Rebuilding Japan

Cities destroyed in the tsunami last week in Japan, will be rebuilt. Protecting them with better floodgates seems futile, seeing how the floodgates they had didn’t work on the big day they were made for. My first thought for a solution, was to provide these cities with more wide roadways heading straight to the hills, for people to evacuate using their cars (sorry if I’m sounding a little like god here). However, a reader pointed out, that around the world over a million people die every year because of motorized vehicles, far more than die in tsunamis. Wide roads in these towns would encourage more driving, perhaps leading to more fatalities from cars than tsunamis, over the long term. In any case, people driving would not hear the warning sirens, and would have no idea why thousands of cars around them were suddenly speeding. The day of the big escape, would be the day of the mass pile up. Even without accidents, suddenly evacuating cities in cars, is a dubious proposition.

The geography of these cities, and hundreds like them—all in the path of tsunamis—makes them conducive to high rates of cycling; a cheap, egalitarian, healthy, safe and civil means of getting around. No rebuilding plan should jeopardize that.

The logistics of rebuilding determines that what was there previously, will more or less be replaced. Though a whole city may have been washed away leaving soil, surveyors will determine where the boundary lines are between individual land holdings. Where those are postage stamp size, and belong to individuals, chances are they will be redeveloped, with small timber framed houses, the kind that will not collapse during Japan’s regular earthquakes, but that will be washed away should they stand long enough to see the next big tsunami. 

I’m seeing an opportunity though, to build more mid rise solid structures, earthquake proof, and tsunami proof. My own city, Newcastle Australia, is largely flat, and on a coast facing a fault line off the South coast of New Zealand. I’ve heard geologists say there is evidence of tsunamis scouring headlands such as the one I live on. If I’m home, I’ll be sure to capture you all some video footage. But if I’m at my son’s school, on the plain, or cycling around on those plains, I’ll be looking for a mid rise solid building, and I’ll be scampering up to the roof. Ha! There are none.

Left: Pruitt-Igoe, one of many projects that gave slab blocks their bad reputation. Right: Before and after tsunami shot Japan, showing roofs of slab blocks were the only safe haven for miles.

The dirty old Corbusian slab block, maligned since Pruitt-Igoe, withstood the tsunami, and saved peoples lives. If there had been one on every block, thousands more lives could have been spared. 

So I’ll take this idea to my local council in Newcastle, and I’ll be viewed with suspicion by those who are paranoid about developers ever making a profit, and of course those who believe big buildings destroy a region’s character, all ideas worth drowning for, because we have been chanting them for so many years.


  1. Anonymous says:

    I heard (and don’t know how true it is) that many people died in their cars in the tsunami, either trapped in traffic jams trying to escape, or simply unable to outrun (outdrive?) the water.

    Whereas people on bikes could filter through the jams, and use their extra maneouverability to find some nearby high ground quickly.

    As an aside, I lived 150km from Sendai for more than five years, and know the area reasonably well. The earthquakes in Japan are very regular, and often very strong. While there I experienced an earthquake every few weeks, and one was stronger than the one that wrecked Christchurch, and yet no buildings fell down, although a (stationary) train got toppled.

    • Steven says:

      A building I’ve lauded here often, 8-House in Copenhagen, has a free access ramp to the roof, and would provide a great refuge in a tsunami.

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