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Major Earthquakes and City Planning:
Pre-Disaster Recovery Community Development and Community Collaborative Recovery Drills

Shigeru Satoh
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University;
Director of the Waseda Institute of Urban and Regional Studies

What comes to mind when you hear the words “pre-disaster recovery”? The term is usually used in the sense of preparing for disasters in advance and making plans for urban disaster recovery. I also use it in the sense of “advancing the recovery process before a disaster occurs.” The idea is that if we know we will face catastrophic damage from a major earthquake in the near future, we should start developing communities so that they can recover from such an earthquake before it hits. The term is used in the sense of “creating community development plans for recovery before a disaster strikes and pushing forward community development now.”

In the past, it used to be taboo to even talk about such things. People would say, “Recovery planning when there hasn’t been a disaster is outrageous—people will mistakenly believe that a disaster is going to happen, and harmful rumors will appear.” Under the present circumstances, however, when an earthquake could directly hit Tokyo at any moment, the government and regional leaders with a sense of crisis working with me on collaborative recovery drills are aware that they need not only to make recovery plans, but to implement them as quickly as possible; if Tokyo is going to be hit by an earthquake, they should continuously work on recovery community development before it happens, based on recovery plans decided in advance; such pre-disaster recovery and continuous recovery are exactly what they need to focus their efforts on right now.

Community leaders are well aware of at-risk areas in their neighborhood—“densely populated urban areas with wooden buildings” where there are many dilapidated buildings and narrow, dead-end streets, as well as the places within these areas that are the most at-risk. They also have an accurate grasp of information on vacant houses and elderly people who live alone. They are combining this information with physical data, conducting fire spread simulations for accidental fires, and conducting recovery drills in which provisional recovery plans are drawn up by councils based on these data and simulations. It is a joint effort involving the eight-year collaboration of Shinjuku City, association of community councils, and the Waseda Institute of Urban and Regional Studies.

This procedure comes straight out of Tokyo’s community recovery manual outlining what to do if an earthquake directly hits the city. Affected areas are to set up their own recovery councils and obtain help from experts and the government, as they create their own recovery plans and submit them to the local government; after receiving these plans, the local government is to prepare a budget for the various types of recovery work and subsidized projects, and to support recovery community development in the region. These are the steps for “recovery community development drawing on community resources” indicated in the manual.

When this procedure is first explained to residents, however, they are dumbfounded. “Isn’t the government going to come up with a plan and help us with reconstruction if there is an earthquake?” they ask. The government cannot initiate detailed community recovery plans or draw them up after obtaining local consent for disaster areas in the Tohoku region or anywhere else. If the government drew up the plans, disaster areas would become completely dependent on the government, and people with selfish interests might emerge. It is hard work for people in a community to think out how to resolve their conflicting interests as they propose plans. But it is the only way to rehabilitate communities and restore the foundation of people’s lives and livelihoods as quickly as possible, and for future generations to inherit regional ways of life.

This is why the people within each region need to gain a common understanding of what recovery community development is, the procedures, methods and system that allow it to proceed, and why they should do drills of the process before a disaster hits. These drills are called “community collaborative recovery drills.” Kashiwagi District is currently carrying out the training, becoming the sixth of the ten councils in Shinjuku City to do so. Districts that have already done the training have created pre-disaster recovery plans based on it, and some are taking part in specific community development activities. In Ochiai No.1 District’s Kamiochiai Area, town councils anticipating major damage in the event of an earthquake have combined to form a “community development council.” Experts provide support and submit proposals to the ward mayor; after the ward receives these proposals, the ward and community development council jointly launch investigations and start formulating plans. Obviously, this process would need to move forward more rapidly in the event of a disaster, but once they establish this flow, they will be able to quickly get back on their feet and work on reconstruction through a sequence of activities, even if the area is struck by a disaster. Considering these community development activities, including “soft” activities, we can say that pre-disaster recovery has already begun in the area.

Pre-disaster recovery is not just for residents and the government. As a matter of fact, experts in community development and construction do not have any experience in how to actually carry out recovery community development or work with community organizations to draw up community development plans, or how to set up projects. Relationships of mutual trust form when they actually go to the region, collaborate with the people there, and take action during drills. Residents also come to understand how to work with experts and the government to move community development forward. Experts in not only construction, but many different fields, such as medicine, welfare, fire-fighting, and social work take action in the region. If people do not figure out how to work with experts to organize a team by implementing collaborative activities in their daily lives before a disaster, they will not be able to effectively use these resources in an emergency.

We should start collaborative efforts on pre-disaster recovery by first carrying out drills in all the regions expected to be hit by some kind of disaster. Organizations like the Architectural Institute of Japan’s “Architectural Task force on Supporting Community Development” that I set up and the Waseda Institute of Urban and Regional Studies are ready to support such activities. These activities have even been adopted in Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, which was seriously damaged by a series of earthquakes in 2012, and the city is actually implementing a similar program while doing collaborative research with Waseda University. Needless to say, these activities address not only disaster prevention and recovery, but also general issues like social welfare and health in aging communities.

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Shigeru Satoh
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University;
Director of the Waseda Institute of Urban and Regional Studies

Professor Satoh graduated from the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University in 1973 and received a Ph.D. in Engineering in 1982.
After working as a research assistant, full-time lecturer, and assistant professor at Waseda University, he assumed his current position as a professor in 1990.
He is the Director of the Waseda Institute of Urban and Regional Studies.