December 14, 2015

A Conversation with Aromar Revi

Penn IUR Co-Director Genie Birch and Penn Design PhD students sat down for a conversation with Aromar Revi, head of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, a revolutionary educational and research institution that is dealing with problems of urbanism in India and around the world. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Genie Birch: Today we are very fortunate to have with us Aromar Revi who is the head of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, a revolutionary and exciting educational and research institution that is dealing with problems of urbanism in India and around the world. And we have our PhD class and visitors here who are going to be questioning him about his work.

Student 1: Based on your experience in South Asia, what role do you think the planner can play in the process of construction within a project’s context. For example, how did planners and experts perform the balance of industries and emphasize in that process. On one hand you must have the speed of the building by the government officer and on the other hand you must know and retrieve the rules of the local people.

Aromar Revi: I will tell you a short story to try and illustrate this. In 1995 I went in with an international mission into Kobe, after the Kobe earthquake. We went in with the international UN mission to try and understand what was happening there. And it was a different, you know, I’ve worked on many disasters and many earthquakes but that was a special mission because it was called by the Human Rights Commission. And, there was a complaint from within Japan on human rights violations in Kobe. So we had a four-person mission, there were two lawyers and two people who worked on disasters. Of course, by the end of it we learnt both things…

It was an interesting experience not only because of the scale of what had happened but two or three things. You have to understand the context in which these things happen… When we came to Japan [we figured] that Japan is one of the most prepared countries in the world in terms of national disasters. Yet the impact of the Kobe earthquake was actually horrible… it was actually a systematic failure there. And we actually got the see the brittleness of the Japanese system. And I will give you two or three examples of that. There was an old gentleman at that time, he is no longer alive, who was a seismologist and he had been warning for thirty years that Kobe was at the tri-junction and something would happen but of-course nobody listened to him. But why didn’t they listen to him? They didn’t listen to him because people in the city government didn’t want to listen to him. Because it would have been inconvenient.

But it went even further than that because I was the engineer on the team and I investigated the process and there was a competition happening between Kobe and Osaka. They were both significant centres. Kobe actually at that point was 8th or 10th port in the world. It had one of the largest container ports in the world. And they were head to head in economic competition. Now the interesting point of the story of course was Kobe was called Kobe Inc. because it had a very aggressive new liberal government. But in actual fact, the government was controlled by the Japanese mafia. So that was sitting behind it. So what they actually did was that they got the zoning codes for Kobe modified, so they brought down the infrastructure specs for the city in order to attract investment from the developers. And so many people may not have seen it but you can still get onto the Web [and see photographs] of Kobe [and the] collapse of maybe 4-5 kilometres of expressway. So the expressway had collapsed essentially because the reinforcement of the columns had gone through and that was because they actually changed the grading of the city. You know, in order to actually compete. So that’s one part of the story.

The other part of the story is that [the Japanese] system is very effective and it follows very clear rules and procedures. So I think one of the most horrific examples, to speak to your question of community [is the] old city of Kobe, which like many other cities in Japan, actually came up during the industrial boom or the 1930s onward. They were rural people who came into the city, and that area has typhoons so the houses there are typically made out of wood. In many parts of Japan at that time [the houses were] made out of wood because of earthquakes but the roofs are very heavy because of the typhoon. So the old city was like Chinatown in many other parts of the world: very dense, very closely-knit communities and a whole lot of really crazy economic activity. Lots of dirty chemicals and electrical sockets and stuff. And like most Japanese cities of that time, and in China you have the same thing, what they had learned over time was that every community, every cluster was always built around a square. And in the centre of the square there was always a water well— they had a tank of water. Because the big issue on an everyday basis in terms of risk was that of fires. So water was used to put out the fires and the whole of the community life was organized around that. But as the densities increased and the commercial pressures went up, the first thing that went was the common spaces. They got built up, taken over… a whole range of things happened. So when the earthquake happened, two things happened. The first thing was that the gas pipelines ruptured and you know it was wooden [housing], very high density - the heart of the city caught fire. It was a horrible fire. That fire actually burned in some locations for more than three days. And they couldn’t put it out for two reasons: one is that the expressways were down and the second thing was that the earthquake happened over a weekend and Kobe has two bases of the Japanese forces, one on both sides…The commanders of both the bases were waiting to come in to rescue people but it was the weekend so it took them 2 days in Tokyo to give them the orders to go.

The hardware of the city burned up. And there was a hospital in this part, in the heart of Kobe, and one of the head doctors gave evidence. Within an hour or so they had hundreds of burn victims and the whole thing with burn victims is that whenever you are doing a surgery you need water. The first thing they lost there was water. So Kobe is a very narrow city, there is a hill on one side and the sea is on the other side and they lost water and they didn’t have any tanks so … they ran out of their water supplies. So what do they do? They set up a bucket brigade from a kilometre away where the sea was, and the people were actually bringing water by buckets – they were standing in line and bringing water to the hospital. So what I’m saying is that when we think spatially sometimes we don’t understand, when systems go into extremes how people will respond to that and how they will deal with it. The reason I’m telling this story is that community was extremely well-knit and every time I go back to Japan I go back to that community … and the tragedy was that earthquake or at least the reconstruction is considered by the outside the world as one of the most remarkably managed forces of reconstruction. In less than a year most of the people had been moved to alternative accommodation.

However, very interestingly, I went back in 2003-04, and I was talking to an old lady who remembered me. The old lady at that time, she must have been about 91, 92 and she asked me a really interesting question. She said: Do you think Japan is a developed country or underdeveloped country? And then she told me the story. The Japanese […] are very efficient. So what had they done? They had done two things – the first thing they decided was as the relocation took place, you have a lottery-based system to locate people. The second thing is that they were so efficient that they had calculated the mortality rates. Because they know what the age structure is like. So, they had counted that people above a certain age would actually not get housing. Okay. So these are the inside stories for how things happen. So they had decided at the start. So they were these much older people who were there who were just sent… She had been living for 65 years in the community – she [knew] everybody there, everyone [was] supporting her. So the question she was asking me was: I now live in this apartment which is on the 11th or 12th floor. It was a huge, super block. She said I can’t even go— and in Japan they are very proud people— I can’t even go and ask my next door neighbour for a cup of sugar. That was the question she was asking.

Genie Birch: The larger lesson is this whole question we are dealing with today which is what is the appropriate role of different levels of government in the protection and actually securing of public space and the public good that daily life in cities revolve around – whether is it disasters, whether it is to deliver food, transportation or housing. Who should be doing it and how should it be done? And we haven’t solved that problem yet.

Aromar Revi: Exactly. And the question then is, if you look at it from the macro perspective, it is a very well managed program. Things got rebuilt, lots of thing happened. Of course Kobe, if you look at it, this in the UN-ISC report that we did in 2013, what happened is because of the shock and the fact that the city didn’t have a resilience plan in some sense. Kobe dropped from number 8 to number 20 as a global port. So they never really recovered… The really interesting question is, if you want to set up a frame like we’ve just signed in the UN, which at least in theory says no one will be left behind, how do you deal with the 98-100th percentile? Because you get up to the 90th percentile and with a good system you can manage, but as planners when you go further and further down you know to that long tail how do we address those questions and [how many resources do we dedicate]? … And who makes this decision? Is it made by the community, is it made by the people who are representatives? That’s a really, really hard decision and … I don’t think they are very good answers to this question. 


Media Contact:

Deborah Lang
Communications Director

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