In the wake of the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, a multi-disciplinary team of Harvard-affiliated researchers and designers collaborated with various Japanese universities and local community leaders to help facilitate the recovery and rebuilding process along the Sanriku Coast through empowering local residents and building community resilience.

The Landscape

The 2011 Great Tōhoku Earthquake was both one of the most powerful ever recorded as well as the most costly, completely destroying coastal cities and crippling infrastructure. Although the tsunami would have had an even more devastating impact if it hadn’t been for Japan’s highly regarded emergency preparedness plans, the Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami still utterly overwhelmed the nation’s formal capacities. While a natural event of such magnitude has rarely occurred, nonetheless the Tōhoku earthquake highlighted what were then the limitations of Japan’s infrastructure and technology to safeguard those in harm’s way and revealed the inherent vulnerability in the country’s patterns of development.

Aerial photo of MinamisanrikuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Minami Sanriku is a coastal city located in Miyagi prefecture, nestled within a hilly topography dotted with naturally forming bays. This terrain amplified the tsunami’s impact by constricting its path and funneling the wave thousands of meters into the valley. These smaller valleys typically are each home to one of the many semi-independent fishing hamlets, whose residents have historically organized themselves under their own Keiyakukai, or community contract, making it challenging to participate in existing governmental structures for planning. To compound the stress inherent in these divisions, the city of Minami Sanriku is itself an agglomeration of four former cities, Shizugawa, Utatsu, Togura, and Iriya, forced together by the recent Heisei Merger in 2005 despite each having their own unique historical identity, culture, and bureaucratic organization.

Photo of Shizugawa (in Minamisanriku) taken 3 months after the March 11, 2011 tsunamiEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

The Birth of a Project

In the summer of 2012, an interdisciplinary team comprised of members from recovery efforts being carried out across the Harvard community visited Minami Sanriku. The team’s goal was to organize a single concerted effort coinciding with the area’s shift from restoration to reconstruction, a critical juncture in the process of rebuilding in which small decisions have cascading long-term impacts. The group’s efforts focused on two main goals: 1) assessing the concerns of local residents regarding their harbor and seawall, and 2) working with the local government and city planning consultants and recommending specific design ideas that aligned more closely with residents’ vision and goals for their communities.

Designs from 2013 Sanriku Project urban design and planning workshopsEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Design Workshops with Local Residents and Community Groups

Beginning in the summer of 2013, a series of design and planning workshops was conducted by the Harvard team with individuals representing various local community groups impacted by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Using traditional methods such as drawing and sketching, these informal one-on-one workshops were structured as a dialogue. The resulting drawings became a visual record of the participants’ personal concerns and hopes for the future and were ultimately used as a resource in planning the reconstruction of the downtown commercial area of Shizugawa, Minami Sanriku.

Participants in the 2013 Sanriku Project urban design and planning workshopsEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

That summer, a community group of local business owners in Shizugawa was meeting to discuss the logistics of relocating the Sun Sun Shopping Village, a temporary shopping center of local businesses established on a prominent low-lying area after the disaster. At the time, the city’s reconstruction schedule called for the planning portion of the new shopping district to be completed by the end of 2014, hoping to give ample time for store owners to relocate their businesses before the expiration of the temporary shopping center contract in mid-2016.

2013 Sanriku Project urban design and planning workshop drawings on displayEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

With this in mind, the Harvard-sponsored workshops focused on the area designated by the planning consultants as the new commercial area, a 5.6 hectare zone in the new re-zoned city center that was to be raised 10 meters in grade and was expected to include between 40 to 50 local businesses. Each workshop participant selected an 800 meter x 100 meter section of the city plan, with most of the selections including at least a part of the new commercial area, and used these sections in the workshop to record their hopes and dreams for the reconstruction effort.

Designs from 2013 Sanriku Project urban design and planning workshopsEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

The individual workshops were conducted in three separate, one and a half hour sessions. The first session began with a discussion of general concerns and concluded with selecting an area – represented by a transect – to develop in subsequent meetings. The second session focused on the different use zones through informal sketches.

Drawings used to discuss issues of park reconstruction in the 6th Kamome Park Community Group meetingEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

The final session was devoted to participants’ directly commenting on the drawing, calling out concerns, potential issues, memories, or suggestions related to their selected area. By recording their thoughts on the original drawing, participants were able to carefully examine and communicate their personal positions in ways that would not have been possible in other types of workshops. The drawings provided a range of solutions that incorporated consideration of adjacent land uses and typography, visually documenting participants’ memories, concerns, and hopes for the future and supplementing the on-going community planning efforts by providing an additional source of community input and increasing communication between official and grassroots planning efforts.

Detailed view of a completed transect drawing from a 2013 Sanriku Project urban design and planning workshopEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Input from the Local Residents

The unique approach of these workshops – working with individual residents directly through hand-drawings – allowed the participants to explore issues in ways that weren’t available in other workshop formats. Directly working on the drawings fostered a deeper level of engagement with the planning proposals; it gave immediate feedback and made it possible to work through qualitative issues on a larger scale – for example, the character and appearance of the commercial districts or the density of vegetation as it related to adjacent buildings.

Minamisanriku resident, Mayumi Kudo, and her transect drawingEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

“We should make better use of the road used to manage the levee. It would be nice if people can use it to walk to the nature center while enjoying the view of the ocean.”

As the organizer of the disaster-prevention park community group, Mayumi Kudo was invested in preserving the natural environment by creating a connection from the ocean to the inhabited areas on higher ground. The area she selected includes the Kamome Park, which is a proposal to eliminate the redundant seawall and allow the southern portion of the park to be reclaimed by the sea. Aside from retaining as many natural elements throughout the commercial districts, her chief concern is safety and a clearly defined evacuation path that would lead up to the shrine and supporting spaces that she uses to organize biweekly community meetings.

Minamisanriku resident, Osamu Takahashi, and his transect drawingEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

“It’s important that the ocean, this town’s main attraction, can be seen. People should always be able to enjoy the nature whether they are shopping, eating, or playing.”

As an owner of a local restaurant, Osamu Takahashi wanted to create a shopping experience that would attract all types of visitors. He proposed a shopping district that was linked by a covered walkway that would allow buses to drop off and pick up tourists on either end.

Minamisanriku resident, Emi Goto, and her transect drawingEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

“There was a mountain path that led to Shizugawa elementary school This area should be well-maintained with more signs. Roads that connect separate high-grounds (including detour routes) should be increased and well-maintained.”

The Gotos are both from Minami Sanriku and at the time of the workshops lived in temporary housing with their 2-year-old daughter. Tomonori, the father, was active in the Minami Sanriku Youth Reconstruction Group, which organizes local music festivals; Emi, the mother, worked part-time in a flower shop at Sun Sun Shopping Village. Their primary concern was to include safe evacuation routes, and chose to focus on an area running from the harbor to the closest high-ground at kami-no-yama.

Workshop meeting with Zenyu OikawaEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

“Make the entire town walkable by creating a pedestrian bridge over the Hachiman river that connects the shopping district to the newly planned park on the west side of the river. The town should integrate with the surrounding nature, letting people take walks to the ocean, fish, and play in the water.”

Zenyu Oikawa is a fifth generation fish cake producer and volunteers as head of several community groups involved in the reconstruction. As a shop owner, he was concerned about the newly-planned Sun Sun Shopping Village and its layout. While he wanted to encourage more tourism, he also wanted to ensure that there would be enough incentive for local residents to shop by including necessary town functions, like post offices and banks.

Complete transect drawing (created by Mayumi Kudo) from 2013 Sanriku Project urban design and planning workshopsEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

The Impact of the Workshops

Given the dramatic redesign of the city – namely the relocation of housing, the introduction of single use zones, the sea wall, and 10-meter rise in grade – many residents wondered what the new city would look like and the impact it would have on their former way of life. Residents living in temporary housing worried about when the construction of homes would begin and where they would live; shopkeepers worried about whether they would have to relocate their temporary businesses; innkeepers worried about being able to maintain their occupancy as volunteers dwindled.

Designs from 2013 Sanriku Project urban design and planning workshopsEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

Directly working on the drawings fostered a deeper level of engagement with the planning proposals; it gave immediate feedback and made it possible to work through qualitative issues on a larger scale – for example, the character and appearance of the commercial districts or the density of vegetation as it related to adjacent buildings. Participants who were less involved in other planning activities seemed to benefit the most from the exercise – for some it was their first time seeing the city’s land-use proposals. At a phase in the reconstruction process when the official planning proposals were undergoing rapid revision, the singular quality of the drawings preserved the discussions at this particular moment in time in ways that other design and planning documents could not have done.

Photo of Sun Sun Shopping Village in Shizugawa, MinamisanrikuEdwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

The Future

The ongoing challenge of rebuilding the city of Minami Sanriku will continue to require sustained effort by both residents and supporting institutions. Even after the majority of the physical reconstruction is complete, the drawings and documents created through these community processes will remain and can continue to be referenced as a form of local knowledge. They will be among the ways that the hard lessons learned through personal experience can be preserved for future generations.

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