Happiness Studies News

Home > Happiness Studies News > Activating Public Spaces through Citizen-Government Collaboration: Himeji Station North Exit Plaza

February 25, 2020

Activating Public Spaces through Citizen-Government Collaboration: Himeji Station North Exit Plaza

Activating Public Spaces through Citizen-Government Collaboration: Himeji Station North Exit Plaza

Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture, is located in the western part of the Kansai region of Japan, and has a population of about 530,000. The Shinkansen (Bullet Train) stops at Himeji Station, which serves as a gateway to the city. The space in front of the station, called Himeji Station North Exit Plaza, is designed unlike any other in Japan and differs significantly from what the city originally planned to do. This is because it reflects alternative proposals put forward by citizens.

Not only is the design of this plaza highly regarded in the urban planning field, but also the process leading that resulted in community input being reflected. How was this collaboration between the citizens and the government achieved?

Himeji Station North Exit Plaza

The plaza features three distinctive components: Castle View, Transit Mall and Nigiwai Koryu Hiroba (meaning "lively exchange plaza" in English). From the Castle View, one can get a direct view of Himeji Castle's majestic "keep tower," which rises skyward in the distance up the street. The original keep tower, watchtowers and other main structural elements of Himeji Castle, registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site, were built in the early Edo period (1603-1867) and are still standing today.

The Transit Mall design is a first for Japan. The first 200 meters or so of Otemae Street, the main road running past Himeji Station, are restricted to public transit and pedestrian traffic only. The ratio of space in the station-front plaza devoted to pedestrians has been greatly expanded, from the original 26% to 61%.

The Nigiwai Koryu Hiroba was created to activate the area as a space for everyone to relax or engage in fun activities. Its concept is "a station front for family fun." Part of this plaza is offered at low cost for uses such as events put on by community groups and citizens, and its utilization rate has reached 100%.

The Road to Collaboration

The city government originally presented its plans for the plaza. The local shopping street association had a look at the plans and was concerned that a road would divide people. They organized voluntary study group sessions to gather input and presented proposals to the mayor, but their ideas were not reflected subsequently in the plans.

The association felt it would have limited impact if it worked alone, so it asked Hirokazu Kometani of the NPO Slow Society to coordinate consensus building. Kometani, who was also being consulted by government officials, decided to hold workshops to prepare some alternative proposals.

"There would be no progress if we weren't having our voices heard by the town's movers and shakers, so we invited all of them, and shared information with anyone unable to attend meetings," says Kometani. "Government officials who collaborated with us in our efforts also played an important role. Some people in the government had negative reactions to the citizens' proposals, so we reached out to promote mutual understanding through explanations and dialogue."

Junro Matsuoka, who chaired the shopping street association at the time, recalls "Some of our proposals got no reaction, and we didn't trust the government very much initially. Nevertheless, as we studied the issue together, some things became clearer. Our views on things like creating the Transit Mall coincided with theirs, but the government also came around to seeing things our way in some cases too."

More than 20 people, including shopkeepers, attended the workshops. Meetings were held with everyone in attendance eight times over two months, and smaller working groups would get together every second week for discussions. Three-dimensional perspectives of alternative proposals were developed and then presented at a Citizens' Forum to Consider the Look of Himeji.

The mayor, merchants, transportation business operators, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, local organizations and NPOs participated in that event. They discussed three proposals, a citizens' proposal that separated environmental (public) space from traffic space, the city's original plan emphasizing vehicle traffic flow, and a compromise between the two. The Forum ended up choosing the citizens' plan. Later, the Forum and an expert group jointly submitted a written proposal to the mayor, and the citizens' proposal was officially adopted.

Kometani says, "The experts helped convert people's ideas into designs, and that was a good way to work together. Recognized names in the planning of public spaces joined our efforts. In the absence of such actions, the plaza would have been built according to the city's original plan. What is important is to create and implement good processes to convey the views of the community."

Utilization Council and Experimentation

After the Citizens' Forum adopted the proposal, a utilization council was established. Its purpose has been to help form a shared understanding among stakeholders on how to proceed with utilizing and managing the station-front area. In addition to governmental, non-governmental and corporate stakeholders, members include experts in urban development.

Approaches to utilization and management are determined on a case-by-case basis through discussions. Various stakeholders are involved, so it is important to enhance mutual understanding among them. Kometani participates as a committee member in the government's informal discussion meetings, proposing matters decided on by the utilization council and devising other ways to proceed.

To promote utilization of the station-front area, they tested an idea called "Challenge Ekimae Omotenashi" (station-front hospitality), which involved renting out parts of the plaza for events organized by citizens and groups. While gaining public participation, they are experimenting with ways to use the space to energize and activate the area. The trials are proving useful in creating rules for the utilization and management of the completed plaza.

Let's look at three events that have been held so far.

In a "Tomoiki" (surviving together) disaster preparedness event, people watched a demonstration of a water pipe in a lawn area being connected to a water storage tank. Seeing this, they learned how such a system could be used to supply drinking water during disasters.

A station-front "Omusubi-ichi" (rice ball market) was organized by young farmers to sell fresh vegetables and other farm produce and foods.

The "Machi Zentai ga Hoikuen Tour" (whole town is a kindergarten tour) was a fun event for adults and children, in which day care was combined with a short children's tour. It allowed the parenting generation to enjoy a leisurely lunch and shop in front of Himeji Station while the children joined a tour. The kids got to visit museums and other sights in Himeji City, accompanied by childcare workers and assistants, while learning from local guides.

The number of events has grown steadily, from 230 events the first year to 308 the second year and 390 the third. Multiple spaces are available, so different events may be held simultaneously. With many people gathering and excitement being generated, positive economic effects are being seen, and public security is also enhanced.

As consensus-building for promotion of efforts has proceeded, a network of users and supporters not originally imagined emerged and grew. Matsuoka notes how ties among the shops have strengthened. "At the beginning, there were different levels of interest, but repeated interactions have gradually built the group spirit, allowing people to come together to move ahead. I think it is good we did this."

On June 26, 2019, the Consultative Group on Creating Urban Diversity and Innovation released a proposal for a program called "Urban Renewal Starting from 'City Centers Where People Want to Walk.'" In response, Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) launched the "Walkable City Center Promotion Program" for implementation in FY2020. The Consultative Group's proposal included Ehime Station North Exit Plaza as a Japanese case study, a sure sign of how positively this design has been evaluated.

Utilization of the plaza is being considered even for days when no events are being held, so that a bustling scene can be enjoyed there on a daily basis. We will keep an eye on future trends at Himeji Station through collaboration between citizens and the government.

Back to Index

Page Top