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The Hidden Signs of Kobe’s Post-Earthquake Resurrection

Rebuilt after a devastating earthquake, this Japanese city was given tools to survive the next one.

Kobe after the earthquake. (Photo: 松岡明芳/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Within a minute, early in the morning of January 17, 1995, Kobe fell down.

The earthquake, magnitude 7.3, twisted railroads and knocked down highways. It collapsed older buildings, made with tiled roofs that could withstand tsunamis, but flimsier walls that could not stand up to the shift of the earth. Fires spread, and wooden houses that made it through the quake burned down. More than 6,400 people died, mostly in collapsed buildings. More than 530,000 houses were partially destroyed or damaged; another 100,000 were completely destroyed.

Kobe wasn’t an obvious place for an earthquake. The fault where the earth slipped was not well known at the time, and today, if you visited the seaside city in central Japan, you’d hardly notice that just two decades ago it was in shambles. “You really have to know what you’re looking for to find signs of the earthquake,” says Robert Olshansky, a professor of urban planning at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

If you do know what you’re looking for, though, you can see both the wounds from the quake, now scarred over with new development, and the hidden measures the city has taken to prepare for the next one.

Kobe in 1995. (Photo: Masahiko OHKUBO/CC BY 2.0)

In Kobe today, the most apparent mark of the 1995 earthquake might be the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial, a caged glass cube building on the city’s waterfront. In one of the city’s parks, there’s a tree with one side that still shows damage from the fire, and in the less wealthy part of the cities, there are a few tracts of land that are still vacant, never recovered from the earthquake’s effects. In December, the annual display of lights commemorates the disaster. 

For the most part, though, to see the impacts of the earthquake, you’d have to look at the new construction—the apartments buildings, roads, and parks built in the years after.

Disaster recovery has a lot in common with urban redevelopment; it’s just sped up. After a disaster, “essentially everything that urban planners do is happening in a time-compressed environment,” says Laurie Johnson, an urban planner and disaster recovery consultant. “It’s a fascinating aspect of urban planning because it happens really fast.”

Johnson and Olshansky spent 10 years studying Kobe’s recovery over the long term. The urban planners have worked together for years to understand how cities are resurrected after disasters: in a report released this summer by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, they highlight Kobe as one of six examples of places that improved their resiliency as they recovered from disaster. 

Kobe in 1995. (Photo: 松岡明芳/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Before 1995, stretches of Kobe were still filled with wooden houses and narrow streets, which were intimate and charming places to live but vulnerable to fire and other dangers. Even before the earthquake hit, these areas were slated for redevelopment; during the disaster, these were among the areas that were most heavily damaged.

One, Shin-Nagata, was an industrial center for shoe manufacturing. In this neighborhood, Johnson and Olshansky report, the earthquake completely destroyed buildings on about half of the land. So many people were without homes that a group of Vietnamese immigrants spent two years in “a small squatter settlement” in a local park.

When this area was rebuilt, like many places in the city, it changed. The buildings were taller and more stable. A commercial area was transformed into “Shoes Plaza,” to draw attention to the shoe industry there. Shin-Nagata also has new parks—some of which double as a disaster prevention areas.

A disaster prevention park in Kobe. (Photo: Laurie Johnson)

These “disaster prevention parks” are wide open green spaces. But they have other hidden purposes, too. They’re meant to serve as gathering places in disasters—parks help break the path of fires, there are fewer structures to collapse, and they can fit many people.

In another neighborhood, Rokkomichi, the park has a tank designed to resist earthquakes and filled with water for fire-fighting. There are emergency bathrooms, and a center that’s equipped with the supplies people need after disasters. Adjacent to the park, there are evacuation routes heading north and south.

The Shin-Nagata subway. (Photo: KishujiRapid/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Many of the changes to Kobe after the earthquake were influenced by input from the communities that had been displaced from their homes. After the first six months of recovery, officials encouraged neighborhoods to form community groups, machizukuri, to participate in the planning process. These groups offered their own visions of the housing that should be built and pushed back on the details of the redevelopments. How big should a park be, for instance? By the end of 1995, there were 100 of these groups.

The groups didn’t get everything they wanted, but they did help shape the city into its new form. Today, a visitor wouldn’t notice these impacts, but a longtime resident would see how the new version was built over the old. Just passing through one of the disaster prevention parks, you might have no idea that it was designed to lead a double life, as a community space and disaster response center. But the people who live there know: if there’s another earthquake, this is where we go.