Lessons from Tokyo
Tokyo residents after the 1923 earthquake. Photo by the Japan Society.
In the aftermath of Haiti’s massive quake, it will help to remind ourselves of other similarly devastating circumstances and subsequent acts of rebuilding. In 1923, Tokyo experienced significant destruction in the Great Kanto earthquake, which topped 8 points on the Richter scale. The quake caused uncontrollable fires that raged through the city, leaving 60% of the population homeless. Nearly 700,000 homes were destroyed, and over 140,000 people killed.
As Tokyo was rebuilt, Japanese building codes were modified to reflect the construction techniques used in the buildings that remained standing. Transportation services were enhanced, and additional parks were created for shelter.
Approximately two decades later, Tokyo experienced substantial ruination from fire bombs in World War II. Again, infrastructure was redeveloped and augmented while neighborhood fabric was rebuilt in situ. As Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava remind us in a recent Times article, this widely distributed and highly participatory redevelopment process “not only strengthened communities but also stimulated the local economies” because it left intact “many traditional Asian urban features including street markets, small-scale businesses and family enterprises.”
When it is time to rebuild Port-au-Prince, Echanove and Srivastava advocate that we should find a way to construct safer buildings and urban fabric—not by razing existing communities and displacing people far away in high rise apartments—but by intelligently retracing the communal spaces and networks that served society so well before the disaster. That way, physical and social reconstruction may both be successful.