Local Japanese governments race to address risk of fire for wooden homes

Local Japanese governments race to address risk of fire for wooden homes
The Asagaya-Minami district of Suginami Ward, Tokyo, is packed with wooden houses.

Local governments have been accelerating efforts to address the risks of residential areas packed with wooden houses, which is considered the biggest issue in preparing for a major earthquake with its focus directly beneath Tokyo.

The Tokyo metropolitan government has been pressing ahead with a 10-year project to prevent a massive outbreak of fires, while a ward government is creating ordinances to consolidate private properties in a coercive manner to widen narrow roads, which could impede firefighting efforts.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Fires resulting from that disaster caused widespread damage in areas packed with wooden houses, prompting calls for measures to be taken involving whole neighborhoods.

Coercive ordinance

Many wooden houses, some built just after World War II, are concentrated in the Asagaya-Minami area of Tokyo's Suginami Ward, close to JR Asagaya Station. The area has many alleys that are too narrow for cars to pass through. Should a fire occur, flames would highly likely spread.

Under the Building Standards Law, when building or rebuilding houses that face small roads, the buildings must be set back from the centre of the road by at least two meters, in principle. In 1989, the Suginami Ward government enacted an ordinance to construct roads complying with the ordinance at the ward office's expense, but many residents continue to use the areas in front of their houses to plant flowerbeds or park vehicles, reducing the width of the roads, according to an official in charge of the issue at the office.

In response, the ward plans to revise the ordinance to make it possible to construct roads on privately owned areas in a coercive manner in fiscal 2015. In such cases, the office will not purchase the land or compensate its owners.

A ward office panel decided in November that, while there is strong concern that such changes could violate property rights guaranteed in the Constitution, it would be possible to revise the ordinance from the perspective of providing for the common welfare.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry says it had not heard of an ordinance like that proposed by Suginami Ward, although other local governments have purchased such land.

Ryo Tanaka, mayor of the ward, said: "If we leave the areas untouched because they are private property, we will never be able to widen the roads. This [the ordinance] will mark a great advance in urban development in metropolitan areas."

In Tokyo, areas with a high concentration of wooden buildings total about 16,000 hectares, and the metropolitan government designates about 7,000 hectares in 28 areas of Tokyo's 23 wards as areas with a significantly high risk of fire.

In 2012, the Tokyo government started a 10-year project to make areas packed with wooden buildings more fire-resistant, and designated some areas as special zones so it could focus on the zones when making improvements. The government established a system under which residents are given reductions in fixed asset tax or city planning tax, or receive subsidies, to demolish old houses if they construct fire-resistant buildings.

Areas to be designated within the special zone will total about 2,940 hectares across 52 areas this spring.

"We want to encourage residents to rebuild wooden buildings or move to other places to reduce the number of areas that could razed completely due to fire," a metropolitan government official said.

In Arakawa Ward, where about 60 per cent of areas, or about 600 hectares, are packed with wooden buildings, the ward office is currently constructing a five-story reinforced concrete building that will be leased to residents who are forced to move due to the widening of roads. Construction of the building, which will have 27 condominium units, is expected to be completed at the end of March.

The Adachi Ward Office has also applied new standards to residences that are difficult to rebuild because they are not facing a street, allowing residents to rebuild the buildings with certain conditions from this fiscal year.

Resistance from residents

However, in some such areas, titles to these estates are complicated, and there are many elderly residents, making it difficult to rebuild. A 66-year-old woman who lives in a wooden two-story house built 50 years ago in Suginami Ward said: "My husband and I are pensioners. It would cost a lot of money to rebuild the house, and I don't think it is necessary. We have no choice but to continue living in the house."

In the Great Hanshin Earthquake, Kobe's Nagata Ward suffered from a conflagration as wooden houses were concentrated in this area. The fire raged for about three days, destroying 4,759 buildings over an area of about 52 hectares.

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