I visited Odakyu’s Agris Seijo rental farm in Seijogakuenmae in Setagaya and was prepared to be charmed by a community vegetable farm built by a rail company above their tracks. Three years ago, the Odakyu corporation rebuilt the station, undergrounded the railway, and used some of the new land to promote urban farming. But I left feeling somewhat strange that reclaimed land could be gated and restricted. Although it is the rail company’s property, I think they missed a huge opportunity to create a great space for the neighborhood.
The farm is entered through a two story building that has a plant store on the first floor, spilling into the sidewalk, and a club room on the second floor. On entering the building, I learned that the garden was gated, and that no photographs were allowed. With my Tokyo University of Agriculture business card, I was handed a visitor’s pass. Two explanations were given about the no photography policy: customers would be concerned about their privacy, and photographers might misrepresent the photos they take. Please note that all the photos in this post were all taken from public roadways outside the gates.
Once inside, I discovered that this Agris Seijo has 303 rental plots, ranging in price between 5,500 and 14,500 yen per month ($60 to $175) depending on size and sunlight. 70% of the plots are being used, and the farm is organized in two seasons, with a fallow period during winter. Many of the customers are first time vegetable growers, and there are classes and staff to help them.
Some of what I observed: an elderly man harvesting giant sweet potatoes. Attractive netting with metallic strips to deter birds and insects. Some very attractive plots with broccoli, rainbow chard, carrots, celery, lettuce, salty leaf, peppers, basil, cauliflower, onion, eggplant, daikon radish.
Clearly burying the tracks below grade reduces railway noise for the neighbors and adds soil and plants which benefits the environment. There are benefits for customers and neighbors. Yet, I was struck by how empty the farm was during my weekday visit, and wondered why only 70% of the plots are rented after three years of operation. I also wonder if the customers or the railway company owner feels more special or important because of the gated aspect of the garden. In a city that is remarkably safe, I cannot imagine why there is a real need for keeping people out.
This wealthy project reminds me of the community garden I observed in Tsukushima. There, neighbors invested great time and effort in making beautiful spaces on an existing concrete river embankment. It appears that each gardener is expressing their own passions and perhaps competing with their neighbors. At no cost to the local government, neighbors have beautified dead space which can now be enjoyed by anyone. The Tsukushima community garden is completely accessible 24/7 and shows how ordinary people can create a great public space.
Some more thoughts and image about Odakyu after the jump.
From the rental farm, I noticed that the new Seijogakuenmae station had a roof garden. Making my way above the first two floors of retail, and a third floor of parking, I reached the roof garden on the fourth floor. It was nearly vacant, apart from two high school age boys and a woman sitting alone. Surrounded by restaurants, maybe the roof garden is appreciated more during dinner hours.
I realize that creating great urban spaces is about more than money and design. Empty spaces provide little human benefit. It appears that wealthy neighborhoods are more concerned with restricting access and remaining exclusive, yet the results are dead spaces. Seijogakuenmae, with more action in its parking lot than its sidewalks and roof top parks, reminded me of the privatized spaces of the United States.
Lastly, there is one more image from Odakyu that may surprise foreigners. Historically, throughout the 20th century, private Japanese rail lines played a critical role in developing its cities: railways fed into railway-owned department stores, and some of these corporations branched out into other business including developing suburban housing. Odakyu stations all feature convenience stores, owned not surprisingly by Odakyu.