Despatch from Tokyo | International

Putting women at the centre of urban planning

File photo of a woman in Ikebukuro Sunshine City, a shopping complex in the Ikebukuro ward, Toshima.

File photo of a woman in Ikebukuro Sunshine City, a shopping complex in the Ikebukuro ward, Toshima.

One district in Tokyo is putting women at the centre of its urban planning and design.

To the casual observer, the neighbourhood of Ikebukuro in the northwest of Tokyo is a bustling hive of department stores, restaurants and bars. The area is the commercial heart of the larger ward of Toshima, which has one of the highest population densities in the country. Imagine the shock of ward officials then, when in 2014, a report by the Japan Policy Council, a leading think tank, listed Toshima as a “municipality at risk of disappearing”.

Given the area’s thronging streets, it seemed counter-intuitive, but the report was based on the fact that the number of women aged 20-39 in the ward was drastically declining, set to fall by half by 2040. Large parts of the Japanese archipelago are struggling with depopulation, as people leave the countryside for urban centres. Tokyo has seemingly been immune to this trend, but as Toshima’s experience suggests, if women are neglected, demographic challenges can creep up on even superficially thriving districts.

The Toshima municipal government responded to the report by setting up a department solely focused on devising and implementing policies to make the ward more “female-friendly”. “We put women at the centre of all our development plans,” explained Asako Miyata, a municipal official. This translated into a focus on expanding daycare centre facilities, revamping public spaces as well remodelling public toilets.

Ikebukuro was a major entertainment district, but its popularity had the side effect of making it an alcohol-fuelled male hangout with rampant binge drinking, street vomiting and sexual harassment. “We wanted to change the area’s reputation and make a place that could fulfil the emotional and practical needs of residents, especially women and families,” said Ms. Miyata.

Increasing and improving daycare facilities became a major focus. Consequently, 50 new centres for preschool age children have been opened in the last six years making use of space wherever available, including inside grocery stores and apartment buildings. The number of children on the waiting list for daycare is currently zero, down from 2070 in 2014.

There is even a daycare located inside the municipality building itself, a first in Japan. Weather permitting, the children are taken out daily to the nearby Minami-Ikebukuro park. On the morning we visited, the air was rent with the shouts of gamboling toddlers. But a few years ago, the park was best known as a seedy makeshift shelter for homeless people. After an intensive re-imagination of the space, the “new” park was unveiled in 2016 with expanses of grass, a farm-to-fork café and a space to hold regular bazaars for “mompreneurs” to sell their crafts and culinary wares.

Impressionistic flowerscape

Across the ward, spaces are being brightened, often with a splash of paint. A major underpass near the Ikebukuro train station, formerly nicknamed the “pee tunnel” because of its urine-soaked stench, has morphed into an art gallery.

Artist Shiho Ueda has painted an impressionistic flowerscape of pastels onto the tunnel’s walls and ceiling. Passerby Miho Takahashi said there was a time when she used to avoid the grimy, poorly lit walkway, but now she makes sure to go through it whenever she can. “It is like a wonderland,” she said. A description that is also fitting of the dozens of public toilets in parks that have been painted over with murals, many by residents themselves, others by especially commissioned artists. “Japan is world renowned for its high-tech toilets,” Ms. Miyata, the municipal official, explained. “But many toilets are in such a bad state that women avoid them.” The municipality figured that if they could get women to enjoy using public toilets it would change the way that the surrounding spaces were used. The number of toilets for use by women in all major buildings in the ward was also increased.

The cumulative impact of these female-centric urban planning decisions has begun to pay off. By 2017, the birth rate in Toshima ward had increased to 1.04%, up from under 1% in 2014. Moreover, the rate of decrease of the 20-39-year-old female demographic has significantly slowed to 18.9% in 2018, compared to 50.8% in 2014.

It goes to show that bad news can become good news, said Yukio Takano, Toshima Ward’s 81-year-old Mayor. The 2014 Japan Policy Council report was a “shock”, but sometimes a shock is exactly what the doctor ordered.

(Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist based in Tokyo.)

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2022 4:50:21 am |