A geographer and former urban planner who has written a book about the aftermath of the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, says New Zealand will likely need to respond with a national-scale multi-faceted project to assist Christchurch long-term, in the same way the Japanese Government did to revive Kobe.
The 6.8 magnitude Great Hanshin earthquake devastated Kobe, a city of 1.5 million people on January 17, 1995, leading to around 6,400 deaths and the destruction of over 200,000 homes. It caused US$102 billion in damage.
David W. Edgington is Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia and author of Reconstructing Kobe: The Geography of Crisis and Opportunity. He said there were lessons from the Kobe earthquake that can inform disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts around the world, including in Christchurch.
Dr Edgington is Vancouver-based, but available for interviews today and over the weekend. Please contact the SMC for further details. View a recent video interview here.
On medium-term town planning priorities:
“The puzzle with reconstruction after such a terrible disaster, whether its Kobe, Haiti or Queensland after the floods and cyclone, is that decisions are squeezed into such a short period of time. People want to know where they can build. With the best will in the world, not all of the decisions made will be palatable, but the planning should start immediately. They have to inject certainty into the situation as soon as possible.
“As the city council and the authorities get back to turning on the lifelines, electricity, water, gas and utilities, then they’re having to send it teams of engineers and architects on a block by block, building by building basis. We can’t have these buildings up for the next quake. Unfortunately in Christchurch lightning does strike twice.
“It’s a case for all cities in earthquake zones including San Francisco and my own city Vancouver. We have a building stock very like Christchurch because we are an old colonial English city – brick and masonry buildings from around the turn of the century. They’ll never make code no matter how you try to strengthen them.
“The effort in Vancouver is going into public buildings such as schools, hospitals, bridges across our waterways.
“Over the next year, the key thing will be to check out the entire building stock and map it. The public has to be involved. In a western society they expect transparency, there should be debate.”
“Town planners need to be sensitive to different neighbourhoods that have different needs. There are rich and poor, there are socially disadvantaged people but they have to be carried along as well.”
On disruption to business:
“It really took Kobe ten years to recover and the economy has never fully recovered.
“The level of the damage to the economy in Kobe was such that it became a national project. With Christchurch the second largest city in New Zealand it may have to be a national project to protect the future of that urban area.
“Kobe had the fourth biggest port in the world. Within two years, the shipping had gone elsewhere. The delay was inevitable in fixing the port, getting the gantries back together. Kobe’s traditional industries, ship building and steel making were declining. They never really recovered after the earthquake. It was up to the national government to work with the local leaders to build up new industries and revive tourism for the region. They focused on biotechnology.
“The government in Japan plays a big role in choosing new industries. They thought Kobe might never recover without some outside help so money was given to try and generate new start-up biotech firms. There have been some successes, but some failures. It has been a mixed bag.
“There are a lot of new, gleaming buildings in Kobe, but it has been a very slow economy since 1995.
“There were subsidies paid to build big, bright new condominium blocks. You have to look at the economic figures. You don’t see people on the street unemployed. In Japan it’s a bit hidden, but the economy took a big hit.”
Need for decisive leadership:
“In Kobe, the Government at the time didn’t do a good job in the two weeks after the earthquake. The equivalent of the Civil Defence in Japan is the army. The Government had a problem sending the army into a city, knowing Japan’s history, without the city mayor and the local governor of the Yogo prefecture around Kobe making that request.
“There were too many delays. The troops weren’t on the ground with their shovels and pickaxes until about 48 hours later.”
“Faced with that criticism and it being election year in 1995, the Government just issued whatever financial bonds were necessary to get the infrastructure back in place. The Government had to save face, which is the Japanese style.”The local city did all the heavy lifting but the financial aid came from the Government. Kobe assembled a shopping list. They asked for a new regional airport, the biotech cluster on reclaimed land, a new convention centre, an earthquake museum. The World Health Organisation put a large medical research centre there. There was an opportunity. The planners build on the crisis. They had a clean slate.”
Importance of lifting public morale:
“Within the first year the leaders came up with something to keep everyone’s spirits up. The earthquake happened in January, the coldest part of the year. People were displaced, living in temporary housing and barracks. They started a “light up the city” programme with these astounding illuminations, a bit like Blackpool in England. It brought in people outside who spent money. It was a highlight for the locals in the second winter when things still weren’t really functioning a year after the big event.”