Urban planners advise China

Two months after an earthquake ravaged much of Sichuan province, workers are diligently salvaging bricks to restore a 6th century Taoist temple damaged in the disaster.

As China begins to look beyond emergency response toward long-term reconstruction, experts on post-disaster planning warn that expectations should be realistic because rebuilding will take years.

“I saw them cleaning the bricks one by one,” said Robert Olshansky, an urban planner at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has studied post-disaster reconstruction.

“You keep doing that, in a couple of years, you'll be done,” he said before cautioning, “Be patient. It takes a long time.”

Olshansky was among two dozen international experts who came to Sichuan this week to assess the damage from the 7.9-magnitude quake, which killed nearly 70,000 people and left 5 million homeless.

It is the first visit by such a large gathering of urban planners and disaster recovery experts to the quake zone, where many mountains were raked clean, towns collapsed into heaps of rubble and shoddily constructed schools were flattened.

The trip was co-organized by Zhao Jinhua, an urban planner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Zhao had seen news coverage of how the earthquake devastated the region. His idea was simple: Could the tragedy be used as an opportunity not just to rebuild, but to do it right?

China “is very good at short-term response but less so at systematic longer-term work. That's why I brought in international experts,” said Zhao, a doctoral student in urban planning.

Zhao tapped into the China Planning Network – an international group of academics that study urbanization in China – to assemble a stellar list of experts from Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley and MIT, as well as experts from Europe, the United Nations and Tokyo Metropolitan University in Japan.

First on the group's agenda: See the damage inflicted in Dujiangyan, a city of 700,000 about 55 miles south of the quake's epicenter.

They were taken by bus through the main streets, where bare shells of broken apartment buildings remain standing but empty. Rows of blue and white tents – part of hundreds of temporary resettlement camps throughout the province – lined the sides of the road, a visible reminder that an estimated 80 percent of the city's residents have been displaced.

Commercial shops were largely shuttered while bulldozers and backhoes rumbled at sites across the city. Blue fences surrounded flattened lots where the worst-hit buildings had been demolished.

But their first stop was high above the city at the badly damaged Two Kings Temple, a 1,500-year-old Taoist sanctuary set in the hills overlooking a river.

The tour, organized by government officials, included a 10-minute stop at the site of a three-story gym that had dramatically pancaked in one corner, before the experts were herded back on the bus. The brief visit reflected the sensitivity that remains over accusations that poor construction of buildings, particularly at schools, had contributed to the huge loss of life.

Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, suggested that the tragedy of the quake ultimately could be turned into the chance to rebuild a better city.

“This does present you with an opportunity. If all you do is reconstruct what was there before, you only turn back the clock. You need to do more. What kind of city do you want this to be in the future?” he said.