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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 13:35 10/09/2007
October 9, 2007

Success Formulas For Community Revitalization in Japan

Sukehiro HOSONO (Professor, Chuo University)

In Japan, no one fails to notice deserted downtown streets and empty shopping districts in local cities and towns, which used to be vibrant centers of local economic activities. This is not primarily due to the phenomenon of aging society with declining population in general, but rather the direct effect of rapid expansion of roadside business such as huge shopping malls with supermarkets and discount chain stores along highways in suburban areas. Needless to say, declining central cities are causing a number of social problems in Japan, just as in other advanced countries. Those problems include lack of employment opportunities for city residents, especially, young people, increasing dependence on private automobiles, and deteriorating social infrastructure and worsening environmental conditions for urban residents.

In order to deal with these problems, there have been a number of efforts made by local governments and businesses without much success so far in the past. Recently, the central government passed some legislation, such as "three laws for community development," specifically designed to help revitalize central cities, by restricting the expansion of suburban shopping centers. However, it is doubtful if such regulatory measures can have any positive effects on the economic condition of central cities in the long run.

We should take a more positive approach to urban revitalization and redevelopment by adopting a logical and systematic way of thinking. After some careful examination of available data and causal relations for urban conditions, we have obtained the following five "success formulas" for community development and revitalization.

Formula 1: Unique local brands. In general, branding is a means of value creation, and this also applies to the business activity of local regions. "Kobe beef" is one of the best-known examples. Now that local brands can formally be regarded as intellectual property rights for local business to establish and exercise, those localities that are offering good products or services should adopt effective brand strategies more actively, where not only commercial goods and services, but also cultural and historical landmarks or even images could be used as brands to emphasize the uniqueness and attractiveness of local cities and regions. It is needless to say that residents' involvement and human resource development are crucial for successful application of branding strategies to community revitalization.

Formula 2: Choice and concentration. It would be a mistake to try to have a little bit of everything in a local city to satisfy various local needs. What is needed is a focus on certain specific fields such as audio-visual media, arts and crafts, etc. to send clear messages to the outside. Showing its presence to the outside world is an important first step toward urban revitalization. For that purpose, each locality should choose among possible alternative strategies and select the most effective one to strengthen the so-called "soft power" to attract attention and resources from the outside world.

Formula 3: Human resource development. It is now widely recognized that human resources are crucial for successful urban revitalization. Especially, finding a distinguished leader is the key to success, as most clearly seen in the case of Yufuin in Oita Prefecture. However, a lesser known but probably more important fact is that effective leaders can grow out of daily activities in their own community, rather than suddenly appearing out of nowhere. The main question is how to develop human resources and train leaders to be "nails that stick up" (not to be hammered down, as the old saying), in order to introduce and apply new creative ideas for central city revitalization. Constant learning among themselves and also from outside experts will be necessary for effective human resource development and leader training.

Formula 4: Networking people and organizations. In order for any leader to act effectively, he or she needs organizational backing to make use of various resources in a systematic way. In this regard, it is quite important to have an effective organizational arrangement for urban revitalization. We need not only a cooperative relationship among government, business and academic institutions, but also a network of local NPOs and volunteer organizations to form "social capital" in our community. We have already witnessed some successful cases of effecting networking, including the "academic, cultural and industrial network" in the Tama region, and hopefully, will be able to produce more "community businesses" based on this kind of networking.

Formula 5: Information strategies. Although the importance of IT application for urban revitalization is fairly well known, very few communities have gone beyond the primitive use of IT just for local business promotion or administrative announcements. More important is to adopt information strategies for development of local and regional overall potentials by emphasizing mutual communication among all residents. In doing so, various resources and skills can be mobilized and consolidated to form "value chains" for the community as a whole. Here, various information technologies, such as GIS (Geographical Information System), can be effectively utilized fro urban revitalization, given that all the above formulas are adopted, along with an extended network with outside resources.

This is an English summary of Chapter 4 of the following book:
Sukehiro HOSONO, "Success Formulas For Central Cities" (Japanese title: "Chusin Shigaichi no Seiko Hoteisihki"), Jiji Press, 2007.

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