Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Mariko Sugita

19.09.2022, Nayla Saniour

Mariko Sugita is an independent editor, journalist, and researcher on architecture and urbanism. She owns the website [Traveling Circus of Urbanism]( and manages the cultural space [Bridge To in Kyoto]( where she hosts an “urbanist in residence” program. Mariko co-founded [For Cities](, a new urban experience design studio based in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Amsterdam. # EARTHQUAKE, TSUNAMI AND URBAN STUDIES I have always been fascinated by architecture and I initially wanted to become an architect. But in March 2011 the strongest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history and the consequent tsunami hit very close to my hometown Sendai. It destroyed most of the cities in the north of the country and caused the meltdown of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. This big event was a turning point for me and made me think beyond the smaller building scale about the larger scale of cities, and their communities. Consequently, I decided to study urban sociology in [Kobe University]( and [Aarhus University]( for my Bachelor’s degree, followed by the [4Cities Master’s in Urban Studies](, which brought me to live and study in Brussels, Vienna, Copenhagen, and Madrid. # FROM TOP-DOWN URBAN DESIGN TO FREELANCE WRITING After I finished my Master’s studies, I moved back to Japan and worked in Tokyo for a few years in a design firm. It was right before the Tokyo Olympics 2020 and there was an investment and construction boom. I was involved in a variety of urban design projects, but it felt like it was all top-down, pre-set decisions and that my work could not have a significant impact on the city. So after three years, I decided to quit and pursue my own career. I then started to work as a freelance writer for different media and architecture magazines. I also created a blog called [Traveling Circus of Urbanism]( where I wrote about cities. It was the first time I was working by myself and it was scary, but it provided me with enough financial stability to allow me to travel. At that time I grew curious about North America, which I was not familiar with. Also, my husband and I wanted to search for an ideal city where we could live next, so we both went on to spend a year road-tripping with our car through North America. # ROAD-TRIPPING THROUGH NORTH AMERICA The journey started in Austin and we went on towards some major cities in the West Coast such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland. We then went through Canada all the way East to New York. The journey ended with a tour through Mexico and some parts of South America. The whole trip lasted a year and a half, during which I was working remotely as a writer and editor focusing on urbanism and architecture. This lifestyle functioned perfectly well for me, even before the covid era. {{Pic1: The Bentway, a new public space underneath the Gardiner Expressway, Toronto. Photo by Mariko Sugita}} As I was traveling I visited as many cities as possible, talked to architects and urban planners, took photographs of what interested me and wrote down everything I learned from this journey. Being a journalist and writing for different media fit me really well. I personally feel like a nomadic person and it made sense for me to visit different places and collect stories. Still, after almost two years of traveling around, I felt that it was time to find a home base. # AN ABANDONED BUILDING AS HOME BASE To decide on which city to establish a home in, my husband and I created a spreadsheet with several cities and compared them with indicators such as cost of living, availability of transportation, access to nature, and so forth. From that research, Kyoto emerged as one of the best options: a beautiful, compact, historical city in the southern part of Japan, with traditional architecture and in close proximity to nature. We were also considering buying a house and converting it into a creative space, like a gallery or residence for artists. The Japanese housing context is quite peculiar: Japan’s society is shrinking and despite the impression that Japanese cities are very dense and crowded, the reality is actually the opposite. Abandoned houses are one of the major social issues, even in cities like Tokyo. In some parts of the countryside, the government is even paying subsidies to people to move into these abandoned buildings to preserve traditional architecture and maintain a social fabric. We managed to find a beautiful 80 year-old abandoned building in Kyoto that we have been progressively renovating ever since. {{Pic2: The common space of Bridge To, after renovation. Photo by Mariko Sugita}} # SHARING A HOME WITH OTHER URBANISTS The renovation of the building has been an ongoing process with a DIY spirit that is allowing us to explore traditional Japanese construction methods and natural materials in collaboration with local craftspeople and architects. This building has become our home as well as the base of our “urbanist in residency” program that we call [Bridge To Kyoto]( urbanists from across the world can apply to stay with us in a guest room and share the common spaces, to do short-term collaborations and research on Japanese cities. The spaces are also used for events, workshops, and exhibitions. # DIVERSIFYING STREAMS OF WORK After settling in Kyoto, I shifted my work from exclusively writing and editing for media to a more diversified activity: design research, consultancy for local governments, exhibition curation about architecture and urban design, cultural events and programs, and participatory workshops with citizens. I already had a diverse skill set from my experience with the design firm in Tokyo, but now I was doing it all by myself. When it became too much to handle alone, I started thinking about creating a team. I reached out to a friend and ex-colleague who also studied urban sociology, Yukako Ishikawa, to co-found a company together. # FOUNDING FOR CITIES Yukako and I had been constantly sharing inspiration with each other for the past years and had a similar freelance lifestyle. We wanted to spend more time together and build on each other’s ideas. We applied and got accepted to the [ZK/U]( residency in Berlin, a platform for creative and urban experimentation. However, we could not go there anymore when the pandemic hit. So instead Yukako and I decided to move together to Amsterdam for three months to have a collaboration project with Cascoland, a Netherlands-based collective of artists for urban interventions. We lived in the same house so that we could meet every day and have creative workshops together. {{Pic3: For Cities started as an online platform, but it grew within a year into a studio with various clients. Photo by Mariko Sugita}} This is how our platform [For Cities]( came to life: an international platform for urbanists to submit ideas for urban practices. Anyone can sign up and post their ideas for projects, find inspiration and new collaborators. We also host global campaigns as bottom-up collective actions for urban change, as well as workshops and [exhibitions]( We have launched the [Urbanist School](, an educational program to learn and acquire new skills for urbanists. Apart from the experimental work, we also work for public and private clients in Japan. We work with local governments to help them organize workshops with citizens, events and urban interventions. We also worked with [11-1 Studio](, a local studio and networking hub in Tokyo, to create the [Urbanist In Studio](https:// program for urban researchers. # A PLATFORM FOR ASIA AND BEYOND During my time in Europe I was inspired by many international platforms that connect urbanists such as [Future Architecture](, [Actors of Urban Change](, and [All Things Urban](, but I did not find similar platforms for Asia specifically. Here, urbanism and architecture in the professional practices and educational systems often tend to look to the West for inspiration. But our contexts are very different and there are really interesting practices at local scales. It was therefore very important for me to bring a non-western perspective to the table in For Cities, be it from Asia but also from other contexts around the world. # AFRICAN CITIES JOURNEY As part of my journey of learning from non-western practices, I decided to spend nine months in Africa, traveling to different cities across the continent while continuing my work with For Cities remotely. Instead of being a tourist, I wanted to find a collaborator in each city for a short-term project together. For example in Lomé, Togo, I worked with an incubation center called [WoeLab]( founded by Togolese architect [Sename Koffi Agbodjinou]( to work on bottom-up smart city initiatives. In Yaoundé, Cameroon, I worked with a local start-up []( on GIS and user research. In Nairobi, Kenya, I created an online educational program together with a local initiative called [Sound of Nairobi]( I spent some time in South Africa as well doing research on “healing spaces” with the help of local designers. Yukako also joined me in Casablanca and then Cairo where we organized a series of workshops and pop-up exhibitions, together with a local urban design center [CLUSTER](, around the theme of soundscapes in the city. Africa is a very diverse continent and I found inspiring initiatives in every city. Back in Japan, I am now writing a book to summarize my experience in the continent. {{Pic4: Field-recording during the soundscape workshop organized in Nairobi, Keyna.}} {{Pic5: “Soundmarks” workshops we organized by For Cities in Cairo, Egypt. Photos by Mariko Sugita}} # JUGGLING BETWEEN COHERENCE AND CURIOSITY Finding a common thread between what I was doing in Africa and my work in Japan and the Asian context was not always obvious, but I guess we don’t always have to be coherent. I have always been doing multiple things at once and I believe you don’t have to stick to one single profession or field, just try and do what you are curious and passionate about. After my journey in Africa, I would like to continue traveling and exploring different countries, perhaps Latin America. The world is huge and I want to keep collecting stories and meeting like-minded, passionate urbanists to collaborate in various projects.