Out of the nearly 6.8 million homes in Tokyo, approximately 750,000 are vacant. There are nearly 12,000 empty homes in Bunkyo Ward alone, the district where I live in central Tokyo with a little under 200,000 residents. As population decline accelerates and many people continue to prefer newly-constructed housing to renovated units, the problem is almost certainly going to grow much, much larger in coming years. While the rise in vacant houses, shops, and offices poses a threat to public safety, community vitality, and municipal finances, it also presents opportunities for adaptive reuse and conversion of buildings for purposes that couldn’t have emerged when land prices were rising. Reuse of buildings is a growing trend across the city, for guesthouses and sharehouses, co-working offices, art galleries and studios, cultural centers, event spaces, restaurants, cafes and book shops.
A friend and I were recently approached by the head of a small community shopping street near Edogawabashi, in southwest Bunkyo, regarding an empty house in the neighborhood. The owner, whose older sister lived in the house before moving to an assisted care facility, was reluctant to demolish the structure and sell the land for new construction and was seeking ideas for how to use the house for the community’s benefit.
My friend had renovated and lived in an empty store space on the street a few years ago and had a good relationship with the community, and the two of us were wanting to start a similar project together, so we were immediately intrigued. The house is approximately 50 years old, and the structure and its condition do not make it a great candidate for expensive renovations. Instead, we have decided to gather a group of people from various backgrounds who are enthusiastic about renovation and local communities and do an experimental DIY project for a one-year period, spending as little money as possible and using the space for art exhibits, local events, study groups, and anything else people can dream up.
We held our first event yesterday for interested friends to visit the house and offer ideas about its reuse. Once we assemble a core group of members, we’ll decide our strategy and solicit help from a broader network of friends and supporters to help with the renovation and create programming for the space.
In the United States an abundance of vacant houses is usually a sign that a place is in deep trouble, economically and socially, such as Detroit, where gentrifiers are now buying up houses for pennies for renovation. But in Japan, vacant houses are appearing in varying numbers just about everywhere, reflecting the society-wide decline in population (there just isn’t any demand for old houses) and the fact that the country doesn’t have much of a secondary market for real estate, which means that even in popular neighborhoods, owners or heirs often hold onto empty properties for years.
That means that vacant houses are often located in very vibrant places. The one we’re working on is adjacent to the Jizodori Shopping Street, and only a few minutes walk from the upscale Kagurazaka district. Our aim is to create a flexible space where outsiders and local residents can interact, add vitality to community life, and think about the future of the neighborhood and the city. Hopefully, the network we build over the next year will lead to additional opportunities to work on renovation and community revitalization in the future. For starters, we need decide how we plan to renovate the house and what we can use it for. It also needs a name.
I’ll post more updates about our progress as we decide our course of action and begin renovations. If you’re interested in helping or have any good ideas, please let me know!
I met at least one local resident yesterday who didn’t appear entirely enthused about our presence. Hopefully we can win him over in the months to come!