Rebuilding Under Uncertainty

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At BAKOKO, we’ve been planning a response to the housing crisis left in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed many towns in Tohoku. The challenge to formulating a design for rehousing the homeless is the uncertainty that pervades the rebuilding effort. As the government unsuccessfully struggles to meet its targets for temporary housing and clears mountains of refuse, it may be years before we see much progress on the ground in terms of rebuilding permanent communities.

Although the government has announced plans to build new eco-cities and has set aside funds for his purpose it is unlikely that Japan’s beleaguered government can undertake such an enormous task alone. Japan’s massive homebuilding corporations are salivating at the unprecedented business opportunity the disaster has presented them. But left in their hands, the results will undoubtedly be disappointing.

It seems unrealistic that all of the residents of coastal town along Tohoku’s coast will simply move to new areas inland (no matter how attractive and green these new developments prove to be). Many of the displaced are the elderly whose lives – like those of preceding generations – were linked to the ocean. Will they simply give-up ancestral ties to land that they own? Can ports for fishing and trade be rebuilt without the communities that served them? We think it unlikely.

The alternative is to build on higher land, but this will entail obvious complications in a country in which 74% of the land is mountainous. Is it be feasible given the additional cost of acquiring land, retaining soil, providing access and securing buildings on sloped land?

The other option, of course, is to rebuild the destroyed communities. Is it possible to build housing that is flood (or tsunami) proof? While evacuation plans are doubtlessly crucial to saving lives in these disaster-prone areas, an alternative design solution might at least minimize property loss and stop entire livelihoods from being washed away.

For better or worse, Japan has tended to attempt to engineer away its threats (both physical and economic). Massive unattractive sea walls built in the 1960’s were often derided as wasteful follies, but some served their purpose in the recent tsunami, saving small towns like Fudai. Civil engineering (with its strong ties to government) has been all but exhausted as a means of stimulating Japan’s endless economic recession. Whereas the US spends 2% of GDP to build and maintain civil engineering projects, Japan spends more than double this figure. However, faith in this approach was shattered when the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant (supposedly protected behind its own seawall) was inundated with catastrophic results.

The cynical view is to predict that the government can’t or won’t change and that it will simply attempt to build these walls higher and stronger than before. Will this be enough to reassure coastal inhabitants to rebuild their homes? After all, stone monuments on the hillsides explicitly warn that deadly tsunamis have struck here before. But after time, the popular consciousness seems to forget or ignore and rebuild. Global media and the internet may make it harder to forget the images of complete devastation this time.

1. Rebuild on higher land at higher cost in a new location?
2. Rebuild flood-proof buildings on existing plots?
3. Rebuild as before and put faith in higher sea walls?

Facing uncertainty a flexible approach is required. We think it is possible to design a house for all outcomes.

This article is cross-posted at BAKOKO’s company blog.