HAVE WE REALLY LEARNT ANYTHING?


Kjeld Duits,45,Kusunoki-Cho,Ashiya


I want to forget. I desperately want to forget. The terrible destruction. The desperate cries for help. The pungent smell of gas, fires and dead people. The never ceasing fear that a building may collapse any time. On top of me. I want to forget all that. Don't let me remember the nightmares that stalked me for so long. They lunged at me when I needed rest more than anything else. They always came just after I finally fell asleep. Again and again. So powerful and terrifying that sleep itself became a thing of terror. I don't want to remember any of that.

And so I don't talk about the quake anymore. I banish it from my thoughts. I push it away into the deep and dark recesses of my memory. I want to lock the doors to this place in my mind and throw away the key. So that it may never haunt me again.

And yet, I realize, we must remember. So that all of us may learn. Especially people who didn't experience the quake. For earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and such are not what we label them, "natural disasters". They are common natural occurrences. They only become disasters because of bad planning, lack of foresight and a stubborn and misplaced belief we can control everything.

These are not "natural" disasters. These are "manmade" disasters. Why do we build houses, even whole cities, on floodplains, volcanoes and fault lines? A floodplain is born naturally because a river occasionally needs the extra space. It is outrageous that we are so arrogant to build our cities there. And if we absolutely do have to build there, although I doubt that aside from greed such a need really exists, why do we build so bad? It appears as if this is a lesson we don't want to learn. We close our eyes when faced with reality. After the dead are buried we return to rebuild our destroyed cities in exactly the same places, and often in the same way.

One incredibly important thing that everybody learns who survives a major disaster like the quake of January 17, 1995 is that your life depends on your neighbors. Surprisingly few people were saved by rescue teams. Most were saved by gallant people who lived nearby. Often strangers, who in the first hours when few people outside the stricken area realized what terrifying disaster had struck, risked their life and limb. When ministers in Tokyo were still sleeping they were digging with their bare hands to save lives. I too helped dig out a back door neighbor whose existence I had never even been aware of. Thanks to people she didn't know, she lived. As did many others who were helped in the same manner.

But how many others didn't because nobody knew they were there? With more and more people living alone, and more living to a ripe old age when they need help even in normal conditions, it is frightening to realize that the way we have been building our houses and our cities has made us total strangers to each other. Air conditioning cools us in sweltering Summers, but it also hides us behind walls and closed windows and doors. Cars in garages built into our homes and buildings are convenient, but they also prevent us from accidentally running into the people with whom we share our neighborhood. Streets and buildings are designed according to mathematical formulas, straight and consistent. There is no consideration for the needs that we have as social animals.

Cities are built only on the measurable value of money. The immeasurable value of a life well-lived is never taken into consideration. What is the true value of a smile or a happy thought? What is the value of a friendship? Shouldn't we build our cities to increase the number and value of our smiles, happy thoughts and friendships? Shouldn't we build to increase the value of life itself? Better designed and more beautiful cities that offer more social interaction will not only save lives during disasters, but will also have less crime, fewer suicides and more children. That is true richness. More valuable than the largest revenue stream.

This is something that requires much planning, study and especially cooperation among lots of people from many disparate backgrounds. Our cities and houses have been designed so badly that we won't been able to easily change them. It will be difficult and take much time to create "people friendly" cities and houses. But that doesn't mean we should just throw our hands into the air and give up.

Some things are actually fairly easy and only need willpower, perseverance, imagination and political courage. I live in Ashiya and find it totally incomprehensible why the Kansai Yamatesen is extended through this city. This is the country of the Kyoto Protocol that requires decreasing the use of carbon dioxide. Yet we are building a road to accommodate more cars. A road that will cut this city into separate parts instead of bringing the city and its people together. A road that will not only create pollution and noise, but also make it more difficult for the young, old and weak to get from one place to another. They will have to cross another busy road.

You don't have to be a very wise person to realize that many traffic deaths will follow. They will be spread out over the years and over the length of the road so we won't notice them, but they will happen nonetheless. Many elderly people (if you aren't now realize that you will be one day) will be discouraged by the road. Often my heart cringes in pain when I see a dear old lady trying to cross a busy road but the light turns red before she is hardly halfway. How can we be so thoughtless and stupid just to make life a tiny bit "more convenient" for people driving cars?

Why don't we create a long park in the same place where we are now building a road? A beautiful park with lots of trees to cool down our overheating city, with a meandering river or canal where kids can play, mothers can meet and the elderly can rest. The water will also be a lifesaver during another disaster. Create places for teenagers to dance or play basketball or tennis. Now they are forced to meet in front of convenience stores or at station entrances.

Through this park we should lay a wide bicycle trail. For obvious reasons we must encourage people to use a bicycle instead of a car. This trail can also accommodate ambulances, fire engines and rescue vehicles after a disaster. It won't be jammed by regular traffic like every single public road was after the earthquake of 1995. It will be ready and available to save lives.

I see lots of fashionable boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops popping up like mushrooms along this place where people gather and relax. So there will even be a positive economic outcome. Roads let people pass through, parks attract and concentrate people. Think of all the friendships that will bloom in this park. Think of all the friendships that will be born here. How much better than creating a road that pollutes and kills.

This is the lesson we must learn from the quake. To create cities where it is a pleasure to live and work, a pleasure to be.

Making our cities wonderful places to live and work in will be the most important thing we as a society can ever accomplish. It will not only enrich our own lives, but the lives of all of those who come after us. It is a gift that we give to our children, our children's children , our children's children's children and so on. What are we waiting for? We must act now!



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