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How to Build “Slow Cities”
Fostering New Social Systems after a Major Disaster

Osamu Soda
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Regional Planning to Build New Societies after a Major Disaster

I would like to consider in this article how we should go about “social rebuilding” after a major disaster. A society is a place that enables people to live. It is a place where people share things such as unique bonds, values, behavior, customs, rules and a place to simply be or belong. People cannot live without a society. There are diverse societies in schools, workplaces and local communities. People have companions, they develop roles, they feel a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose or worth in living. People are invigorated and feel empowered to demonstrate their knowledge or strengths from the sense that they want to serve someone in some way. This enables order and mechanisms including a prosperous regional society, stable economy and such to develop. These, in turn, are important for rebuilding a social system in a region.

Despite this, the tendency remains for the rebuilding of individual lifestyles, reinvigoration of economy and industry, and city planning to be prioritized in the aftermath of a disaster, and for rebuilding of social systems to be left for later. There seems to be a mistaken belief that, left to its own devices, society will develop all by itself. Most people do not understand that certain conditions are necessary to create a good society.

Looking at the situation of the rebuilding of communities after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, they seem to be divided into two: areas that are endeavoring to rebuild society and those that are not. The cities may be vigorous, but remote coastal areas and inland agricultural villages still face a bleak situation. Community activities in these areas are teetering on the brink and in many cases have had to be suspended or disbanded. People have lost opportunities or places where they can feel a sense of purpose in day-to-day living and disaster-related deaths due to poor health or suicide are on the increase.

The Viewpoint of Resilience

Figure: Cycle of Panarchy –Resilience of Social and Environmental Systems

Social rebuilding means to build a new society. It does not mean simply to return things to how they were before the disaster. Population and industry have been in decline in the coastal areas and agricultural villages of the Tohoku region since the 1980s, and it is normal for young people to leave their hometowns to attend university and find employment, leading to the gradual decline of regional society. Haphazard attempts to reinvigorate the area have ended in failure. The important thing is to try to construct a more moderate, more well-balanced and autonomous society.

This requires a more carefully considered strategy to create a new social system. For this, resilience, the new science of social rebuilding after a shock such as a disaster, becomes important.

Resilience is a way of thinking of recovering, accumulating and rejoining common resources of society to invigorate and rebuild. Diverse people sharing information, scientific technology and knowledge, by interacting beyond the groups that they normally belong to, enables the creation of new knowledge, values, society and services. This invigorates society. The strength of this knowledge that moves regional society, since it is already embedded in existing organizations and regimes, makes it possible to change society from the foundations upward by replacing that knowledge. The regional planning that is needed now must be developed through careful two-way dialogue with society. For this reason, the regional context must be built in active collaboration between creative citizens and experts possessing a broad perspective.

Global Resilience Helps Create Social Systems

Each region is now endeavoring to create new organizations of community, collaboration and coordination with diverse actors, new symbols, and visions and rules. However, among these regions there are often cases where resources are lacking. One possibility in such situations is for community exchange that goes across regions. Not only in the manufacturing industry, but communities in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries also are becoming increasingly global, so that financial, human and intellectual support from overseas are important forces for recovery.

For example, Kesennuma City, in Miyagi Prefecture, is an international port which had a diverse network both within and outside Japan since before the time of the 2011 disaster. After the disaster, the city quickly launched an English-language Facebook page. They arranged to receive materials for oyster farming from France, to visit and inspect fisheries in Norway, to organize cultural exchange with Spain and Korea, as well as seminars with a research group from England. By mobilizing its global social system, the region has been able to act autonomously and people have regained hope and vitality.

Returning to Slow Social Cycles

Once the social system starts to function, a new social cycle begins to operate. This is the same as how facilities investment can stimulate business for a company. The content of the prescription, timing and procedure needs to be carefully tailored for rebuilding of the social system, according to the social cycle, similar to the cycle when an athlete gets injured and then takes time off to recover, is treated, restarts training and returns to competition.

It is important not to rush social rebuilding. It is welcomed when the reconstruction of individuals’ lifestyles, rebuilding of economy and industry and physical environmental reconstruction are conducted at a fast pace because efficiency is prioritized. However, people need to be convinced by social systems, as being rooted in people’s customs and morals, and it takes a certain amount of time to communicate this and achieve consensus. In particular, in regions devoted to the agriculture, forestry and fishery industries, regional society forms the foundation of the economy, so that if social rebuilding is begun promptly and not left until later, significant benefits can be anticipated.

Based on this sort of thinking, Kesennuma City has received accreditation under Italy’s “Slow City” policy, adding momentum to the rebuilding effort. Social innovation is being stimulated by creating diverse opportunities and linking up new resources without being constrained by existing limitations. At the same time, this process fosters the city’s resilience, accumulating social resources and enhancing capacity for the future. Creating rules for society-building is essential to support this sort of city planning that permeates the region, and today many people are involved in the formulation of basic regulations for local authorities.

I hope that the discussion and initiatives in social rebuilding can be spread further across the region.

Osamu Soda
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Born in 1966. Bachelor of Political Science & Economics, Doctor of Engineering from Waseda University. He was Assistant at Tokyo Metropolitan University before his current position as Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University.
Has served on the Tanohata Village Disaster Recovery Planning Committee, Shinjuku Ward NPO Cooperative Center Expanded Steering Committee, Yokohama City Community Planning Promotion Committee, and as Chairman on the Kawaguchi City Partnership Promotion Committee.

[Major published works]
“Culture Clusters and Post Industrial Society [Bunka Kurasuta to Posuto Sangyo Shakai],” (Waseda University, 2014), “Slow Cities of the World: Coastal Cities [Sekai no Suro-shithii Umizoi no Machi],” (Waseda University, 2013), “Build it Together! The New Future of Communities [Tomo ni Tsukuru! Machi no Atarashii Mirai]” (Waseda University Press, 2013), and “Science of Regional Cooperation [Chiiki Kyodo no Kagaku],” (Seibundo, 2005).