Part of the reason that professor André Sorensen, an urban geographer at the University of Toronto, chose Japanese city planning in the early 1990s as his academic niche is that the topic had barely been explored at the time, at least in English. “Japan was the second-largest economy in the world, and there was almost nothing written about it,” says Sorensen, whose Ph.D. focused on Tokyo’s problematic sprawl and whose books have included 2004’s “The Making of Urban Japan.”

André Sorensen is the author of “The Making of Urban Japan.”
Photo: Courtesy Of André Sorensen
André Sorensen is the author of “The Making of Urban Japan.”

From 1994 to 2002, Sorensen lived in Japan, conducting research and teaching. He was in the city of Kobe to witness the devastation caused by a magnitude-7.2 earthquake in 1995.

An area of study that once seemed fairly obscure has suddenly taken on new relevance because of the double blow of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and the 30-foot tsunami that leveled the Pacific coast around the Japanese city of Sendai on March 11, killing more than 10,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

During the industrial revolution, Japan was slow to build modern infrastructure; for example, its cities didn’t really use sewers until the 1950s but carted away human waste as fertilizer. However, Sorensen says, construction methods in the years since have been fairly state of the art. In other words, there may not be many unexamined building techniques that would keep the country safe in the future.

Instead, Japan might be better off relocating cities to higher ground. ENR recently interviewed Sorensen about that approach and what else the expected five-year, $180-billion rebuilding effort might entail.

ENR: What lessons can we take away from how the buildings and infrastructure fared?

Well, you have to divide this into two pieces. First, there’s the quake part. Modern buildings did pretty well, so I think the earthquake vindicated modern building techniques. This was the biggest earthquake they ever had, so it was a good test of the standards.

The tsunami was a different problem. You can’t protect the coastline from a tsunami with walls that are five meters high, and there will never be the will to build a 15-m wall across the whole coast.

If you start with that premise—that you can’t protect the whole coastline—then it makes sense to not build settlements in low-lying lands near the coast. The problem with that, in Japanese law and in American planning, is that it’s really difficult because of property rights.

Many of those settlements will be rebuilt where there they were located. But in the long run, more [settlements] should be placed on higher ground. By 2050, Japan will see a population loss of 30 million; by the end of century, its population will be half what it is now because of its low birth rate and lack of immigration. So you need a new kind of settlement system.

Is abandoning cities a practical solution?

In every disaster in human history, people pretty much have rebuilt what was there before, with the exception of Tokyo after its 1923 earthquake, when the city came up with a whole new urban design and a new road system. But then it was bombed during World War II, and they rebuilt back to the 1923 model.

I don’t think it ever has been a solution in the past anywhere. I’m saying it should be part of the conversation. If these settlements already were losing population, there is already a sense of abandonment, especially in small villages. People are already saying, “Forget it, there aren’t enough people here to keep it going.” People need to be rational about which settlements [should be maintained] in the long run.

Has anything changed since the Kobe quake in terms of approach to temporary housing that s applicable to Sendai today?

That was a slow and clumsy relief effort on the part of the government. It didn’t mobilize the army fast enough. It didn’t realize how extensive the damage was because of bureaucracies. They also were criticized for not taking advantage of volunteer relief efforts. The government wasn’t very good at helping people help themselves or allowing not-for-profit groups to do their work.

After that, the government changed the laws to let non-profits look for victims. There’s been a rethinking of the role of non-profits in civil society.

One of the bigger problems with Kobe was that they moved people out of the destroyed area and assigned them kind of randomly to new shelters. What they are trying to do in Sendai is to keep neighborhoods together. They realize there will be death from stress and loneliness over the next year from living in shelters. Over time, a lot of people will die from stress and heart attacks, even more so than [from] the initial earthquake. You will cause way more harm by moving millions of people apart rather than keeping them together.

What were some other responses to Kobe that might be applied in general?

There were quite a bit of “land-readjustment projects” in Kobe [in which] they created large public parks in order to have evacuation areas in the event of future earthquakes or fires. But they will have to get land from somewhere. In Tokyo, the concern is narrow roads in areas with wooden buildings, so they are targeting those areas for wider roads now. In the long run, you need to re-survey and buy some land to create larger roads and parks. It’s a long process. But the Japanese are sort of good at constantly improving on the originals.

How might Japan rebuild to guard against the third factor in this situation, radiation leaks from damaged nuclear powerplants?

That was really terrible on behalf of TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the plants] but also the Japanese government. All the reactors [about 50 plants nationwide] are on the ocean, so they obviously didn’t want to protect them against the maximum possible tsunami. It wouldn’t be hard to have a seawall that would protect them—some kind of big concrete barrier. And why did the generators [for the cooling systems] have to be at sea level? They could have been on higher ground.

Are any other parts of Japan at risk from similar disasters?

Tokyo. There are 124 square kilometers below the high-tide level in the city, or [about] 20% of it, and 5% is below low-tide level. About 2.5 million people live in this entire area. Those places are very at risk of high-tide events and have dikes and locked gates at ports and pumps. But if the electric goes [out] for the pumps, then you’re in trouble. And 2.5 million people … that’s way more than were affected by the tsunami.