Kobe rises green from the ashes

Posted: 6 November 2002

The earthquake that struck Kobe in the early morning hours of 17 January, 1995, reduced much of Japan's premier port city to rubble within 20 seconds. Despite 4,600 deaths and 120,000 buildings damaged or destroyed, the real story was not the devastation but how the city was able to rebuild most of the damaged areas within two years and regenerate its economy and its environment in the process. Don Hinrichsen reports.

The speed of the initial recovery is a textbook study in relief operations. Within one week electricity had been restored, buses were running within six days, the shipyards were active after two months and water and sanitation restored within three months. Rail lines were running within half a year and the highway system rebuilt in 20 months. How was a recovery that was predicted to take a decade accomplished in just two years?

View of Kobe, Japan

A culture of planning

"We have a deep culture of planning in this city" says Kiyoyuki Kanemitsu, Executive Director of the Asian Urban Information centre of Kobe. Kobe's city planning culture speeded its rejuvenation.

Set along a thin ribbon of land no more than a few kilometres wide between the Seto Inland Sea and the Rokko Mountains, Kobe stretches for some 20 kilometres. The city has always relied on extensive and detailed urban planning by focusing on people's needs. "We have a rather egalitarian system of planning here that permits and encourages public participation in urban governance," observes Seiichi Ugai, an officer with the city's planning and coordination division.

"Every year we designate around 1,000 citizens as 'city policy advisers'. They provide valuable feedback to the city council and administration by participating in meetings with the mayor and ward directors and by responding to specific questionnaires," explains Mr. Ugai.

In addition, the mayor's office holds open meetings in each ward on a regular basis and maintains links with community development associations. It has set up a website where letters to the mayor can be e-mailed, and sponsors a Women's Round Table Conference on City Administration. "All of these avenues facilitate the active participation of residents in city planning, a system that distinguishes this city from many others in Japan, where a culture of planning for people doesn't exist" he says emphatically. The lessons learned from the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, named for its epicentre just west of the city centre, have enabled municipal authorities to build a better, greener, more quake-proof city. The city government, with citizen inputs, completed a new master plan for the city just eight months after the earthquake. It emphasized six points:

  1. To rebuild and revitalize the economy as quickly as possible;

  2. To rebuild the urban transport systems with an emphasis on mini-hubs within the city, containing businesses, housing and transportation;

  3. To concentrate on people's needs as well as infrastructure;

  4. To extend the planning horizon to a longer-term perspective;

  5. To adopt policies that encouraged longer-term economic growth; and

  6. To address the needs of the general population, not just those who suffered directly from the quake.
After considerable feedback from residents following the first year of rebuilding, municipal authorities decided to continue to build up, rather than out. Hence, the new improved Kobe has even more parks and green areas than before. Streets and boulevards have been widened to permit more generous median strips and curb sides planted with trees, shrubs and flowers, pedestrian overpasses are lined with potted plants, and every neighborhood has its own park.

Green space

Kobe has more green space-close to 17 square metres per person-than any other Japanese city. By 2010 city planners intend to have 20 square metres of green space per person, even though the population is expected to keep growing slowly from its present 1.5 million to a peak of 1.7 or at most 1.8 million people within 30 years. As of 2001, Kobe had over 1,300 public parks covering just under 2,500 hectares.

The Rokko Mountains, which keep the city squeezed along the sea, have not been developed. The entire watershed is a protected area, where virtually no development is allowed at all. The mountains contain a large arboretum and botanical garden along with tens of kilometres of hiking trails that link small health spas.

Sprawl was contained not only by building high rise apartment buildings and office complexes, but also by planning and building two new satellite towns - Kobe Academic Town (containing a first rate university with research facilities) and Seishin New Town and High Tech Park.

With limited land, the city also built into the sea, constructing two large islands - Rokko Island, finished in 1992, which contains the city's fashion industry, housing developments, a convention centre and hotels, and Port Island finished in 1980 with a second stage still under construction that contains hotels, port facilities and recreational areas. All are connected to the centre of Kobe by an extensive rapid transit system and by bus lines. Currently the underground system carries 260,000 passengers every day, on average, while buses transport 270,000 passengers daily.

After the quake, Kobe municipal authorities, with the complete backing of residents, embarked on an even greener future. Buses are now being converted to run on natural gas. All five of the city's sewage plants have three stages of treatment, with the effluents reaching such high standards that they are used by high tech industries that need super clean water for the manufacture of computer chips and medical equipment. A new recycling plant is on the drawing boards that will reclaim metal, paper and cardboard and organic wastes. The city even has a car rental agency that specializes in electric and hybrid cars. One thing the city does not want to encourage is "non-sustainable development that harms the environment and detracts from the quality of life of Kobe residents," affirms Mr Kanemitsu. It is this unbending conviction about the need to plan for people's needs that make Kobe one of the most livable cities in land-short Japan and an example of how people-centred planning can re-create a city from the ruins and make it even better than the original.

Don Hinrichsen is a contributing editor to People & the Planet.