Society and green space in Fukushima’s cities post-disaster

Originally posted on urbangreenadaptationdiary.wordpress.com, a new collaborative venture I have with Dr Wanyu Shih of Ming-Chuan University.

For the past few years I have been undertaking research in Fukushima. This does not mean I have been doing work at the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Rather, my ‘field sites’ have been two cities in Fukushima Prefecture – Iwaki and Fukushima – each with a population of around 300,000 people. The purpose of my research has not been to form a judgement on nuclear power, but rather to understand what environmental change might mean for daily living. In this post I’m going to focus on one aspect of this work, the effect of the triple disaster on green spaces in Fukushima and Iwaki, and draw out some implications for the role of green spaces under conditions of major environmental change.

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First, though, let’s take in a bit of context. On March 11 2011 a very large earthquake and tsunami hit the north-east coast of Japan. This claimed the lives of over 15,000 people. It also set in motion a chain of events that lead to a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Power Plant, and triggered hydrogen explosions which carried radioactive material over Fukushima Prefecture and beyond. The levels of radiation that reached Fukushima City and Iwaki City were not high enough to necessitate any evacuations, but there was a need to undertake decontamination to remove some of the radioactive matter from the environment. This was especially true for Fukushima City, which because of the wind direction at the time of the accident received more radioactive contamination than areas to the south. From what my interviewees and subsequent collaboration with scientists has told me, the green spaces within cities – parks, forests at the urban fringe, roadside greenery – have been some of the more challenging areas to decontaminate. These findings can tell us much about the social dimensions of urban green space under environmental change.

The first thing my Fukushima fieldwork has told me is that access to green space matters. Or, more precisely, what matters is having green space that people feel is safe enough for them to want to access. Back in 2014 when I was doing my first round of fieldwork, municipal officials I interviewed told me they were getting a lot of questions about the radiation levels in the parks and forests around Fukushima City. In particular, there were very legitimate concerns from mothers with young children about the heterogeneity and indeterminacy of contamination over short distances, and from citizens who enjoyed getting out into the hills at weekends to exercise about whether radiation would be higher than in the city centre. I remember seeing some workers nailing a small sign onto a piece of grass to say there was a patch of higher-than-average radiation, which gave me quite a fright.

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This situation – of not facing formal restrictions on activity yet not being able to live daily life fully – was described by Japanese environmental sociologist Akihiko Sato as being ‘evacuated in daily life.’ The psychological implications of not feeling able to access meaningful green spaces within the city are clear. When we talk about ‘accessible’ green space in the context of urban environmental change, then, perhaps we need to think not only about physical access in terms of distance, entrance points, ease of mobility, but also about accessibility in a social and cultural sense. Does the park, forest, garden or whatever feel accessible? Could changes in the climate somehow make a green space feel more or less accessible over time? And how might one go about assessing this? If the more vulnerable members of society are to be able to derive the psychological and health benefits that being within urban green space provides (and that might help to build resilience to environmental changes), then they have to feel welcome and safe in that space.

How one goes about creating those conditions is my second point. The small ‘hotspot’ sign I saw was just one of a number of ways in which the prefectural and municipal governments in Fukushima and Iwaki are working to raise citizen awareness of radiation levels and decontamination efforts. There are the ubiquitous radiation monitors, online real-time data, and daily measurements broadcast on television and in newspapers. Perhaps because of the concerns I mentioned above, open spaces have come to be a key site for the radiation monitors. My colleagues Prof David Sanderson and Dr Alan Cresswell at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, who do very fine-scale measurement of radiation levels in Fukushima, like to regale me with anecdotal tales of how they’ve been able to use their results to show citizens that radiation levels are declining over tens of metres as a result of decontamination work. And then there are the excellent citizen science efforts for people to monitor radiation in the environment for themselves.

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But how does all of that relate to climate adaptation? Well, the work going on to monitor radioactivity in Fukushima and Iwaki’s open spaces is a good example of risk communication for urban green space, providing reliable and timely evidence in a manner understandable to citizens. What lessons might we learn about communicating the environmental conditions within green spaces, so that people can modify their behaviour accordingly? If information about the heterogeneity of hazard across a green space can be communicated, then it may be possible for people to alter their behaviours to reduce exposure, and/or to make an informed decision about what they do in that space. For example, we might be able to visually represent differences in temperature across a park through maps (Wanyu, I’m looking at you here…), provide temperature readings, or draw attention to areas less susceptible to flooding. Finding channels of communication, and voices who are respected and trusted enough to deliver the message, is of course a massive challenge going right to the heart of my own research.

The last thing I want to touch on is the value that protecting or restoring green space has in sustaining resilience before and after a disaster. Fukushima has long been famous for its delicious peaches, which have come to symbolise recovery after 2011. Right outside the NHK Fukushima headquarters, there was a big line of trees, each of them bearing scores of round pink-orange peaches. The message seemed to be that if the trees are once again producing delicious and edible fruit, then the environment and the people within it are on the road to recovery too. Indeed, many of the physical scientists I’ve interviewed and collaborated with openly admit that it is worth spending money to decontaminate green spaces where radioactivity is relatively low, because of the symbolism of moving towards recovery it represents. With a critical eye one could dismiss this as being a bit tokenistic, but I still think it tells us something important about the role that conservation or restoration of urban green space can have in motivating wider resilience and recovery. And then, of course, there are all the opportunities for interaction and ‘social capital’ building that urban green spaces bring – Misaki Park in Iwaki contains a Shinto shrine, for example.

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Iwaki and Fukushima’s recovery after the 2011 nuclear accident tells us a lot about what green space means to a city. Environmental radiation is a very different phenomenon to climate change, but from a social science perspective it tells much about what major environmental change might mean to our green and open spaces. The challenges of decontaminating urban greenery through taking off topsoil, scraping away leaf litter, and removing vegetation show us just how complex the urban ecosystems on which we rely are. Likewise, the risk communication work that is ongoing post-disaster reminds us just how complex people’s relationships to green spaces are, and how far-reaching the consequences can be if these relations are changed. As such, limiting the harm and damage we cause to urban ecosystems in the first place seems a vital part of climate adaptation.

Read more about the empirical research on which this post is based here: Mabon, L and Kawabe, M (2016) ‘Engagement on risk and uncertainty – lessons from coastal regions of Fukushima Prefecture, Japan after the 2011 nuclear disaster?’ Journal of Risk Research DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2016.1200658

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