Making a Natural ‘Pocket Park’ in Japan

With only a few weeks to work, we tried to turn vacant urban land into a pocket park that would make Masanobu Fukuoka and Patrick Geddes proud. Here is the short story of how it happened.

It’s been just over two years now, since we designed and built a small privately-owned public space in Osaka, Japan called The Branch Pocket Farm.

In this space are herbs, wild plants, trees (some wild, and some planted), food plants, and weeds. Lots of weeds. There are also occasional workshops, perhaps on the value of weeds, or, as it is popularly called “wild herb foraging.” Pocket Farm is a different brand of garden. It is voluntarily cared for by Suhee and myself, open to all, and exists with the idea of cultivating respect for all living beings (especially, weeds).

A few months ago, the old house bordering the south side of the Pocket Farm was torn down, reduced to an empty patch of dirt, rock, and debris. Suddenly, our previously shady and secluded little garden felt like a vastly open space.

We wondered, too, what would become of this newly empty piece of land next to our garden. It had been the unfortunate trend for such lots to magically turn into parking spots. Given that the opposite side of the lot from our garden was already a parking lot, it seemed this might be the logical path for the landowner.

To give a bit of context about the value of a parking lot here, most of our neighbors either walk, bicycle, or take the train to get where they are going.

Very few neighbors own cars.

So while in general, our society is coming to know the social and ecological value of trees and plants when compared to asphalt, this is especially true here in Kitakagaya. We have little use for asphalt.

It seems our neighbors agree; after the house came down, many began asking when we would expand the pocket farm into the empty lot. On the contrary. No one seemed too excited about a new parking spot.

This gave us a bit of extra courage to suggest a garden expansion. But would the real estate company really go for green space over asphalt?

The Inevitable Problems

Before we could begin think about a proposal, we had to face a few other logistical problems.

Our method of building a garden is not typical. Instead of imposing a plan, we prefer following what nature is doing, listening, and working together. In most cases, nature is the lead designer.

What we need to accomplish this is time.

And time was in fact, our main problem. Suhee and I had less than a month before we would make a journey to Korea — and due to the coronavirus pandemic, it could be several months or more before we could return. We had little time to develop a plan together with the space, and no time to hang around, learn from, and adapt to what nature was doing after the space was built.

This was not ideal. However, our only apparent options were 1) start some kind of green space, or 2) watch another parking lot be built. We decided to move into action, and to bring a bit more green space into this very dense, urban neighborhood.

The Proposal

Our work then, was based on two things: 1) learning from our existing garden, which was two years old, and directly adjacent to the newly empty lot, and 2) using the inventory of potted plants we had collected or propagated since we began living here in Osaka.

We devised a loose plan for expanding the pocket farm into a proper pocket park. The land looks (and is) small, but keep in mind, this is the space of two urban Japanese homes! Given our constrictions, our part in the garden would be perennials, fruiting trees, flowers, more edible plants and herbs, and also, a bit more space for neighbors to sit and enjoy the nature. Layers of mulch would be placed around whatever we transplanted. The spaces in-between, would be left to the wild, self-seeding plants, and whatever else decided to pop up.

It took just two days to prepare the plan, and when it was done we had a vision for the space that felt like Patrick Geddes meets Fukuoka Masanobu.

Still, we were not sure if the real estate company would accept any of it. Even though we were ‘stewards’ of our current garden, we were not paying rent for the land, nor would we be paying any for the new land.

On the other hand, our current little garden is the only green space in our immediate neighborhood — there are other excellent community farms and a park nearby, but they are on the opposite side of the highway that bisects the town. We know there is tremendous psychological, social, and ecological value in nearby urban green space. We also know that real estate developers are not aloof to this alternative way of seeing value. We had to at least try to convince the land owner that a park expansion was worth more than 1 1/2 new parking spots.

But as the plans were finished, and my sweaty palms were getting ready to take it to the real estate company, something strange and miraculous happened.

I heard a knock at the door, and a man’s voice.

“Patoriku saaaan.”

I came to the door, and was surprised to see a representative from the real estate company peeking his head inside.

He was there to try and convince us to expand our pocket farm.

I laughed (inside) and smiled, and showed him the plans we had prepared.

What About Gentrification?

As miraculous as this is. I am reminded that in the United States — and certainly many other developed countries — such a happening might raise alarm, or thoughts gentrification, or of an aggressive real estate company taking advantage of artists.

This thought did cross our mind. It’s important then, to give a bit of local cultural context.

Here in Kitakagaya — and in many older Japanese neighborhoods — things generally move much slower, and seemingly, with more respect for long-time residents, than they do in the States.

In many ways there is something of an anti-capitalist wrinkle here. It’s not that people do not care about money at all, but rather that they do not focus on money as a life goal.

In lieu of this, a way of being that values relationships becomes possible. A way of life that respects people’s right to continue living where they have chosen to live. A way of life that respects people’s right to continue doing what they have chosen to do as an occupation, even if that thing is not so economic.

The main shopping street in Kagaya is accessible only by walking or bicycle.

Japan’s economic sluggishness occurs much to the ire of the stale economist who believes in a strict focus on growth. If you ask most people who live here, GDP is of little concern — they are all housed, eat well, live relatively simply but comfortably, and enjoy safe, tight-knit communities. What else does one need?

Though one can never be sure, we believe the cultural mindset that exists in a place like this allows projects like artist-built green spaces to succeed without displacement of residents. Over the long-run, such projects can benefit both residents and responsible real estate companies, especially companies who have strong cultural roots in a town.

I don’t think we could say this if our neighborhood was exposed to the potential of an out-of-town developer with no direct stake in the neighborhood. Fortunately, the case here, is that the real estate company is local, and has been invested in the city for over a century.

For anyone who has not experienced such a place, this might all seem very strange or even unrealistic. Certainly, it seemed unrealistic to me before I lived here. Now however, I can see very clearly, that the unrealistic example is the one where corporations and their leadership are almost completely disconnected from relationships, responsibilities, or awareness of the people and places they effect.

Can other places build a system where corporate interests to align with human and environmental values? Certainly. Anywhere can, so long as corporate leadership have direct, lifelong relationships with the people and places they are impacting. That of course, takes dedication to people and place, and a certain smallness of scale.

Speaking of small, we should return to the pocket park…

Putting The Park Together

After waiting for the paperwork and some utility issues to be resolved, the one month of working time we planned on to prepare the new park had shrunk to just two weeks. It is lucky then, that for the past few years, Suhee and I had a habit of collecting ‘distressed’ plants when we saw them.

In front of our home, we had potted plants from seed, plants from shops that had gotten rid of unsold stock, and plants from neighbors who just wanted to contribute something. In all, there were a few dozen trees, shrubs, and herbs in pots, all waiting for a good excuse to be planted in the ground.

Most of these were transplanted, forming the basis of the new park.

Thanks to this, it doesn’t look half bad for the short order in which it was put together. Personally, I think it looks better than a parking spot, at least.

Because we are not sure when we’ll be back to our Kitakagaya home, we had to leave the care of the new park to our neighbors. Most are very old, but a few like our good friend Yasutaka Kaneda (who runs an urban farming NPO called Good Luck) have young energy and experience.

As you might have guessed — from the plant donations — both old and young in Kitakagaya seem to have love for any green space.

Though the culture and language barrier remain difficult for us here, our neighbors are amazingly kind and understanding. The day before we left, we handed a letter to each of them, along with a map of the new pocket park, to help them locate all the edible plants. Though, honestly, they might know more than we do about the wild Japanese varieties that pop up.

Still wishing we could be there to take care of it, but alas, we are pretty certain this new Pocket Park is in good hands.

Patrick M. Lydon & Suhee Kang
The Branch Osaka