“Build Back Better”: Between Public Policy and Local Implementation, the Challenges in Tohoku’s Reconstruction

 Fig. 1. Few statistics of the 11th of March 2011 Earthquake and tsunami

On 11 March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook Japan. A series of tsunami waves devastated Japan’s northeast coast of Tohoku flooding more than 500 square kilometres, mainly in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures. The leak in the Fukushima Daiichi power plant reactors that followed forced the evacuation of the near population outside of the radiation-affected area. This disaster caused severe human casualties with 16,000 victims and 3,000 missing people. Three hundred thirty thousand homes wiped out led to nearly 550,000 refugees without a home. Also referred to as the “Great East Japan Earthquake” (GEJE) it is a decisive turning point for the entire Japanese society as well as for architecture and urban planning. The unprecedented nature of this triple disaster weakens the confidence of Japanese society, highlighting flaws in its disaster mitigation strategy. 

Some architects and urban planners see it as a chance to start over and rethink our urban models for more resilient cities in order to restore these annihilated territories. The adjective resilient has been overused since the beginning of 2000, but what does it mean for the city? Marco Stathopoulos, an architect, defines the resilient city as flexible and transformable, in opposition to the sustainable city, which would be stable, hierarchical and standardized [5]. However, some researchers in urban sociology suggest that this dominance of the resilience term may in some context be used for political purposes only, and lose its original meaning to become an ingenious communication tool solely [6]. This paper introduces public policies for urban resilience from international level to national level, considered in Tohoku reconstruction plan. We will present the United Nations guide to “Build Back Better”, before going to national policies implemented by the Japanese government in the aftermath of the disaster and the challenges for the local implementations. 

 I. The United Nations Policies for Resiliency 

The United Nations has been assisting countries around the world after disasters since the 1960s. Nevertheless, from 1990 onwards, the Organization has decided to change its modus operandi from post-disaster relief to upstream measures to reduce disasters before their occurrence. The UN primary purpose is the implementation of « International Strategy for Disaster Reduction » (ISDR). Since 1999, a secretariat has been mainly dedicated to this mission: the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). 

 A. Framework for Action and Risk Reduction 

In January 2005, the UN organized a World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) in Kobe (Hyogo). Ten years after the Yokohama Conference (1994), the objectives are to summarize the past decade achievements and make propositions for the coming one. As a result, the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) 2005−2015 becomes the global blueprint for disaster risk reduction efforts. Its objective is to reduce disaster losses by 2015 substantially not only in lives, but also in social, economic, and environmental assets to “Build the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters”. This first Framework for action focuses on prevention and preparedness to mitigate the effects of disasters. The HFA identifies five priorities in its action plan and implementation strategy. To achieve a significant reduction in losses by 2015, the UN focus on strengthening the resilience of nations and communities.

In March 2015, four years after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the United Nations assembled this time in Sendai (Tohoku). From there, the “Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015−2030” is taking over the HFA. Hyogo Framework focused on disaster losses, the Sendai Framework for Action maintains these objectives but focuses on disaster risks. The new framework aims to reduce vulnerability to disasters, improve preparedness for response and recovery activities in order to build resilience capacities. The term « resilience » first appears in the UN’s disaster risk reduction policies in the 2000s. At the same time, the concept of « Build Back Better » also emerged, and became one of the four priorities highlighted in the Sendai Framework. 

B. The “Build Back Better” Concept and Theory 

“Build Back Better (BBB) is an approach to post-disaster recovery that reduces vulnerability to future disasters and builds community resilience to address physical, social, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities and shocks.” The motto of Build Back Better is to improve the reconstruction of disaster-stricken territories by aiming eco-friendlier, disaster-resilient and socially responsible projects in order to support the affected communities’ recovery. The concept of BBB emerges after the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean of 2004. The UN sent then former President Bill Clinton to visit the site and report on the situation. This report, “Lessons Learned from Tsunami Recovery – Key propositions for Building Back Better”, is the outset of a global reflection on mitigation, hazard preparedness and post-disaster reconstruction. 

Given the global awareness on climate issues and the increase in natural disasters in recent decades, “a concept started to emerge where post-disaster reconstruction was to be taken as an opportunity to not only reconstruct what was damaged and return the community to its pre-disaster state but to also seize the opportunity to improve its physical, social, environmental, and economic conditions to create a new state of normalcy that is more resilient”. The adjective resilient, is referring here as the ability to recover or bounce back after an event, the Build Back Better concept offers thus a holistic approach to resilience and post-disaster reconstruction. Figure 2 summarises the global ideas outlined by Bill Clinton in his 2006 report. It shows how BBB relies upon three pillars: physical resilience (improve the safety of construction), economic resilience (help business recovery), and social resilience (provide support for disaster victims). These three main axes are evocative of the three pillars of sustainability − economic viability, environmental protection, and social equity. 

La suite est disponible en téléchargement gratuit sur le site de la revue Architecture and Urban Planning