How should we utilize the increasing number of vacant houses?Researching the sustainability of towns

Public Relations Office        October 20, 2017

Yoko Shimizu Associate Professor, School of Policy Studies

Yoko Shimizu

Yoko Shimizu

Associate Professor Shimizu is a graduate of the Department of Architecture in the Faculty of Engineering at the Osaka Institute of Technology. After working at Sumitomo Forestry Co., Ltd. and KOKUYO Co., Ltd., she completed the Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences at Nara Women’s University. After working as a specially appointed Associate Professor at the Social Cooperation Center, Nara Women’s University and as a dedicated lecturer at the School of Sociology of Bukkyo University, she obtained her present post in April 2013. Associate Professor Shimizu is a first-class registered architect. Her expertise is in urban planning, residential environments, communities, manufacturing and town management.

It has been many years since Japan’s population started to decline. This is affecting not only rural areas, but also urban areas as well. The increasing number of vacant houses has become an issue that requires urgent action. Yoko Shimizu, Associate Professor of the School of Policy Studies, is researching the sustainability of towns in urban areas, focusing on vacant house countermeasures. She also focuses on residents’ awareness and involvement, and is promoting the development of models feasible in Japan.

A house that was set on fire

A house that was set on fire

An increase in vacant houses not only decreases land prices and area reputation, but also has various impacts such as the collapse of houses, deteriorating security, and pest problems. In other countries, it often leads to crimes like drugs and arson. Associate Professor Yoko Shimizu points out, “You may think that there are many vacant houses in rural areas, but they are also increasing in urban districts, where condominiums are being built one after another. In a society with a declining population, vacant houses will certainly continue to increase.”

An abandoned house

An abandoned house

In order to solve this problem, she is conducting joint research with Nara City. They began with a factual investigation and then conducted a questionnaire survey of all house owners in a certain area of Nara City. They asked questions like whether the owners are living in the house, renting it out or leaving it vacant, and researched the condition of the houses and the composition of households. It turns out that not only are about 15% of houses already vacant, but that even in houses with residents, the owners are aging, and there is a very low possibility of children inheriting the house and moving their families in. Furthermore, they ran a simulation, and found that 20 years from now, the natural rate of population decline will accelerate; half of the houses with residents today will become vacant. “I think this result applies to other places in Japan too. The owners should take responsibility and take good care of the vacant houses which are their personal property, but in reality, they are failing to do so. The government has a major role to play, but it is necessary for the local community to address the problem too. Although it may be difficult to solve the vacant house problem, it can be used as an opportunity to create a new community.”

Interview in Michigan

Interview in Michigan

There are many successful cases of local communities functioning in Western countries which are studied continuously such as the city of Flint in Michigan, in the United States of America. The practice known as community gardens promotes cooperation and exchanges between residents by tearing down vacant houses to create fields for residents to raise vegetables. Here, residents bounce ideas off each other and distribute harvested vegetables to socially vulnerable people as charity. Today, they are getting donations from companies who support this activity. Also, by changing vacant house land into open green space and by changing the town into a green living environment, they aim to create new values that cannot be found in urban areas.

Community garden farm in Michigan

Community garden farm in Michigan

Practices like this have become active, involving the government, and have led to the development of a comprehensive plan for the whole town. The residents involved in town management consist of a wide range of ages from children and college students to people of the retired generation. According to Shimizu’s analysis, “Town management implemented in foreign countries is skilled at ‘choosing’ and ‘focusing’ on certain areas. In Japan, people tend to think that “equality is good,” but setting the priorities for what areas to “choose” and “focus on” results in early success. I think that using the vacant land as fields and green spaces is an effective resident participation- type measure against the vacant house (land) problem.” On the other hand, there are still problems such as the difference in degrees of interest among residents regarding community activities, building a sense of responsibility, and maintaining continuity in the case of volunteer activity. They are also looking for ways to raise residents’ awareness and are considering efforts to bring a sense of responsibility and certain advantages to the residents by making the activity fee-based or into a business, instead of making it a non-compensatory activity run by volunteers.

Community garden farm in Michigan

Community garden farm in Michigan

“Although vacant houses have the negative element of weakening the town, if you appropriately handle this negative element, you will be able to change it into a positive one. Because all towns are different, it is difficult to create a plan that is suitable for many towns, but we can draw on case examples and ideas. I really enjoy thinking about the future of the town with the residents and contributing to the town’s development. I wish to explore the sustainability of towns in every possible way and contribute to residents’ rich life” says Associate Professor Shimizu, who continues to strive for progress in her research.

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