Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In complex society, even great disaster planning isn't enough

In today's Post Steven Pearlstein ("Lessons from the long tail of improbable disaster") and Howard Meyerson ("We're not infallible ") have good pieces about the impact of disasters such as in Japan, on society and resiliency. From the Pearlstein piece:

Many scholars now think that the very complexity of modern life - including our transportation and communication systems, our economy and our social interactions - is directly implicated in the severity of catastrophes. In more complex systems, even small changes or perturbations can have disproportionate and unpredictable effects. The things that make our systems more efficient also make them more effective in spreading the impact of a catastrophe.

The lesson to be drawn from all this is not that we should roll back the clock and return to a simpler and less interconnected existence. It is, rather, that more attention must be paid to the extra risks that come with all the advantages of modern life. There may be a significant cost involved in preventing low-probability disasters, or having sufficient infrastructure to deal with them when they cannot be prevented. But as we are reminded by this week's events in Japan, that cost is likely to be less than the cost of ignoring those risks and doing nothing at all.

It seems obvious now that in areas subject to tsunamis, such as coastal Japan, that you shouldn't build nuclear plants in such locations. Of course, that wasn't what people were thinking 50 years ago, when they planned the plants at Fukushima.

On an e-list, Ian Perry sent this (reprinted with permission), in response to a conversation he had with a Japanese friend:

“Everything’s different”, are the words of my Japanese friend in Tokyo to describe the current situation there.

When I lived in Tokyo, I’d adjust my watch not by other clocks, but the train as it arrived at the station platform. Only twice in the year I was there was my train, which ran on 8 minute frequencies, not bang on time, being 4 minutes late on both occasions.

Today, my friend tells me that the trains are chaotic. They run not to timetable, but to the amount of available energy they have, and trains are also subject to the rolling blackouts, closing lines for parts of the day. My friend, who on the day of the quake spent 3 hours walking home (probably it would have been two hours or less walk for me) is working half days due to the lack of trains.

A fellow employee has like many Japanese started cycling. One lady at my friends’ office spent 4.5 hours cycling to work on a newly purchased bicycle, though my observations of Japanese cyclists was when I was overtaking them whilst walking... so the distance might not be so great.

My friend says that bicycles are too expensive for her to purchase, but many did purchase bicycles to get home after the quake and bicycles can be seen on the streets cleared of tsunami debris.

Petrol is being rationed where it is available, oil refineries have been devastated as well as the nuclear energy supply. This is making driving difficult. I’m informed that the car plants that make the Prius and other “green” Japanese cars are no longer functioning and the Just In Time (JIT) supply chain is in ruins. This affects car assembly throughout the world, so expect to see less new “greenwash” vehicles on our streets once the stockpiles are gone.

But... before you think that this will boost bicycle sales, Shimano, the world’s leading supplier of bicycle components/parts is Japanese. Although based in Osaka, it is possible that some of their components are made in the affected region of Japan, and if not, their production is likely to be affected by the lack of energy. Shimano has such a massive market share that we are likely to see changes in the bicycle market over the next months.

What is clear is that Japan will not have so much energy for many, many years as it did before the quake and tsunami. In all aspects of life, changes will need to be made to live of what can be produced safely, though Japan is “blessed” with the possibility of much geothermal energy. If Japan redesigns itself as it did intercity rail in the 1960’s we could see some fascination innovations. Interestingly, the Maglev train might be part of the solutions, apparently requiring less energy to run than trains on rails and this summer, the trains will not be "ice-cold". People will be moving much more in high humidity without air-conditioning.

Trains, cars, the fishing fleet that provides so much food to the nation, famous neon signs, escalators, moving walkways, the levels of electrical gadgetry are all affected (phones, heated toilet seats, etc.) and levels of air-conditioning are all affected. Even in 2003 Japanese office workers were being asked to turn off their air-conditioning as Japan did not have enough energy to run everything people had purchased and wished to use. Even in 2003, Japanese people believed Japanese nuclear power plants were dangerous and they had a poor reputation for safety and had tried to cover up a number of incidents... though a sloppy UK newspaper has only found concerns from 2008.

As we witnessed in Christchurch when a newly discovered fault destroyed that once beautiful city we do not know much about this planet. Hopefully the Japanese will take into account what we don’t know and what we don’t know we don’t know when rebuilding their infrastructures and systems.

The one thing that is clear is that the streets of Japan will be very different following the recent events and we may be able to learn many things from them.


One of the big reasons that I favor sustainable transportation is that it can be more resilient in the face of oil shocks, although as the Japanese experience suggests, having transit systems being reliant on electricity does put them at risk from catastrophic failure as well.

Bicycling and walking give people options, but they need to be placed within a spatial pattern where tasks, errands, and trips can be accomplished relatively conveniently. This is what's called compact development.

Still, compact development is resilient in one sense--you can get around by walking or bicycling and energy use is quite efficient (see the argument by David Owen in Green Metropolis)--but is dependent in another, in that energy and water systems are vulnerable, and food typically comes from outside of the immediate area.

This is the crux of the James Howard Kunstler argument against skyscrapers in an era of diminishing energy resources, that you are intensifying the possibility that negative consequences can be catastrophic in the face of real disaster.

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