Solving Cities

Japan's strong building codes keep millions safe

Japan's strong building codes keep millions safe

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Cities can't be sustainable unless they can withstand the force of the worst natural disasters. Find out why Japan's cities protected its citizens during the 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

In 1923, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 hit Japan, killing over 100,000 people and leveling cities. Japan has learn a lot since then. It's building codes are some of the best in the world, and that's why -- while hundreds have died -- the 8.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan didn't cause more of a catastrophe in its cities.

In fact the major news out of Tokyo is that millions are stranded from their homes and without power, unlike what we saw last year when a huge earthquake hit Haiti. The reason it's not worse is that Japan -- one of the most earthquake prone regions in the world -- takes necessary precautions to make sure major disasters don't lead to greater catastrophe. As Time reports, Japan puts the necessary time and money into infrastructure so it can handle major natural disasters like the one today.

When disaster does hit, as it did today, Japan's buildings fare relatively well. In 1981 Japan updated its building guidelines with an eye to earthquake science. The devastating Kobe earthquake, which claimed some 5,100 lives, spurred another round of research on earthquake safety and disaster management. In 2000, the country's building codes were revised again, this time with specific requirements and mandatory checks. Even at the local level, preparedness is a priority: from 1979 to 2009, Shizuoka prefecture alone poured more than $4 billion into improving the safety of hospitals, schools and social welfare facilities. Though Japanese cities often shake, they rarely topple. "This gives me great faith in Japan's building codes," said Hong Kong University's Charles Schencking, a historian who studies earthquakes in Japan.

This is not to take away from the fact that even with these measures in place, many lives were lost. But it's not hard to imagine how much worse things could have been.

Cities can build all the latest infrastructure they want but they can't be truly sustainable unless they are built, like in Japan, to cope with the worst natural disasters.

Watch this video from the earthquake to see how Japan's buildings shake but don't topple. (via @buttermilk1)

Photo: HIADA/Flickr

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure