Case Study: The Watari Green Belt Project in Miyagi

Residents take part in town planning and re-building its pine grove

The “Watari Green Belt Project” is a project under way in Watari Town of Miyagi Prefecture, which focuses on town planning via the reconstruction of the pine grove which had protected the town from tidal currents and other elements of nature but was destroyed by the tsunami on March 11 last year.
There are many town planning projects that have been started by residents or whose residents are central to efforts. The project in Watari Town is one of these but it is progressing as a result of residents working as one with the local government – a combination which often results in opposing views and wishes. What are the reasons for this project’s success?

Watari is a quiet town about an hour from Sendai City by car. It grew as a commuter town for Sendai and in 2010 had a population of about 35,000, increasing until the Great East Japan Earthquake last year. Famous for its strawberries, Watari boasted the greatest strawberry production in the Tohoku region, but some 94 percent of farming area was flooded by the tsunami and many farmers are not sure when they will be able to start growing them again.
The Watari Green Belt Project is run by a committee made up of residents, local business people, university students from Watari and so on, and is mainly concerned with two activities.
One of those is the rejuvenation of the grove in the town’s south that served to protect the town from tidal waves but was swept away by the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The grove had protected residents from tidal waves, high tides, sands and salt blown about by winds etc. since it was created in the era of Masamune Date, the first feudal lord of Sendai. The Watari Green Belt Project aims to rejuvenate the grove and is currently preparing the plants that will form the base of the grove and some 40,000 pots for them, with the aim of planting them in 2014.
The other is a series of five workshops mainly concerned with the design of the grove and the surrounding coastal region, and is part of the town’s reconstruction plans.

Government plans carried out by the private sector

The Watari Green Belt Project is in the spotlight for its town planning which is a collaboration between residents and the local government. As with other long-term projects it has just stepped up to the starting line, but there are many things one can learn and emulate from it.
One of these is the allocation of roles between residents and the local government. The committee for the Watari Green Belt Project has been put in charge of the design of some coastal areas as part of the town’s reconstruction plans. Assigning this role of carrying out the plans of local government to the private sector has led to the project’s progress.
The private sector referred to here is not something which functions as a subsidiary or company under the umbrella of government. Prior to the earthquake the annual budget for the town was in the order of 10 billion yen. While this jumped to some 60 billion yen for reconstruction, the number of public servants involved only increased by about 10 percent. Kousuke Matsushima, head at the Watari Green Belt Project’s office, explains that they have been given the task of supporting the local government in areas the government is not readily able to work on. Matsushima says that dialogue with local government has seen them refine and improve the nature of their project’s own activities, and that while the local government received many proposals from large companies and other entities after the earthquake, it was the committee of the Green Belt Project that continued talks until finding a solution.

Participation at various levels

One problem that affects many organizations concerned with town planning is the issue of how residents can take part. To make the process centred around residents you want to have as many residents taking part as possible, but how one goes about that is the problem.
Residents in various positions and stages in life are involved in the planning process for the Watari Green Belt Project. One example are the elementary school children who through their classes in regional studies and disaster prevention are learning about seeds and planting for the grove. While children will be the future of the town, involving them in planning is usually difficult, however this is one case where they have been skillfully brought into the process.
Project staff also reached out to plant nurseries and landscape designers. Increasing the number of parties involved usually results in complicating the process, but as they wanted local companies rather than large corporations to deal with any business generated through the project, they asked those local companies to take part.
Collaboration with residents is also important. Kousuke Matsushima and young people who have come into the town on long-term internships have regularly visited homes following the earthquake. Sometimes they have helped clean up mud left by the tsunami, and built relationships with the people they are helping, which contributes to strengthening the foundations of this project.

Realistic plans rather than grand visions

It’s not as if the project is without issues. To proceed with the current reconstruction plan, some land needs to be provided by the owners, and those negotiations are of high priority. Another issue is that the neighborhood in which the people who administered the grove before the tsunami is no longer there, and so a new management must be found.
Noboru Kato, founder of the project and local resident and businessman, says he wants a good grasp of each problem and to solve them one by one. He also says that while he would like to talk about big dreams within the framework of reconstruction, he is aware of the need for action rooted in reality. “Straight after the earthquake, many of the ideas the town received for reconstruction were apparently large in scope and vision, but we continued to focus on a more realistic plan which was of a smaller scale of just the one town.”
The committee first submitted their proposal to the local government last year but it wasn’t until April this year that they started working together. It was like a test of endurance but the continued efforts to pursue a dream grounded in reality may be the real reason behind their success.

Opinions from residents at the first workshop

“If the town can build a grove which protects it from high tides and winds and everyone is happy with it, that would be the best gift for future generations.” (Male, 70s)
“I hope it is done in a way that later generations can understand what their ancestors were thinking when they made it.” (Female, 20s)
“I hope it is a grove I can enjoy even when I’m not happy with something, and makes me want to go there again.” (Female, 70s)
“I’d like the grove to stop the power of tsunami. To be cool in summer and to limit the impact of snow in winter. A grove which is in harmony with the nature, and a good place to take a break. ” (Male, 40s)
“I hope it’s a place where one can always hear the voices of small children, like a nice park.” (Female, 60s)


(Translated by Nate Hill)


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