Planning for disaster

According to the unwritten laws of human nature, it often takes a crisis to bring about change.

In the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco’s hilltop parks.
In the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco’s hilltop parks provided a vantage point, allowing local communities to respond quickly to the advance of the fires. Photo supplied by Bancroft Library

However, Professor Penny Allan and Martin Bryant hope to stimulate new innovation in urban design well before cities experience a natural disaster.

The landscape architecture academics from Victoria’s School of Design have spent the last five years analysing the resilience of cities after earthquakes. What has helped residents to adapt quickly and what part can design play in earthquake preparedness?

Earlier in the year they won the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architecture’s top award—the Charlie Challenger Supreme Award for landscape architecture planning—for ‘Earthquake Cities on the Pacific Rim’, a series of essays on earthquake disaster management in four cities in four continents.

The researchers travelled to previously quakedamaged cities—San Francisco in the United States (1906), Concepción in Chile (2010), Kobe in Japan (1995) and Christchurch (2011).

“Our research began in 2009 before the earthquakes in Christchurch, Chile and Japan struck,” says Penny, “and we found a large gap in the literature—now there is significant  international interest in our work.”

Penny says San Francisco proved reasonably earthquake-resilient.

“Residents were able to gather in parks and support each other locally, and the hillside location of parks meant that when the city caught alight people were able to see the fire approach and assess the danger.”

In contrast, most of the open space in Japan’s traditional cities is associated with palaces and shrines.

“Without a network of open space options, neighbourhoods became places of entrapment and communities had nowhere safe to gather and share information,” says Penny.

Wide streets were another advantage in San Francisco, with people setting up temporary kitchens in front of their homes, creating an instant social network.

In Concepción, residents barricaded street corners with old oil cans and bricks, to protect themselves from crime and looting.

“The grid-like structure of the streets enabled them to be broken down into smaller modules, and smaller communities emerged. Together, they were then able to strategise the procurement of water, food and medicine.”

Another important consideration in urban design is ensuring there are multiple exits in an emergency. In Concepción, for example, there was only one way for people to reach higher ground, creating bottlenecks. Additionally, the hospital was separated from the main residential areas by bridges that collapsed in the earthquake, cutting off access.

Penny says the silver lining of disasters is the creativity and innovation they encourage. Ten years on from the Kobe earthquake, spaces have been set aside for a series of smaller parks leading to a larger park, each with their own water pump and clock.

One has been designed by the community and includes fruit trees, cooking facilities and seats that can be converted into toilets, enabling residents to gather in an emergency and support themselves until help arrives.

Although disasters offer an opportunity to make places better, Penny says this doesn’t often happen, due to a lack of funds and vision or a policy of replacing like with like.