Citizens and Local Governments Join Hands in Building Pleasant Community Environments
March 31, 1997
Housewives and other residents in local districts around the country are taking the initiative themselves and playing an increasingly active role in improving the local environment and building pleasant communities. Especially notable among these activities are efforts by residents that involve making proposals to local governments from the ordinary person's point of view and cooperating in the implementation of the suggestions. As a result, some third-sector (semipublic) enterprises have emerged to act as mediators between residents and local governments, which are becoming even more inclined than before to actively seek out the attitudes of local citizens in the promotion of community-building projects. These developments signal that the relationship between local governments and residents in community building in Japan is undergoing a significant change.
Starting with Modest Activities
In the spring of 1996 a hiking course opened in the hilly area of the city of Zushi in Kanagawa Prefecture. The hiking course, which is now mentioned in some tourist guides and attracts many hikers from other places, extends for about 10 kilometers, and has more than 1,000 steps made from fallen trees and other materials. An observatory situated 120 meters above sea level is a popular site on holidays.
When Zushi made a proposal five years ago for a city-building project with the participation of local citizens, residents who took part in the debate suggested that attention should be directed toward the wooded hills rather than the city itself. An area of wooded hills owned by both the city and private businesses was then chosen for the project. About 20 residents voluntarily formed a group and set about building the course with their own hands. They cut down the thickly grown bamboo grass, cleared away stones and fallen trees, and planted lilies by the side of the path. The local government cooperated by, for example, putting up signs along the hiking course. The group of residents is still active, never failing to tidy up the course and surrounding hills about twice a month. Said one member of the group: "The local government is so busy, it would have been useless asking them to clear the hills and build a hiking course. But we knew that if we residents took the initiative and started the ball rolling ourselves, then the local government would lend a hand."
In Tokyo's Setagaya Ward there is a municipal park of about 2,600 square meters. The park has no slides, swings, or sandboxes; there is just a small artificial stream and lots of plants and trees. Formerly the ward used the site for storage, but seven years ago it decided to build a park there. At that time, local residents who participated in the discussions suggested that the site should be turned into an open space rather than a well-furnished park with all the usual facilities. After the site was completed in the spring of 1994, a group of housewives and other local residents signed an agreement with the ward to voluntarily manage the park. Ever since the group has diligently maintained the park, every week cleaning the stream, cutting the weeds, and tidying up, so that local children have a precious spot where they can come into contact with flowers, insects, and other aspects of nature.
Local Governments Encourage Citizen Participation
In 1992 a third-sector enterprise was set up in Setagaya Ward to support the voluntary community-building activities of ward citizens both financially and technically and also to act as a mediator between the local government and resident activities. The objective of community building is to create a pleasant living environment. But while the local government tends to look at projects from the broad perspective of disaster prevention and the environment, residents tend to view projects in terms of what impact they will have on living. So it was realized that an organization was needed to play a mediatory role between the two sides. Hence the third-sector enterprise, which has a staff of seven and also hires outside consultants and contract employees when necessary. Setagaya Ward is currently promoting a project to construct a home nursing service center for elderly residents in the ward, with the aim of opening the center in 2000. The third-sector enterprise is playing a coordinating role in drafting the design plan for the center, coming between the residents and the local government and taking into consideration the opinions of both sides.
The city of Ebina in Kanagawa Prefecture has been holding voluntary discussion meetings for local residents since January 1995 to hear their opinions on the development of the area around the city's railway station. At the beginning, perhaps because the necessary information concerning the development plans had not been transmitted properly to citizens, there were conflicts of particular interests. But as discussions continued, it was reported, constructive opinions became more prominent.
At the end of 1995 the city of Yamato, also in Kanagawa Prefecture, announced its draft of a master plan for urban development on the Internet and solicited the opinions of residents. In 10 months the draft's website was accessed about 6,000 times, and the local government received nearly 300 opinions or requests. This unusual experiment also attracted e-mail responses from outside the city and even from abroad. The Yamato local government is now analyzing the opinions and intends to reflect them in its master plan.
The main reason for this transformation in the way that citizens and local governments are tackling the issue of community building seems to lie in the change of consciousness on both sides. On the citizen side, residents have begun to realize that, rather than activities based on opposing the local authorities or submitting petitions to them, they can achieve more success by shifting their activities toward greater cooperation. On the administration side, local governments realize that they have their limits and that, in order to provide thorough services, it is essential for them to encourage the participation of residents, nonprofit organizations, and others from the start and to gain their cooperation. Although these activities bringing together local governments and residents are still very much at the infant stage, they are certainly developing into a significant current of the times.
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