Iwakuni renovations aim to create idyllic small-town feel
Imagine living in the perfect small town.
Residents walk most places, and it’s a tightknit community because the locals commonly meet on the way to the store or in the park.
Traffic is light because everything is within walking distance. Some people choose not to own a car at all.
That is how contractor Mark Gillem describes his plan to redevelop Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni for the planned military realignment in 2014.
The design was recognized this month with a 2009 Outstanding Federal Planning Award from the American Planning Association.
The Marine Corps and Gillem want to create the kind of small-town American community that now exists in fewer places because of metropolitan sprawl. And they’re using science to achieve it here in Japan.
"Our overarching goal was to create a walkable community," Gillem said. "You walk to work, and you walk to where you live. You use less land and reduce construction costs."
If successful, the base will be one of the first U.S. military installations to use a scientific survey of military families to develop it into a sustainable community — a base that will improve quality of life and ease the human burden on the environment for decades to come, Gillem and base planning department officials said.
The input from more than 1,000 military families in Japan led to a design for Iwakuni that features low-rise housing in dense communities with stores, schools and parks — the opposite of low-density, vehicle-oriented designs at facilities such as Misawa and Kadena air bases, Gillem said.
"About 70 [percent] to 75 percent preferred town homes or single-family homes, and only 25 percent wanted towers," Gillem said during a phone interview Thursday from Vietnam, where he is touring former U.S. bases. "The typical approach in Japan is to put families in towers, but we found out that is not what they wanted."
Those findings may not be surprising, but it was the first time such preferences had been collected in a survey that could be presented to military leadership, he said.
The design allows the military to comfortably put more residents on less land, reducing dependence on vehicles and host-country land, he said.
Iwakuni’s base population will double to about 10,500 when a Navy air wing and KC-130 cargo planes are moved to the air station in four years. The changes will mean the redevelopment of housing, stores, schools and other facilities, as well as the creation of a new housing area outside the existing facility.
In the new neighborhoods, residents will get to know and support one another more, which is important, Gillem said, especially in far-flung military communities.
The base could also pave the way for similar development efforts as the military moves toward more sustainable development, said Brett James, Iwakuni planning director.
"I believe we are breaking new ground for base-level planning," James said. "Rather than just make assumptions about what people wanted, we leaned way forward — our noses were hitting the ground — and we did a statistical survey."
The Japanese government has indicated it will not seek any changes to realignment plans at Iwakuni, despite the controversy that has dogged plans to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa and move about 8,000 Marines to Guam.
Major construction at Iwakuni likely will begin this year, following the completion this spring of a new runway, James said.