedly conducting various social experiments, he has gone in pursuit of the ways of using contemporary public space. I spoke with him in his office, an experimental space, with “park with a roof” as concept, created in a renovated former warehouse.

Q. Mr. Baba, you published RePUBLIC: Renovation of Public Space in 2013, and later, PUBLIC DESIGN: How to Create New Public Space in 2015 (Gakugei Publishing). What was it that led you to focus on public space?

A. The first book I wrote on public space, RePUBLIC, focused on the renovation of public space. The later PUBLIC DESIGN was a book I wrote as a sequel with the awareness of the problem of “Next, we must create new public spaces…” Until I had written the first book, I was stressed inside that I couldn’t use public space in clever ways. I always felt, why is public space in Japan so lacking in freedom? It was at that time that I visited Bryant Park in New York and saw how fun that park was. I thought, ah, parks in Japan should be like this! and then, after trial and error in material and wild ideas, I presented my creation to society.

The place to first inspire my interest in public spaces was “Ikebukuro Nishiguchi Park”. It was also the stage for the novel, Ikebukuro West Gate Park. I received a request from an organization in Tokyo responsible for the performing arts event “Festival Tokyo”, wanting me to build temporary structures such as cafes for people to enjoy, for just one month, in the park in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre after they had attended the performance.

The result was simple dome constructions (www.open-a.co.jp/portfolio/4516/), yet I can’t tell you how hard it was dealing with the complications along the way to its completion. In order to build just one temporary construction, there were tremendous procedures and regulations so that my hands were tied, and I sensed an extraordinary lack of freedom.

At the time I was operating “Real Tokyo Estate”, and this made me think “Right, next it is public spaces that need renovation!” and I began traveling to various areas to gather material. Bryant Park in New York was one place I went to, and I saw how well parks are used overseas. Business activities too are increasingly being carried out within parks. It made me think that if, in Japan, it is this difficult to create a fun public space, then the future of Japanese public spaces will continue to look bleak.

Q. Eight years have passed since then, and you have taken part in creating numerous public spaces. Since you took them on with an awareness of the problems, tell me about an episode that progressed in a favorable direction.

A. There is a real sense that public spaces in Japan have largely shifted in good directions, be it slow progress.

There was an assumption within myself that Japanese parks up till now were “ uninteresting”. I always think it would be fun if even small parks just had a pop-up cafe or florist, for example, open up in them. If you could propose a site, the local government could take rent so is happy, the cafe could make a profit so is happy too, and the park could serve as child-minding while children play – another happy thing. Furthermore, as it was with me, fathers with children who had nowhere to go could now drink coffee at the cafe and read or work while the children play. However, that could not be done under Japanese law… and I wrote about the stress that I felt in my book.

After the book went on sale, I had a visit from someone from the Parks and Green Space division of a public office, who said, “Mr. Baba, I read your book. It was extremely interesting, but there is a mistake in what you wrote.” He went on to say this. “I for one don’t like the fact that parks in Japan are uninteresting, as you say. This is not the law, but the local government’s bylaws prohibiting things. So, I will change those local government bylaws, and I’d like to start a movement to create parks that can be used in proper ways.

Then that person went on to make the laws that now exists on park use, including “Park-PFI*”. Now I know him like a kindred spirit, and it is an episode I shall never forget. It led to the law on public spaces being changed, and over the several years since then, I have sensed a continuation of change.

The office of Open A Ltd., given the name “Under Construction”, is a space decked with devices and decorations to excite even adults. It is also a shared office.
At Open A Ltd., a project is in progress titled “THROWBACK” that uses fresh ideas to produce furniture out of industrial waste.

Q. With such a response, I’m sure you were then motivated towards creating the ideal public space. Tell me about a place that has stayed in your mind out of the park and public projects that you have been involved in up till now.

A. I’ll talk about three, the first being “Minami-Ikebukuro Park”. The second is “Park with lodging, INN THE PARK” in Numazu City, Shizuoka Prefecture, and the third, Minnano Park in Kohoku, Saga Prefecture.

Minami-Ikebukuro Park was originally a park with a poor environment that has been given a huge lawn, equipped with a cafe, and was reborn as a leading park in Japan. I had received a proposal about a usage experiment for Green Odori Street adjoining Minami-Ikebukuro Park from local resident, Mr. Jun Aoki, and that was the first time I took part in a social experiment. I formed a limited company, “nest”, and carried out a social experiment on the pedestrian way on Green Odori Street. The character of the people coming to it gradually changed, and people really seemed to enjoy their time there. Once the park was renovated and many people started to come, the surrounding environment too began to change. The project showed me clearly that through one good park being created in a town, the image of the town itself can change so much. This trial also links to the Ikebukuro city policy of renewing the town through its parks. Furthermore, “nest” periodically holds events, such as forming a market, known as the “Ikebukuro Living Loop”, turning Ikebukuro’s parks and streets into the living space of local residents.

Minami-Ikebukuro Park went through more than five years of construction work, and reopened in 2016. Cafe “Racine Farm to Park” has a landmark-style presence in the park. (Provided by: nest)

The next one is “Park with lodging, INN THE PARK”. In 2015, I set up the media “Real Public Estate”. It is a sort of public version of “Real Tokyo Estate”, a site that will match Japanese public spaces with citizens. Just at the time when I was setting that up, I had an enquiry from Numazu city, which led to the park project. The Numazu Youth Outdoor Learning Center was sitting idle and its maintenance costs were greatly in the red, so they wanted to entrust it to a private business. Please feature that information, was the message.

Intrigued, I visited the location, to find that the Youth Outdoor Learning Center was indeed falling to bits. However, the Ashitaka Exercise Park stretching out in front of it was a beautiful environment. So, I thought that if I could use this park as it stood, the derelict Youth Outdoor Learning Center could be reborn, and that was “Park with lodging, INN THE PARK”, presented for use in a set as building and park. By redeveloping the Youth Outdoor Learning Center adjoining the park into a hotel, by dotting the park with spherical floating tents and enabling lodging in tents and attracting people with “dare to stay over at the park, that you mustn’t normally do!”, it was a discovery of new possibilities for parks.

“Park with lodging, INN THE PARK” with a spherical floating tent in the woods. It is proving popular as a hotel where you can savor the unusual. (Photograph: Takaya Sakano)

The third, “Minnano Park”, is a park that opened in 2019 in my birthplace of Saga Prefecture. Kohoku is a provincial town with a population of around 8,000 people, but I received a request from the mayor, saying “We want a park like Minami-Ikebukuro Park”. On the empty ground behind the shopping mall, I created a cafe and meeting hub for residents, restrooms, growing patch and a wide grass slope for children to climb. It became very popular, and a place where many people go to enjoy themselves. This is miscalculation in a good sense, but the most popular time in the park is when the grass is watered. On the hot Kyushu afternoons, children dash through the sprinkler. That sight really made me smile.

This is not a park that abides strictly by the “Urban Park Act”. However, by evading that control, it can operate with flexibility.
Now, people want to live near the park and the local area itself has found popularity, with the park becoming the symbol of local activities. Although you could say the same about Minami-Ikebukuro Park, the impact a good public space gives is maybe greater for a small town.
When I was creating the park in Saga, I got together the residents and held workshops, showing them the sketches, but I didn’t ask, “What do you want?” As I wanted to actively engage them, I asked “What can you do in this park?” I formed a plan while conducting experiments with workshops and events at the location, and then progressed to its completion.

“Minnano Park” in Kohoku, Saga Prefecture is a place that continues to mature due to the participation of nearby residents. On weekends, it gets busy with markets and workshops being held on the open grass space. (Provided by: Open A Ltd.)

Q. That’s a good example of parks and open spaces changing the value of an area.

A. Good open spaces don’t just raise the value of an area, but give rise to the emergence of new people. There have been people coming forward saying, in fact I always wanted to run a cafe, or, proposing even things like movie groups, English classes, yoga and weddings. I think it is important for parks to create “room for getting involved”.

Q. Have you ever felt the power of greenery and nature while carrying out and repeating your social experiments?

A. Of course I have, greenery is magic. There is no mistake that greenery has magical powers. For example, the luxuriant grass in “Minami-Ikebukuro Park”: its a species of grass with that attribute, but there are many adults who roll around on it using it as their living space. That grass has a high unit cost, and management costs are also high so it is difficult to maintain, but its value of attracting people is enough to make it worthwhile.

Another one is “Ike Sun Park” opened this year in Ikebukuro that has wild, short-blade grass as the area of the site is so large. Not many people lie down on it, but instead, children run round it with all their might (laugh). Pets are welcome, and that kind of rough and ready use is what has made it popular. From these two examples, I made an interesting discovery that the type of visitor gathering there changes just by the quality of the grass, and the way the park is used is different too.

“Ike Sun Park” in Higashi-Ikebukuro. Cafes and stalls continually appear, giving rise to a new form of fun city born from the park. (Provided by: Toshima Midori Disaster Prevention Park Management Office)

Q. Does that mean that new value arises from the greenery dispersed around public areas?

A. I believe it is human nature to want to naturalize cities. I feel that we follow that honestly, and dream for a green landscape. I feel that our commitment to parks and greenery comes from the fact that the designs for where we live and cities are at the heart of that desire.

An interesting example regarding greenery is of a member of Real Kobe Estate, who holds a wonderful market every Saturday in a park called Kobe East Park in the city, and who before starting that activity, went to ask for guidance from the instigator of a regular local market in Portland, USA. There he was told, “Set it up under a large tree”. When I heard that story, I felt so strongly that they were saying something fundamental. People gather “under a large tree” and want it to depend on; I thought, that is our instinct as living creatures. He kept loyally to that teaching, and held his market under a large tree in a park with large trees, and did very well. I felt that people doing these things on the scene have a lot of conviction.

Q. It is an interesting point that even in public spaces, everyone seeks to act privately.

A. Yes it is. I think the happiest public space is a scene where visiting people consider it their own living space. They create their small private space within a public space, so that there are many places that they consider their own. And the fact that many people consider it so, is, I sense, a good way for public spaces to be.

The image is like a cell, with a large public area sprinkled with small, private areas trying not to get too close. The age of Corona, that has confused that sense of distance and landscape, has been superimposed on the future ideal landscape.

Q. Do you have any concerns over methods of using innovation and technology in creating future parks and public spaces?

A. I often think that the ideal city of the next generation will have a landscape that is linked properly to technology and ecology in balance. Until recently, industrial technology and the environment were perceived as opposing notions. Environmentalists hated industrialization, and on the opposite side it was said that industry would not develop if there were too much concern for the environment, so there tended to be a structure of opposition. However, in the next generation, I have a feeling that we will overcome that, and strive for a situation where technology and ecology are directly connected.

In the next 100 years, I think, humans will be driven by the desire to return towns and cities back to nature, and to fill them with nature. Popular properties at Real Tokyo Estate, for example, are those with a wide veranda with untamed greenery. Every individual person is aware of that future landscape, and I feel that the providers of that landscape have plunged into the era of its start.

So, we cannot and do not want to return to the time when nature was an inconvenience. What comes to mind is a scene where humans, in trying to control greenery, technology peeps out from within peaceful nature. Small and unassuming technology that is discrete and decentralized. For example, invisible sensing technology, like light adjustment, air conditioning adjustment, and room temperature management, is progressing, and making spaces safer. I have a feeling that the future is a landscape where invisible, not merely unobtrusive, technology is used in various places around cities.

Masataka Baba
President, Open A Ltd.; architect; Director, Real Public Estate; Professor, Tohoku University of Art and Design. Born 1968. After completing the architecture course at Waseda University Graduate School, he entered [advertising company] Hakuhodo. After a period as editor in chief of “A” magazine, in 2003 he founded Open A Ltd. His activities include architectural design, city planning, and writing. He jointly operates websites “Real Tokyo Estate” and “Real Public Estate”. His latest work is Temporary Architecture (co-author; Gakugei Publishing).

*Park-PFI is a new maintenance and management method designed for improving the quality of urban parks and for improving park users’ convenience, that is a system for selecting persons by open invitation to overall oversee the installation of park facilities for the public, such as restaurants and vending outlets, to contribute to the improvement of convenience for park users, and the maintenance and repair of surrounding roads using profits gained from those facilities and of specific park facilities such as the open area that can be used by all park users, and thereby inducing excellent private-sector investment in urban parks and reducing Treasury costs for parks managers. (Quoted from “Guidelines for using Park-PFI for improving the quality of urban parks” of the Park and Green Space / Landscape Project, City Bureau, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism)