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Relocate communities as a whole?

January 12, 2013


Community bonds come into focus as plans to relocate evacuees move forward



Evacuees of the Great East Japan Earthquake disaster are highlighting the importance of community bonds as local bodies move forward with plans to relocate them from temporary dwellings to full-fledged public recovery housing.

After the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, communities were split up as a result of priority being placed on speedy relocations, which eventually led to a spate of solitary deaths. Now, one year and 10 months after the March 2011 earthquake disaster, residents have expressed concerns of a similar situation occurring.

"If they choose people to enter public recovery housing through a draw, then the bonds that residents have gone to the trouble of forming will be broken up. Many people are worried about being placed in unfamiliar surroundings," said Yuichi Abe, 54, a resident of a temporary housing complex in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture.

The residents of temporary housing units where evacuees currently reside were chosen in a draw, and about 220 households from various regions came together. Abe was involved in selecting heads for each block of units, passing around notice boards and staging events to gradually build up a sense of community. In June last year, he formed a residents group calling for communities to be relocated as a whole, and he collected about 250 signatures, which he submitted to the Ishinomaki Municipal Government together with an official request.

Abe, who has a chest ailment and can't always get about freely, has himself been supported by the bonds of the local community. Having himself suffered depression in the past, he has lent an ear to the people who suffered depression after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

"Rather than just giving the elderly and disabled priority, communities should be moved as whole units," Abe says. "If that's viable, then we can wait, even if construction is delayed."

Residents of another temporary housing community in Sendai's Taihaku Ward that consists of about 225 households enlisted the help of architectural experts to have an 11-story public housing complex built for them, saying they didn't want to break up the bonds they had formed while living in temporary dwellings.

The Sendai Municipal Government is set to implement a system under which it buys restoration housing constructed and designed by public companies. Residents of the Taihaku Ward temporary housing complex intend to get involved, but there is still no guarantee that they will all be able to make the move together.

For people due to move in groups from areas where there is a risk of tsunami damage to higher ground or areas further inland, the municipal government is allowing people to move to new housing that they want to enter without drawing lots, and it plans to make special application slots for households with disabled or elderly people. When dividing up the remaining places, it will accept applications from groups that take community bonds into consideration, such as the community in Taihaku Ward, but officials say they are still considering how big they will allow such groups to be. If only 10 or so households are permitted, the communities won't be able to hold together.

While local bodies are aware of the importance of community spirit in the shift to public recovery housing, officials are still considering how to reflect this in the standards for permitting people to enter new housing. In November last year, the city of Ishinomaki set up a consultative body comprising residents and experts to discuss the issue. This month they will compile their opinions and then formulate standards.

In July last year, the Miyagi Prefectural Government presented guidelines for the preparation of public recovery housing. But its methods, such as holding workshops with residents, were vague.

Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai commented, "It's an issue involving local cities and towns, and the prefectural government can't say what they should do."

The Iwate Prefectural Government drew up its own guidelines for preparing public recovery housing in September 2012, saying it was considering forgoing holding draws when people moved to small housing complexes constructed for fishing villages and other such communities.

"In addition to speed and fairness, it's important to think about people's lives after they move in," a representative of the prefecture's home construction division said.

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