Japanese authorities should create more children’s play areas in temporary housing zones set up for March 2011 disaster evacuees, according to landscape experts in Britain and Japan.

Helen Woolley, a chartered landscape architect at Sheffield University in England, warned that not enough thought was given to the needs of youngsters when the housing units were erected.

On a fact-finding mission to devastated areas in the Tohoku region, she discovered that temporary homes often had been erected upon playgrounds, and that large areas were given over to the construction of residents’ parking lots with nowhere for children to play.

“I believe it would be quick, cheap and easy to take out a small number of these parking spaces — I’m a little skeptical that all of them are being used — and put in a child’s play area with sand, swings and other features,” Woolley said in an interview.

“Playing is vitally important in children’s development — it helps their social skills and physical development. And I think that for kids who have been through this disaster, playing is a form of therapy.”

Woolley observed that in the rush to set up temporary accommodations, authorities failed to take into account the needs of the young.

“But the situation can be salvaged and it would seem these housing units will be here for at least another two years,” she said.

In the longer term, she thinks it is important children are consulted about any improvements to temporary housing zones, and urged that consideration be given to the creation of proper parks.

Woolley visited Japan in April after being contacted by Isami Kinoshita, a professor of landscape architecture at Chiba University who was concerned about the lack of outdoor facilities for children in disaster-hit areas.

In an email message, Kinoshita agreed with Woolley’s assessment, commenting, “I hope our collaborative research can give more recognition on a worldwide level to improve the care of children in disaster situations.”

The two spent 14 days touring Tohoku, and visited the badly hit cities of Sendai, Ishinomaki, Onagawa and Kesennuma, in addition to other affected areas.

They interviewed professionals who work with children, as well as teachers and temporary housing residents.

Woolley’s trip to Japan was funded by the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, and she presented some of her findings to fellow experts at a conference while in Japan. She regularly advises businesses, charities and governments on the development of outdoor spaces, particularly in relation to children.

On the positive side, Woolley, who was stunned by the scale of destruction she witnessed, discovered some playing fields had been partially preserved and that youngsters displayed a tendency to improvise with the space available.

In addition, she found some companies had donated money for the construction of play areas and tennis courts, and that there was also a “playbus” touring the affected areas for youngsters.

Woolley was welcomed by local people who felt the rest of the world had forgotten their story.

She believes the authorities have worked hard to improve the area but said there is still a lot of skepticism among residents about the government’s commitment to the region.

“It’s important that the whole community feels that it is on board with any redevelopment of the area,” she said.

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