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Samara is Airbnb's new project to take on the challenge of urban planning

Airbnb may have gotten its start as a platform for temporary living quarters, but the company is growing up and reaching out a bit more, too. This week, the San Francisco-based company is taking on a new challenge by starting a brand new division. It’s called Samara, and its first project is to design a communal housing project that will reinvigorate the small town of Yoshino.

Samara, branded as “multidisciplinary innovation and design studio,” takes Airbnb’s community-building mission to a whole new level — it’s the company’s first stab at urban planning. “What excites me is that we can apply what we learned over the last eight years to create new types of commerce and new types of social change,” Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia said.

A year in the making, Samara consists of product designers, architects, and creative like screenwriters who are working together to create a sort of lived experience that can support not only Airbnb, but small cities and their communities as well. The first project in Yoshino was inspired by an elderly Japanese citizen who listed an Airbnb home in her city Tsuyama Okayama. While it seemed unlikely at first that anyone would visit, tourists eventually found their way to the township and her listing, and she began asking her neighbors to serve as hiking guides, translators, and tour guides.

In essence, a single older woman managed to create a tourism industry.

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So now, Airbnb is looking to capitalize upon this experience. By working with architect Go Hasegawa, Airbnb is designing a community center, complete with a kitchen, communal dining area, and public living room for travelers and locals alike. “Hosts get an economic stimulus and something to get excited about,” says Gebbia. “It’s a pathway to get the community to help each other, and it happens to be in the form of architecture.”

He continued, “I picture Western guests walking up, stepping inside, and you’re interacting with the community from the minute you arrive. If you want to tour the sake factory, or the chopstick factory, or take a hike, the locals are right there.”

The community center itself will be a bookable Airbnb residence maintained by the community, and profits made from the listing will “strengthen the cultural legacy and future of the town, which has struggled as young people migrate away from rural communities.”

And while Yoshino is the first step, Gabbia told FastCo that he wants Samara to expand to other cities as well. “We’re going to use the lens community to build services that open new doors and new revenue streams for the community,” he said. “That space includes architecture, product design, software design, and new economic models.”