Established after the 2011 disaster, the MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative is giving students invaluable experience while also helping devastated communities.

Photo courtesy MIT

Last summer, a team of students and faculty members from MIT traveled to Minami-sanriku, Japan, to survey damage caused by the March 2011 tsunami. The trip was spawned by the MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative, a program launched after the Tohoku catastrophe. Click to view additional images.

The $2,000 project is a “humble start,” says Kanda. “It is a seed for more to come.” Click to view additional images.

When a team of students and faculty members from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) arrived in the seaside town of Minami-sanriku, Japan, last July, it didn’t waste time getting to work. “No one talked,” said James Wescoat, a landscape architect and Aga Khan Professor at MIT, speaking last fall at a seminar in Cambridge. “Every hour had to count.”

The town was one of the hardest hit during the earthquake and tsunami one year ago—on March 11, 2011—and the team (about 29 people strong) was there for two-and-a-half days to document the widespread damage and identify reconstruction opportunities. The trip was spawned by the MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative, a program launched after the Tohoku catastrophe. Its goal: to help victims and to spur collaboration between MIT and Japanese universities in the study and implementation of disaster planning and recovery.

The group is particularly interested in creating community centers in relocation areas, where tsunami refugees have been placed based on a lottery system. “In many locations, neighbors are not from the same village,” says Shun Kanda, an MIT architecture professor and director of the MIT Japan 3/11 Initiative. “Getting to know each other takes a lot of time, especially if you don’t have a place to gather. That’s a problem we’re trying to address.” Other architecture professors involved in the program include Yoshihiro Hiraoka, from Miyagi University in Sendai, and Hiroto Kobayashi, from Keio University in Tokyo.

For now, the group is focusing its efforts on Minami-sanriku, a hilly town with 27 individual villages. Team members have been working with local residents and government leaders, aid groups, and professional consultants to devise short- and long-term plans of action. Wescoat emphasized that they are not merely swooping in and imposing their ideas on the community. “We understand the need for local participation and strong dialogue,” he says.

Post-Disaster Analysis

To analyze structural conditions during last summer’s visit, the team adapted rapid-assessment methods developed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. The group split up to collect data along six transects; some followed transportation routes while others surveyed the coastline. The students—from architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, and planning programs—recorded information about debris, vegetation, soil, topography, and other environmental features. “Students observed where structures had been less affected, where erosion and slope failure was less intense, where debris was distributed,” says Wescoat. “What surprised many people in the area was how the tsunami had run up side valleys and narrow valleys with enormous velocity.”

Following the site visit, the group traveled to Tan' Valley, in central Japan, where MIT has an existing research outpost. There, they examined their findings during a three-week-long workshop and came up with suggested building sites for future community centers. “These community building opportunities were then shared with community, as well as the mayor and others,” says Wescoat.

The Building Begins, Slowly

Professor Kanda, a native of Tokyo, is continuing the momentum. In November, he returned to construct a small gathering space for 640 residents living in prefabricated units. “They’re depressing, uniform aluminum prefab boxes attached to one another,” says Kanda of the temporary housing. “When one steps outside his door, there is no place to chat, to sit and have tea with a friend or neighbor.”

The 175-square-foot meeting space, built in an alleyway between two rows of housing, features a wood frame and polycarbonate roof. The project was dubbed Babadoru 5-Chome—“baba” is a colloquial Japanese term for grandmother; “doru” means street; “chome” means intersection; and “five” refers to the row where the little community center now sits. It’s often used by women in their 50s, who assemble there to talk and sip tea. “Every time I visit, they’re all laughing and joking,” says Kanda. “They’re a very happy bunch.” The $2,000 project is a “humble start,” he says. “It is a seed for more to come.”

Already, the seed has sprouted. This April, Kanda and volunteers will build two more community centers, these ones larger and freestanding. “We had civic leaders from two separate areas [in Minami-sanriku] come to us and ask for more permanent centers,” says Kanda (unfortunately, none of the sites aligns with those proposed by the summer researchers). One will feature a stone base with a cedar frame and roof; Kanda also aims to incorporate bamboo screens. The 200-square-foot structure will be constructed on a lot donated by a private owner. The other center, at 300 to 400 square feet, will be architecturally similar, although its ambitions are grander. “They want people to come here to have tea, but also to make things and earn an income,” says Kanda. Also slated to rise on donated land, the project entails future phases, including housing for the elderly.

Fundraising is under way. Kanda says most of his donations are coming from Japanese foundations and corporations. “The cost will vary,” he says of the two projects, noting that they aim to raise $150,000 for each building. Creating these centers will become increasingly important to boosting spirits among displaced residents. “Social workers are seeing that people are not coming outside. They are brooding in isolation,” he says. “They need to get out and share their problems.”

Other Efforts

In addition to the community centers, Kanda is also teaching a graduate studio course this spring at MIT called “Beyond 3.11: Scaling New Ground” (the title refers to the distance above sea level in which rebuilding should occur in Minami-sanriku). During their spring break at the end of March, the 25 students in his class will travel to Tohoku to get a firsthand look at post-tsunami milieu. Then, this summer, Kanda will offer a four-week workshop, in which he hopes to build structures conceived during the spring course.

Currently, the tireless professor is spending one week a month in Japan. He’s bound to keep generating ideas for how to help the traumatized country. “Every time I go back, something new pops up,” he says. “And with the springtime, there is a whole different energy.”