Skyward Sanctuaries: Exploring the Social Dynamics of Urban Roof Gardens

By |2024-06-20T09:06:18+02:00June 20th 2024|Housing and Construction|

Tokyo’s roof gardens are more than just aesthetic urban features. Urban geographer John-Guy Perrem on the distinction of Tokyo’s roof gardens and the city’s increasingly commercialised public spaces.

“The roof garden here gives me a piece of nature and peace,” says Leo, a 34-year-old translator and Tokyo resident. Imagine stepping onto a rooftop in the heart of Tokyo and finding yourself in a lush garden – what a stark contrast to the concrete jungle below!

This is what Leo experienced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: He discovered solace through gardening and community in the roof garden atop his apartment building. This garden transformed into a vibrant social space, nurturing connections and offering a much-needed escape. Leo’s transformation from a solitary urbanite to an engaged participant in his building’s roof garden reflects a wider trend in Tokyo, where many residents are discovering comparable comfort and community in these elevated green spaces.

From Cityscape to Green Escape

Roof gardens can be more than just urban beautification projects; they are becoming necessary for city living, especially in densely populated areas. These gardens provide a unique opportunity to engage with nature within vertical urban environments. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, they can produce food, support micro-local food systems, and mitigate heat traps. Moreover, by lowering roof temperatures, these gardens can reduce the reliance on energy-intensive technologies, such as air conditioning. They also contribute to urban biodiversity.

Prior research on Tokyo’s roof gardens primarily focused on environmental factors, using quantitative methods for social factors. Recognising a gap in understanding residential roof gardens’ social dynamics; a new qualitative study explored these interactions from the perspective of the city’s foreign residents, who make up about four per cent of Tokyo’s population.

In densely populated Tokyo, where public space is increasingly scarce, roof gardens offer a critical refuge. These gardens are not merely decorative but are living, breathing spaces that contribute to the well-being of the city’s residents. They serve as communal areas where people can interact, share experiences, and build relationships. During the pandemic, when restrictions limited access to traditional public spaces, the gardens became even more significant. These rooftop havens were not just places to grow plants, but lifelines that connected people to nature and each other.

Tokyo’s Roof Gardens and Public Spaces

Exploring Tokyo’s roof gardens, we see a notable shift in urban green spaces. Miyashita Park in Shibuya – transformed from a public park into a quasi-public rooftop garden above a commercial complex – exemplifies this change. The park now combines retail and dining with greenery, a significant contrast to its former more open, natural state and role as a shelter for the unhoused, reflecting the city’s trend towards commercially influenced urban green areas.

Tokyo's Miyashita Park pre-redevelopment homeless community shelters

Tokyo’s Miyashita Park pre-redevelopment homeless community shelters © John-Guy Perrem

Likewise, spaces like Ginza 6 Garden and Terrace Garden in Marunouchi offer public access but differ from traditional parks in terms of their manicured landscapes atop commercial buildings. In contrast, residential roof gardens, perched above condominiums – apartments owned by residents –, create a more intimate setting. These gardens are tended by a consistent group of residents and foster active interaction and community dynamics. This differs a lot from the more managed experiences of commercial roof gardens.

The development of roof gardens reflects a trend in other parks and public spaces in Tokyo, and more broadly in Japan. They are increasingly intertwined with the involvement of the private sector and influenced by policies implemented at various levels. These policies have either directly sought to adopt or have inadvertently favoured the concept of privately owned public spaces.

Commercialisation of Public Spaces by the Private Sector

This approach aims to alleviate financial burdens on local authorities while simultaneously creating new avenues for revenue through the commercialisation of these spaces. Revenue generation manifests in both direct ways such as charging the public for access to certain facilities, and indirect methods, such as integrating commercial activities into the design and planning of parks and public areas.

Architectural rendering of a Tokyo roof garden

Architectural rendering of a Tokyo roof garden © John-Guy Perrem

Such reconfigurations alter the physical characteristics and allowed uses of public spaces and can also affect the social dynamics within them, shaping whom these spaces serve. This trend towards privatisation mirrors developments seen in Western countries, where there has been a noticeable reduction in openly accessible public spaces, potentially diminishing their role as platforms for public discourse. The United States, for instance, has seen a significant encroachment on its public spaces.

The Roof Gardens Influence on Tokyo’s Social Dynamics

A total of 13 foreign Tokyo residents living in multistory condominiums shared their experiences and underlined the significant role of residential roof gardens, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. With government advisories encouraging people to stay home, these gardens became key spaces for social interaction and connection.

“Parks have lost some of their appeal to me because I’d have to use the subway to access a decent one. The smaller local ones only have that brown sand or dirt rather than grass. They feel somewhat desolate. And the subway isn’t worth the risk right now,” explains Leo when sharing how the roof garden has become a preferred spot.

The open-air setting of these gardens provided a safer environment for socialising during a period when health risks were a prime concern. Leo’s neighbour, Mei, noted the change in social dynamics: “When social distancing became the norm, the roof suddenly became a pretty popular spot for hanging out. It’s almost always breezy up there, so the air’s blowing any virus away. If I go check on my plants, there’s almost always someone up there chatting, tending, or relaxing.”

Enhancing the Quality of Urban Life

Additionally, these spaces fostered a greater sense of community. Ken reflected on the impact this had on neighbourly relations: “Before COVID-19, I never knew much about my neighbours. We’d barely nod our heads or give a good morning if we were in the elevator together. But it’s nice that they’re more than names on a post box now. I gave them tips about Furoshiki as we started gifting some of our plants, and they’ll mention if some bad weather is coming in to protect the plants. It feels more communal.” Furoshiki is the Japanese art of fabric wrapping of gifts or objects for transport, in this case, plants. This increased sense of community also led to interactions beyond the gardens, with neighbours connecting through digital social platforms and Zoom for shared activities.

The preceding resident experiences highlight the important social role roof gardens play in Tokyo’s urban landscape. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these spaces became more than just environmental assets. They transformed into vital hubs for interaction and community building. Roof gardens offer nature, solace, and connections in times of isolation, which underscores the need for urban planners and policymakers to prioritise these green areas more widely. Therefore, urban professionals in Tokyo should recognise the potential of roof gardens to enhance the overall quality of urban life in vertical cityscapes. They need to counter the trend of producing quasi-public commercially focused roof gardens.

John-Guy Perrem