Extracting Placemaking Tools from Minamisanriku

After The Glass-House Chief Executive Sophia de Sousa returned from her research trip to the seaside town of Minamisanriku, Japan, in November 2013, she knew she wanted to share the story of resilience observed in the community’s rebuilding in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake. As well as writing extensively about the stories she heard on her visit, Sophia also identified the potential to explore how the response to this disaster might support other places and situations.

Along with research collaborator Dr Busayawan Lam, Sophia led a creative workshop on 18 June, ‘Lessons from Minamisanriku’, that was also the first event of a new Learning Series initiated by The Glass-House to provide a space for learning, inspiring and sharing, and for building new knowledge to support communities to lead changes in their places.

This workshop brought together students and community members in a dynamic exploration of the regeneration tactics used in the Japanese fishing town. Inspired by the Minsamisanriku story, teams developed designs for crisis plans for identified places in the UK.

As an intern for The Glass-House, I joined the workshop, and while working with my group, we quickly realised that elements of Minamisanriku’s recovery emerged from parts of human nature that could translate across cultures and situations. The Irya Yes Kobo artistic space and factory, one triumph built by a local resident of Minamisanriku as a way to reestablish purpose in chaotic disorder, stood as a testament to the power of productive collaboration. Community members needed to find ways to fill their time in the absence of their normal schools, shops and workplaces. Even though Minamisanriku residents no longer knew whose land belonged to whom in wake of the mass destruction, they decided to focus their energies on crafting together, slowly building up new community spaces within the warm, dry shelter that empowered them to create.

We discovered that this concept of using communal enterprise as a method for generating connections between people could be applied in other scenarios with different sorts of ‘crises.’ Focusing on the example shared by the community leader in our group, who works to empower young people at The Winch youth club in north London, we explored how an enterprising approach could support young people and the wider neighbourhood. Our idea a featured a revitalised youth centre with a beekeeping business, which would allow young people to learn new skills, train their peers and sell their honey products. Just as the Irya Yes Kobo social enterprise unified Minamisanriku people in a collective quest to foster beauty from disarray, we proposed that youth could improve their sense of self and wellbeing by producing valuable commodities.

The workshop proved an ideal environment for our exploration and we all agreed it was a useful space for innovative thinking. By the end of the workshop, several participants remarked that that group’s diversity allowed them to crowd-source a number of new ideas, while finding consensus in the “common element of believing in the social aspects of community.” Peer review sessions following each design discussion allowed us to think critically about how our plans could improve. After the first review, each group added more depth and detail to their designs after learning from the other team’s suggestion. One student declared, “hearing the other team’s presentation was the time to learn different ways to develop design.”

As I embark on my next urban planning adventure in the fall, travelling with a group of twenty students to Buenos Aires, Dakar and Hanoi to compare various city structures, I will keep the lessons gathered from Minamisanriku in mind. Although Minamisanriku faced a unique disaster with specific concerns, the workshop highlighted that some essential components in place are relevant no matter the geographic location.

Placemaking, especially after crisis, must not just focus on the built environment, but the critical social capital that allows residents to feel safe and empowered. Throughout my journey, I will not just observe practical architecture, but I will search for places such as Irya Yes Kobo – the vibrant community hubs that allow for identity and purpose.

Martha Isaacs is a student of Geography of Human Activity and City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is interested in the built environment’s effect on mental and physical health, and is currently undertaking a two-month internship with The Glass-House to learn more about placemaking in the UK.

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