After a large earthquake struck Turkey and Syria last week, those of us living in Japan can’t help but worry about something similar happening here. This week, we speak to Prof. Hitoshi Abe, an architect who has some ideas on how to start designing our cities to better deal with such inevitable disasters.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and Jason Jenkins, and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Shaun McKenna  00:09  

Hello and welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Shaun McKenna. It was just over a week ago on Feb. 6 that a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck southern and central Turkey, as well as northern Syria. A rattle that was followed by thousands of aftershocks including a particularly strong magnitude-7.7 a few hours after the initial jolt. As of now the death toll is in the tens of thousands, making this one of the most devastating disasters in the region's recorded history. 

On today's show, I'll talk with my Deep Dive co-host Jason Jenkins about a concept called regenerative urbanism, which is aimed at preparing communities for natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunami, and those disasters that are increasing as a result of the climate crisis. At the end of the show. We'll also go over some things you can do to help prepare yourself for a potential earthquake where you live.

Hey, Jason. 

Jason Jenkins 01:09 

Hey, Shaun. 

Shaun McKenna 01:10 

I take it you've been following the news about the quake in Turkey. You're in Osaka now, were you there when the Great East Japan Earthquake hit on March 11, 2011?

Jason Jenkins  01:20  

No, I was still living in Tokyo at the time. And you know, you kind of get used to little quakes here and there. But when this one hit, you just knew it was different. It was terrifying. And with all the trains stopped, I had to walk about two hours to reach my kids’ daycare to see if they were OK. I was a wreck.

Shaun McKenna  01:35  

Yeah, I believe the trains automatically stop and are checked for possible damage if the shaking is severe enough. The actual quake located off the shore of Miyagi Prefecture in the Tohoku region, measured a magnitude-9, but we felt it 450 kilometers away here in Tokyo. 

Jason Jenkins  01:50  

Oh, you were in Tokyo, then? 

Shaun McKenna  01:52  

Yeah, I was working for The Japan Times in our office near Tokyo Bay, and I had to walk a few hours to get home, too.

Jason Jenkins  1:58  

Well, if a long walk home was the extent of both of our experiences in the Tohoku quake, then we really should consider ourselves pretty lucky, right? In all, the disaster killed over 19,000 people and around 2,500 are still missing almost 12 years later, I mean, a real catastrophe. And keep those numbers in your head, around 19,000 deaths 12 years later. Now let's look at Turkey and Syria, where the death toll has already reached beyond 40,000. At the time, we're recording this about one week later, it's really hard to wrap your head around it.

Shaun McKenna  02:32  

From what I've read. Experts believe that one reason for the amount of casualties in Turkey comes down to lax building standards.

Clip  02:38  

Because they feel this country has been here before where some buildings collapsed, while others remain standing. And they are left asking, have the building regulations really been enforced? There is a saying in this country, among civil engineers and architects that earthquakes don't kill people, bad buildings do.

Jason Jenkins  02:57  

Yeah, officials are saying more than 12,000 buildings toppled in the earthquake and in the subsequent aftershocks, and those were both new and old structures. I'm sure there's gonna be lots of investigations into this, quake-proof construction is also something that affects us here in Japan. But Japan has very strict building code standards and has used architectural solutions like motion dampening and built-in shock absorption that makes things a lot safer. In fact, due to its location on several fault lines, Japan has had to do a lot of research into disaster preparedness — earthquakes and tsunami, of course, and increasingly, flooding fires and other climate-related disasters.

Shaun McKenna  03:36  

This stuff was on our radar well before the Turkey quake. Jason, I remember you specifically were interested in a piece our colleague Will Fee wrote titled, “How researchers in disaster-prone Japan and the Pacific are rethinking city design.” It largely tackles a concept called “regenerative urbanism.” Can you sum up what that means for us?

Jason Jenkins  03:53  

Sure, regenerative urbanism doesn't really slip off the tongue, but this concept is really interesting. It's something that architects and city planners want to use to build new human habitats that better coexist with nature, and the eventual natural disasters instead of trying to stop them from happening altogether. Sometimes in our attempts to block these catastrophes, which are going to happen anyway, we wind up causing further environmental damage in other areas, or simply just separating ourselves from our natural surroundings altogether. Regenerative urbanism wants to change that a lot of it is still theoretical, but it could really influence what future cities look like — not just in Japan, but wherever you find earthquakes, typhoons and other natural disasters.

Shaun McKenna  04:37  

OK, give me an example of a way that we might hurt the environment in the process of trying to protect ourselves from it.

Jason Jenkins  04:44  

So, back in October, Japan Times contributor Mara Budgen, friend of the pod, wrote about this surfing town called Katoku in a piece titled, “Battle to save Kagoshima seawall, highlights divide over coastal engineering.” And she's really describing how local authorities are building these massive concrete seawalls along the beach as a means of dealing with increased risk of typhoons and even possible tsunami. Some residents want these walls while others say that construction like this causes long-term beach erosion and cuts the town off from one of its best features and sources of economic development, the beach itself.

Shaun McKenna  05:23  

So regenerative urbanism is trying to find a happy medium?

Jason Jenkins  05:27  

Yeah, that's right. It consists of three main goals: conserving the natural environment, protecting against disaster and building better human settlements that improve the well-being of those who live there. These ideas are outlined in something mentioned in Will Fee’s piece called the ArcDR3 Project

Shaun McKenna  05:44  

ArcDR3, what does that stand for?

Jason Jenkins  05:47  

It stands for the Architecture and Urban Design for Disaster Risk,  Reduction and Resilience Project — there's your three R's. It's tough because, again with the seawalls, you see them all along the coast of Japan, especially after the Tohoku earthquake, people are so scared of another tsunami, that they're willing to build a cement wall that could be up to 50 meters high that blocks them from the coastline.

Shaun McKenna  06:10  

It kind of reminds me of, have you seen “Attack on Titan”? 

Jason Jenkins  06:13  

Oh, the anime? No, no.

Shaun McKenna  06:15  

The seawalls kind of remind me of the walls built around the cities in that show. They keep the giant titans out but also lock the residents of those towns in, though they keep them safe — for a while anyway.

Jason Jenkins  06:24  

Oh, right. OK. No, I haven't seen it. So no spoilers, Shaun!

Shaun McKenna  06:29  

OK, no worries. Let's take a break and when we get back we'll get deeper into regenerative urbanism.

Natalia Makohon  06:39  

Hi, I'm Natalia Makohon, I'm from Ukraine and I'm interning with the Deep Dive podcast from Japan Times. If you're interested in donation to relief efforts for Turkish-Syria earthquake and you're living in Japan, we suggest you check out the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan. You can find them at Or go to the website for Tokyo Camii and Diyanet Culture Center, which has information on how to donate funds. That address is We will include those links in the show notes. Thanks for listening.

Shaun McKenna  07:22  

Jason, you spoke to one of the architects at the center of regenerative urbanism.

Jason Jenkins: 07:26

Yes, I did. 

Professor Abe  07:26  

My name is Hitoshi Abe. I'm 61 and I'm a professor at the Department of Architecture and Urban Design in UCLA. 

Jason Jenkins 07:38

He's a really interesting guy… 

Professor Abe 07:40

And also I'm a director of Terasaki Center for Japanese Study.

Jason Jenkins 07:44

…wears a lot of hats…

Professor Abe 07:46

And also I’m director of xLab

Shaun McKenna 07:49

It sounds like it. 

Professor Abe 07:50

This is an institution to do the research to think about the way to expand the boundary of our profession as an architect and urban designer.

Jason Jenkins  08:01  

He's also the principal architect at Atelier Hitoshi Abe, his own firm, and the founder of ArcDR3, the project I just mentioned. Professor Abe was born and raised in Sendai, where the March 11 earthquake hit, he was in Los Angeles at the time. But he had friends, family, employees, all in Sendai. And this experience compelled him to work on ideas that eventually led to regenerative urbanism.

Professor Abe  08:25  

Actually, you know, architects have such a strong community, and they communicate well, and then they try to collaborate. And immediately after the earthquake, I received so many emails from everybody around the world, offering help. And then I started to get together with my friends. And then we established a network of architects to offer help to the community, who has to think about the future vision of the community. Not to just go back to how it was but to think about the future. And we know that it's really difficult to think such things. So …

Jason Jenkins  09:07  

Abe says that after five years working on these ideas and raising money for the area, he felt like many things just weren't right. In fact, he mentioned the seawalls again.

Professor Abe  09:17  

After seeing a huge seawall being built, protecting areas that people are not coming back to — being kind of separated from nature. Such a big denial that humans are part of nature.

Jason Jenkins  09:35  

Abe felt like the only solution being used was concrete, when he believed that there had to be some other different approach, maybe many different approaches, actually.

Professor Abe  09:43  

It's almost like repeating the same sort of mistake that we actually suffered a lot…

Jason Jenkins  09:50 

The whole idea of regenerative urbanism became about finding a way to coexist with nature. 

Professor Abe  09:56  

But the problem is because you really want to forget about this horrible thing that happened — destroyed your life — you want to go back to actually how it was. So such a desire actually leads you to the situation so that you completely disconnect from nature. But I think that's completely wrong.

Shaun McKenna  10:20  

That's something that I hadn't really thought of, the idea of this lingering trauma that is informing our decision to protect ourselves from future disasters, which leads us to making poor choices in the short term. Who else is involved with the project?

Jason Jenkins  10:33 

There are 11 institutions participating in Abe’s ArcDR3 project, mostly along the Pacific Rim. Together, they're creating new models for cities, each specializing and absorbing the impact of whatever disaster their region deals with. For example, wildfires are a huge problem in California. So the UCLA team have developed a concept they call the “Pyroactive City.”

Shaun McKenna  10:55  

A Pyroactive City, that sounds kind of dangerous.

Jason Jenkins  10:58  

Yeah, right. “Fire bad,” right? Well, the wildfires themselves are quite dangerous and increasingly common. The past few years have seen huge swaths of California, Canada, Australia, Greece just burned off the map. But forest fires are also a part of nature, and indigenous people used controlled fires to encourage new growth. So one of the components that goes into Pyroactive Cities, according to the UCLA team and ArcDR3, would be surrounding residential neighborhoods and business districts with farmland, basically forming a natural buffer system.

Shaun McKenna  11:33  

So is it like a moat? But instead of a castle surrounded by water, you'd have, like, a neighborhood surrounded by tomato fields?

Jason Jenkins  11:41  

Tomatoes, lettuce, what else does California grow? Almost everything right? So yeah, that's basically it. It seems so simple, but it really could have a dramatic effect. Abe says this new kind of agricultural zone would also present opportunities for agri-tourism involving the locals. And if you create opportunities for the local population, while buffering out-of-control wildfires at the same time, you really have a win-win situation.

Shaun McKenna  12:07  

Another type of city I saw mentioned was the “ReForest City.” Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jason Jenkins  12:13  

Sure. One of Singapore University's contributions is all about reforesting urban areas with tropical trees and plants that thrive in higher temperatures. This not only creates a carbon sink, working to slow the effects of climate change, but it also raises the quality of life in the city with more green space. Actually, some of the ideas coming out of Singapore were really interesting, a few of them were quite out there. 

Shaun McKenna 12:36

Like what?

Jason Jenkins  12:37

Well, Abe was telling me about a proposal for farming solar power through a giant hydrogen balloon. It would rise to the sky during the day, collect power and then come down at night.

Shaun McKenna  12:47  

I mean, it beats the spy balloons.

Jason Jenkins  12:49  

Yeah, of course. And again, it's mostly a conceptual phase right now, but it's still so cool. Another issue in Southeast Asia is the rising sea levels. So allow me to introduce the “Hydrophilic City.” This concept proposes a way for urban areas to act like a sponge — they absorb the water and then redirect it as needed.

Shaun McKenna  13:13 

I guess this would deal with flooding from storm systems like typhoons, hurricanes and what we know in Japan as “guerilla rainstorms.”

Jason Jenkins  13:21  

Yeah yeah, well, one idea Abe told me about was having large urban parks with landscaped areas that have empty ponds, lakes, maybe canals, and when the tide comes in these spaces fill with that water and change the scenery entirely. And then now you have this beautiful landscape with water in it as well, looks quite different.

Professor Abe  13:40  

People can enjoy water level not as a disaster, but as a part of the human phenomena, like the four seasons. 

Jason Jenkins  13:49  

They're still working on how to design these. But he's told me about places in Taiwan that are using the same concept to research sustainable ways to farm fish using this method.

Shaun McKenna  13:59  

Did the professor mention how any of these ideas could be applied to places in Japan?

Jason Jenkins  14:03  

Oh, sure. And it's not all sci-fi, like the Singapore ideas. In fact, some of the ideas come straight from Japan's past. The country has written records that go back for millennia, with lots of natural phenomena recorded in them. For example, Will's article mentions an area of Sendai flattened during the tsunami that hit Tohoku on March 11. But further inland, you'd find a place called Namiwake Jinja. Namiwake Jinja translates to “wave-break shrine.” Sometimes the best preparation for disaster is to know where and where not to build. And in cases like this, the past may be trying to tell us something.

Shaun McKenna  14:39  

Right, like, don't build a house on, I don't know, a cliff on Erosion Bluffs.

Jason Jenkins  14:44  

Or a summer home on Typhoon Island, right? Yeah, here's what Abe had to say about that.

Professor Abe  14:50  

I think you know, there are many examples of regenerative urbanism that exist in Japan, even from a long time ago. You know, for instance, there's a kind of residential type like funagata yashiki by the Oe River, so that the shape of the land of the house is like a ship.

Jason Jenkins  15:10  

So the funagata yashiki he's mentioning here “funagata” literally means “shape of a ship,” and “yashiki” means “residence.” So this practice of funagata yashiki is simply knowing how and where water flows in your area, and then giving your property this shape of a ship's bow in a particular place to where when a tsunami or flash flood happens, you can divert the water away from your home, maybe even feed that water right back into a river or into your fields.

Professor Abe  15:40  

So there's a flood comes in, this kind of little dyke surrounding the house can actually let the water go to the water line to be fed to the agriculture line and things like that. So there are many sorts of precedents.

Jason Jenkins  15:57  

The one thing I got out of researching regenerative urbanism and speaking to Professor Abe, is that it's a multidisciplinary approach involving not just architects and city planners, but scientists, educators, art producers and more to try to find creative solutions, and to help convey information about the environment to the people who live there.

Shaun McKenna  16:17

Well, until that day, I guess we'll just have to rely on our go bags to stay prepared. Coming up after the break, we'll talk about the practical things you can do to stay safe.

Clip  16:39  

It all starts here, on the seabed along the Pacific Rim, sections of the Earth's crust grind together, causing volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. It's known as the “Ring of Fire.”

Jason Jenkins  16:51  

The Ring of Fire is the name we give to the troughs and trenches that surround the Pacific Ocean, an area that includes New Zealand, Indonesia and its neighbors, the west coasts of North and South America, and Japan. If you live in any of the cities that dot this ring, you're likely to have experienced an earthquake but also probably thought of preparing yourself for “the big one.”

Shaun McKenna  17:11  

That's right. So off the southern coast of Japan, there's a trench on the ocean floor that stretches from Shizuoka Prefecture to Kyushu. Along this trench, the Philippine Sea plate is sinking beneath the Eurasian plate. As the two plates grind against one another friction builds … and builds. Japanese scientists are concerned that this spot where the two plates meet, known as the Nankai Trough, is overdue for an earthquake. 

In a piece written for the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Eric Margolis speculated on what might happen if this Nankai quake were to occur. It's a kind of choose-your-own-adventure style article. Do you try to escape, or do you stay put? Do you get in touch with family immediately, or do you wait till later? It was an interesting read even though it was a bit scary.

Jason Jenkins  17:56  

So Shaun, when I was speaking to Professor Abe he stressed three things to do or have really when it comes to disaster preparedness. He said…

Professor Abe  18:05  

One is, of course, a charged cell phone.

Jason Jenkins  18:07  

This may seem obvious, but Professor Abe just wanted to emphasize that a charged cell phone was crucial to people after the Tohoku earthquake as they were more likely to be able to get information. The second?

Professor Abe  18:19  

Second is shoes under your bed.

Jason Jenkins  18:23  

It's important to have shoes right next to you to protect you from broken glass when you start moving. It's hard to escape with slashed up feet, so keep some crocs by your bed. Finally…

Professor Abe  18:33  

Thirdly, little whistle.

Shaun McKenna  18:35  

Like a sports whistle, yeah?

Jason Jenkins  18:36  

That's what ours looks like. Abe reckons that the government will look for you in the rubble of a collapsed building for at least two days. You may not be able to yell for help, but you could be able to blow a whistle.

Shaun McKenna  18:48  

Good to know. In his piece, Eric mentions preparing a go bag with a flashlight, helmet, gloves, some food (so maybe protein bars), medicine, batteries, a lighter, candles, some water, a blanket, clothing, a first-aid kit and a case with your passport, ID, health insurance card, an inkan seal if you use one, and a family photo. At home, keep an extra stock of essentials like water bottles, food, toilet paper, plastic bags and disinfecting wipes. Get a portable gas cooking stove if possible, a hand-rechargeable radio, a battery charger for your phone and, when you're decorating your place in Japan, don't go for high bookcases. If you do, you need to secure your furniture to the wall with L brackets. Most of all, know the evacuation route for your neighborhood and know your nearby parks and community facilities.

Jason Jenkins  19:47  

Also, it's worth getting to know your neighbors. You may have to rely on them if something happens or they may need to rely on you.

Shaun McKenna  19:54  

Exactly. The community aspect is something that people don't always think about in advance. Thinking about disasters and disaster preparedness can be a stressful way to spend your time. But we can't let that catch us off guard. We'll include links to a bunch of stories on the topic in the show notes. Jason, thanks for joining me on this week's Deep Dive.

Jason Jenkins  20:13  

It was nice working with you, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna  20:18  

If you're in the Los Angeles area, then check out Professor Hitoshi Abe and xLab’s “Designing with Disaster” exhibition at Japan House Los Angeles, it runs till April 2.

Jason Jenkins  20:29  

Elsewhere in the Japan Times: Staff writers Eric Johnston and Dan Orlowitz report that as the planet warms cities like Sapporo may end up one of few cities capable of hosting the Winter Olympics. Kazuaki Nagata describes how corporate Japan is trying to transform the company cafeteria as employees return to the office. And Gabriel Dominguez writes about how concerns over a rising China are pushing Japan and the Philippines into a closer regional security arrangement. For these stories and thousands more, please consider a subscription to The Japan Times.

Shaun McKenna  21:04  

Production for Deep Dive is by Dave Cortez. Our intern is Natalia Makohon, and the outgoing track is by Oscar Boyd. Our theme song is by the Japanese artist LLLL. Thanks for joining us and, until next time, podtsukaresama.

Jason Jenkins 21:17