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Livable Cities

Regional Cities Revitalize

Smart Wellness City machi-zukuri


Several townships and cities in Japan have signed on to a new initiative known as "Smart Wellness City". This program offers a framework of urban revitalization projects based upon successful international cases and the latest research through which citizens can live more healthily and happily. In many ways, these plans center on the 'walkability' of urban landscapes and the greater social interaction and health premium it affords.

Research has shown that strong social networks and communities in which people are socially engaged with each other – what may be called social capital – lead to better physical and mental health among residents who also tend to live longer lives. This kind of social capital is not only linked to good health, but also the prevention of crime, stronger foundations for democracy and enhanced economic development.

Shinya Kuno, a Professor of Health and Sport Sciences at Tsukuba University, helped launch the nationwide Smart Wellness City project after researching the relationship between the walkability of cities and their citizens' health. The initiative aims to re-energize regional development, encouraging the elderly to stay healthy and fostering the greening of social capital. So far, more than twenty-six cities have signed on.

The Smart Wellness City committee hosts meetings among mayors from as far afield as Niigata, Shizuoka and Fukuoka who gather regularly to share policy ideas and discuss regional development issues. Many of these mayors are facing common challenges and the dialogue permits the exchange of solutions relating to an ageing and shrinking population, lower employment rates, loss of younger generations to the big cities and the changes to traditional ways of life.

The built-design of neighborhoods can enable greater social interaction or inhibit it. In many ways, the 'walkability' of a city's landscape can promote greater social capital creation and healthier neighborhoods if the right facilities exist. Enhancing facilities to encourage the building or renovation of walkways and nature trails enables visitors and residents to hike, walk and explore the natural or historic sights of their cities. Adding incentives to use public transit, meanwhile, reduces car traffic while encouraging participants – old and young alike – to become healthier through community fitness programs involving the outdoors.

In the case of Niigata City, the largest city on the Japan Sea side of Honshu, its challenges include establishing better transportation links for a substantial population base while providing better care for the elderly. By integrating existing walkways and parks, new initiatives seek to promote walking in the city and greater urban-rural interaction.

The first policy action is the development of a transit-link system. The Niigata City jurisdiction was amalgamated with several of the surrounding townships in a municipal administrative reform in 2005, which created the challenge of how to create better public transit networks linking the city with its rural suburbs. To encourage people to use public transit, a new development is underway to build transit hubs at the city's periphery that link lower-use rural bus routes with high-use city routes so as to save users' time and money. This also aims to encourage more people to walk in the city centre rather than drive cars, and thus alleviate problems of congestion and parking shortages.

The Smart Wellness City project also requires legislative support. Frequently, the project's jurisdictions are mixed—health, traffic, ageing populations and parks—and thus the areas under consideration for a new project typically fall under several bureaus within City Hall. Consolidating legislation so that it clearly allocates jurisdictions for new projects makes it much easier to consider innovative ideas that might otherwise fall foul of conflicting interests. Niigata City found that unifying overlapping jurisdictions assisted in its planning, even though it is still in the preliminary stages of many projects.

Niigata City also aims to make life healthier and more enjoyable for its increasingly aging population. This will be done in part by encouraging walking groups for the elderly and organizing undertakings within Niigata City, such as campaigns for walking points and temple hikes. The elderly are also more likely to use public transit and have a personal attachment to the historic areas of the city. By keeping them engaged in Niigata City's life and wellness, they can remain committed to the community's preservation.

Professor Kuno's project encourages participants, especially the elderly, to walk as much as possible and to keep track of their progress with a pedometer that registers what is dubbed as "kenko mileage" or health-and-happiness mileage points. In some trial cities, these points can be used to obtain discounts at participating stores, allowing walkers to save money on a bottle of water or lunch after walking 10km. It also allows participants to monitor their own fitness better.

There is also an added advantage in the Smart Wellness City idea. Perhaps best articulated by Mr. Isato Kunisada, the Mayor of Sanjo Town in Niigata Prefecture, "the push years ago for wider roads through the centre of town to permit car traffic led to the loss of many smaller streets and alleyways. Oftentimes, however, it is these very alleyways that offered glimpses of the historic sites and pathways that were the distinctive charm of our town." The promotion of walkability for Sanjo Town can also mean the protection and enhancement of these historic sites and retention of the distinctive character of the city.

Elsewhere, Mishima City has looked to the expansion of walking routes and the cleaning up of its streams as part of its Smart Wellness City plan. Historic walking routes connect Mishima Taisha, one of Japan's most famous shrines, with walking paths that sidle the streaming brooks and grassy parks running through a recently gentrified Izumicho in the eastern part of the township. Visitors can easily walk 20km in a day paying homage to various historic sites, perusing shopping arcades (shotengai) and hiking along wild paths north of the city that offer splendid views of Mt. Fuji. not only are the elderly invited to enjoy these walks, but the attractiveness of the sites draws younger sightseers as well.

Pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods that are frequently found in smaller Japanese cities differ substantially from suburbs one may find in the United States or elsewhere. Japanese towns contain more than just houses and this better encourages interaction among people, whether in the local grocery store or a chance meeting at a riverside park. The Smart Wellness City program aims to foster greater public mutual respect and trust, a valuable resource in times of personal or neighborhood need.

"Energy-Efficient Architecture" Fujisawa Smart town Project (Fujisawa SST)

A very different kind of urban planning is underway in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. Panasonic—a leading electronics manufacturer based in Osaka—is proposing a low-energy consumption green community on one of its former factory sites. Using the latest environmental technologies, sustainable architecture, solar power, energy grids and building materials, Panasonic's Fujisawa Smart Town Project (Fujisawa SST) will create a residential community that is linked into surrounding businesses, retailers and hospitals. The project aims to be completed by 2018 and will serve as a model town for other potential building projects in the future.

The project encompasses nine other industry partners who bring their own specialized know-how to the development: from finance to planning, from advanced materials to energy-saving technologies.

About 1000 homes will be built on an urban plan that radiates from a central town square. Buildings for business and commercial use are found on the periphery as well as welfare facilities and community facilities.

One of the first innovations is to equip each home with solar power generation systems and energy-efficient appliances to reduce the cost of energy use while generating a surplus of energy beyond the needs of each household. Each house will also be fitted with high capacity batteries for energy that is not immediately used. This innovation provides a significant saving for residents in the long run.

The infrastructure of the community development project will employ integrated energy and information networks. Each home is to be fitted with a modulated heating/cooling system and low-energy appliances that are managed by a central computer system – a smart energy gateway – that maximizes efficiency and reduces wastage. This way, each household will be able to avoid high-cost energy bills. At the community level, this will help reduce carbon emissions by 70%.

Another feature of this Smart Town's integration is the provision of health care monitoring. Families can have their health data monitored and appropriate responses can be offered according to the needs of each individual.

In order to reduce carbon emissions, the energy grid powering homes will also be fitted with power stations for electric cars. This will enable families to more conveniently opt to own an electric-powered car that finds its energy source from the locally-produced solar power generation system.

Once completed, the Fujisawa SST will not only offer energy self-sufficient and affordable housing, but will also provide the largest individually distributed energy-generating systems in the world.

Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town is a full-scale commercialization project, and not just a feasibility study. Town planning does not end when construction is completed and the town should continue to grow with its residents. For this reason, the Fujisawa SST Management Company was established on 7th March, 2013, to provide the ongoing services needed to make this a sustainable community. Panasonic is now actively developing the concepts and processes behind Fujisawa SST into other projects for Japan and around the world.