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Lost in Participation: Land Use Planning Suffers Without Local Knowledge

Lost in Participation

Photo T. Kishimoto. Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 (cropped).

This article is based on an academic paper by the authors published in Land Use Policy (Elsevier) entitled “Lost in Participation: How Local Knowledge Was Overlooked in Land Use Planning and Risk Governance in Tōhoku, Japan”. The full-text journal article is available for free until 09 April 2016 on the ScienceDirect website.


Risk management strategies in disaster prone areas tend to rely heavily on preparedness and response strategies, as well as on structural measures designed to control hazards. This becomes more evident in the aftermath of major disasters. Post-disaster analysis commonly points to overconfidence on pre-disaster early warning and evacuation, and particularly to exclusive trust in physical infrastructure, while indicating that much less attention was given to the avoidance and reduction of vulnerability.

The titles of reports produced by varied government agencies illustrate well the purpose of such studies; for example, the US White House’s “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned”. Often such reports are followed by the development of costlier infrastructure with renovated technologies, and by communication efforts and public authorities’ assurances that next time will be different.

But in this context physical infrastructure doesn’t fully address the safety problem. There have been two vivid illustrations of this in recent years. One is that the seawalls and breakwaters in coastal towns in Tōhoku, Japan that were built after past tsunamis were severely damaged or destroyed in the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) and tsunami in 2011. The other is how New Orleans’ system of levees and floodwalls failed to mitigate the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Reliance on physical, structural measures has dominated public policies and permeated public perception while traditional mitigation knowledge and strategies have declined. Increasing dependence on scientific information is occurring side by side with the negligence of local knowledge and participation. Thus, there has been little interest regarding engagement of the public through participatory processes that might lead to public empowerment for shaping land use and reducing risk based on local environmental information.

This is creating gaps and leading to a sense of overconfidence in new infrastructure’s abilities to withstand future events. Local knowledge from previous experiences is not being successfully incorporated into land use plans even after similar events in the past. Further, the abundance of technical information does not impede development in risk areas due to lack of social balance in participation in the land use planning process. Finally, even with participation, some of the most important decisions, such as on the siting of nuclear plants, are taken with little or no local participation.

Local knowledge and risk

Filling these gaps can be fundamental to finding locally appropriate solutions. For example, in the early phases of reconstruction after the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake disaster in Kobe, Japan citizens were not involved in the process, leading to open criticism. Local government responded to this by opening up the process of public participation, which facilitated the contribution of innovative solutions not conceived of earlier by experts.

Local knowledge — upon which subsistence (and sometimes the very existence) of the community depends — is accumulated, re-elaborated and transferred through generations. Here, local knowledge is understood as both the set of information, abilities, practices and beliefs, built on adaptive processes passed down through generations by personal interactions generated through the observation of the local environment.

This socially constructed knowledge, elaborated through the understanding of environmental processes and gained after experiencing catastrophic events, is orally passed on as landmarks in the intangible and physical heritage. For a long time, communities have dealt with the impact of disasters of different magnitudes caused by natural hazards, but it appears that only the frequent — and less severe — events cause deep-rooted impact and leave an imprint on the community, mainly because both individual and collective memories tend to select and modify the information gathered.

Risk governance

Risk governance provides a wider framework than risk management to examine the social dimensions of risk and, particularly, the social and political processes involved in decision-making. It provides a comprehensive understanding of the actors, processes and interactions within the human system that participate in the production of scenarios of risk, and of the interactions between society and the changing environment. Risk governance goes beyond the technical aspects of risk management, incorporating legal and institutional aspects with stakeholder engagement in the phases of planning and management both before and after an event.

The involvement of population in risk identification has continuity all through the risk governance process, including risk planning and risk reduction. Better participation in land use planning can improve risk governance by empowering local communities affected directly by the risks and bringing local knowledge to the decision-making process. The risk governance system might not properly work towards the principal goal of disaster risk reduction without transparency, accountability, and public participation, or with a high level of corruption. The strength and consistency of social bonds in a community or society makes a great difference in the phases of response and recovery because it provides self-organisation in the aftermath of disaster, although less in previous stages.

Lessons from the triple disaster in Tōhoku

The large magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami and nuclear accident in the Tōhoku region on 11 March 2011 caused one of the greatest disasters of natural origin in Japan. The recovery from the disaster has been slow, as compared to, for example, the Kobe earthquake in 1995. This is not only because of the nuclear crisis, but also because of the scale and location of the affected areas, which encompass more than 500 km of coastline with many remote points. The economic costs of reconstruction are huge for an area with a declining population in many towns and a relatively small economy. Combined with the economic and political crises at the national level in Japan, this has made recovery an arduous task, despite being a priority for most of Japan’s authorities and population.

We identified the three main overall public participation gaps related to land use that, if addressed, could improve risk governance.

Local knowledge lost in translation

There is a need to collect and integrate historical data and local knowledge into decision-making, particularly in risk analysis, disaster management and reconstruction. Collective memory is represented by pictures, local historical booklets, private diaries, disaster museums, or by the construction of many local stone monuments (dedicated to the victims or as mass graves) for past tsunami disasters. Stone markers have passed knowledge of past events through generations, and collective experience may help communities to better address risks through land use planning.

For example, in the community of Aneyoshi on the Omoe Pensinsula (Iwate Prefecture), there is a stone tablet around 60 meters above sea level and 500 meters inland from the coastline that was erected after the 1933 Showa Sanriku tsunami. The marker warns against building below that point. This information, conveyed through generations, has influenced land use decisions. As a result, there were no deaths from the 11 March 2011 tsunami, even though the registered tsunami run-up height of 38.9 m on the Omoe Peninsula represented a historical record in Japan.

But Aneyoshi’s historical account is an example of the common cycle of learning and oblivion and, eventually, fresh learning. For, in fact, the 1933 disaster after which the monument was erected also marked the second time the village had moved uphill. The 1896 Meiji Sanriku tsunami had left only two survivors, yet Aneyoshi was repopulated and moved back to the shore a few years later, only to be devastated again by the 1933 event that left four survivors.

Memory of the past is a major component of culture and plays an important role in building the notion and feeling of place. New assets such as disaster monuments or risk mitigation infrastructure are readily incorporated into local knowledge and embraced as a component of a certain place, but as memory decays with the pass of generations, short-term group interests and priorities are put before community interests. Finding ways to translate historical data and local knowledge into formal practice could better preserve this crucial information for reducing vulnerability.

Disregard for scientific information in decisions on land use planning

Hazard maps act as contemporary stone tablets with the representation of historic events and spatial information of modeled scenarios of tsunami inundation areas. These are completed with historic tsunami height markers and evacuation route signs. However, this kind of information is not effective in shaping land use plans nor their enforcement.

Although apparently streamlined in risk analysis and planning, scientific knowledge is sometimes overlooked in spatial planning and, in Tōhoku, seems not to have influenced political decisions. Evidence of larger-than-estimated tsunami waves was not taken into consideration with regards to the protection of the Fukushima Power Plant. The 869 Jogan Sanriku tsunami “was not included in hazard modeling and mapping due to it being perceived as an outlier” and this led to an under-evaluation of the tsunami risk. If scientific information had been widely available to the public and if it had had a voice in the planning process, land use plans would be most likely different, because both meaning and value of scientific data would not be just in the hands of a few experts and decision-makers.

No transparency, public participation or fair representation in important decisions about risk

Japan has some of the most progressive legislation in Asia regarding public participation. However, even though participation is allowed in many processes, some important decisions like the siting of nuclear plants, are excluded.

Moreover, lack of transparency in policymaking processes occurs not only before but also after disaster. Serial episodes of miscommunication and misinformation by a private company, and a national government with close links to the private sector, increased the population’s mistrust in safety regulators and the nuclear industry.

Besides the technical experts, the involvement of political opposition, civil society groups and citizens at large can increase the legitimacy of the decisions and provide credibility to the informational processes and, ultimately, promote trust in decision-makers.

However, regarding nuclear power, not only in Japan but around the world, “public participation is typically deemed by industry and government officials as largely unnecessary, and unfeasible, even undesirable”, in a process of ‘public depolicisation’. Nevertheless, since 2011, a series of changes regarding nuclear energy have occurred in Japan with the creation of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority and the increase in consultation of local governments and citizens.

To build back better

Risk governance is in continuous change as disasters bring new lessons to old problems. Technological approaches to land use planning for dealing with hazards still prevail in policymaking, placing obstacles to proactive measures, nature-based solutions, embedment in sociopolitical processes, and to the integration of historical and local knowledge in risk management practice through participatory processes. Development of continued public participation mechanisms helps to revive community memories, raise awareness, and influence land use in urban and regional planning.

Programmes that increase risk awareness of both citizens and decision-makers are a prerequisite, and Japan has made big progress towards these, perhaps more than any other country. But this amount of progress was not sufficient because knowledge should be transmitted in multiple directions, and be translated into practice. Trust in reactive and proactive measures is eroded by failures in the transfer of information during processes of design and implementation. And continuing distrust in decision-makers because of errors in the communication of the dimensions of disaster risk leads the population to be reluctant to participate or outright antagonism to those authorities.

Participation in planning processes is a powerful instrument to improve risk governance. It not only contributes to regulate nature conservation and land use but also may properly encourage mitigation planning. Reconstruction after disasters by building back better has been a process of far reaching discussion and consultation, and the hope is that this does not just remain a theory, but applied in practice. It is fundamental to improve risk governance through public participation to close the three gaps discussed, and meet Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development regarding access to information and public participation, which reads:

“Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”

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