Over the past years, the World Heritage Centre had received several letters and reports from an NGO called “Society for Protecting the Heijyokyo Capital Site”, expressing strong concerns for the possible negative impact of the proposed Yamato-Kita express highway on the heritage value of the property.
By letters dated 29 January 2007, the State Party of Japan has transmitted to the World Heritage Centre a report on the progress concerning the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the proposed Yamato-Kita express highway, as well as information regarding the plans for the celebrations foreseen on the occasion of the 1300th anniversary of Nara, in 2010. With regard to the points raised by the Committee in its Decision 30 COM 7B.67, the State Party provided the following information.
The EIA, which is still under way, is under the supervision of three independent committees, established by the Government of Japan and composed of university professors and other experts in various relevant fields, as well as of the Urban Planning Council of Nara and Kyoto Prefectures. These structures, it is stated in the State Party report, are completely independent from the Government. Meetings of the three expert committees were open to the public and their proceedings disseminated through various media, including the internet. Public surveys were also carried out on seven occasions (collecting opinions received from 4,693 persons) as well as “explanatory assemblies”. Moreover, throughout the process for the identification, formulation, design and execution of this project, no consultant involved at one stage will be reused at a later stage. These provisions, according to the State Party, ensure the independence, objectivity and transparency of the process “to the same level that would be obtained by entrusting the EIA to an independent consultant”.
The process for the EIA, which is still underway, involved the initial examination of ten alternative options, which were assessed in terms of costs and benefits against various criteria including consideration for impact on archaeological remains and landscape integrity, and traffic congestion. After careful evaluation, the three expert committees identified from these a preferred route for the express highway (i.e. the so-called Saikujo-Saho Line). This underground route runs outside the core and buffer zones of the World Heritage property, thus avoiding any possible impact on its archaeological and visual integrity values. Concerning the issue of the possible fluctuation of the ground water level resulting from the construction of the highway, a study conducted by a group of experts has determined that this would be limited to a few centimetres, i.e. much less than the average seasonal fluctuation. Finally, careful soundings and preventive excavations will be carried out in the areas concerned by the access ramps of the highway, where strata of potential archaeological interest would be affected.
At present, a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has been prepared for the selected route, and comments have been received by the public and experts. Based on these comments, the expert committees will review and finalise the EIS which will be eventually submitted to the Urban Planning Council for approval. No final decision will be made until then.
As regards the issue of traffic congestion, the Nara Prefecture has established an additional expert group tasked with the elaboration of a traffic management plan. The express highway is expected to ease the traffic through the historic areas of the city, but an easier access to the town centre might result in strong congestion at peak times. For this reason, the State Party is considering the establishment of a series of “park and ride” facilities to encourage visitors to the World Heritage area to use public transportation.
The State Party has also provided information on the extensive plans being prepared for the 1300th anniversary celebrations that will take place in 2010. These are going to be held, among other locations, at the site of the Heijo Palace in Nara, extending over some 130 hectares within the core area of the World Heritage property. Here, the current plan foresees the construction of several temporary structures including nine wooden pavilions; two overpasses across the existing railway and the Miyato Street; gardens; other visitors’ facilities such as food areas, first aid and washrooms; and a route network to link all of the above.
These pavilions are meant to attract visitors and provide them with an introduction to the Japanese heritage as well as to World Heritage in general and the need to protect it. The Nara Prefecture, responsible for the events, has established two experts’ committees to investigate issues related to the structural design and landscaping of these temporary structures, which will be removed after the end of the celebrations.
These two committees have produced technical reports identifying, among other aspects, the main conservation issues related to the erection of the proposed facilities, and defining a series of design principles that are meant to minimize or avoid completely any risk of damage to the unexcavated archaeological remains which are buried under the surface of the area of the Heijo palace, at a depth ranging from -0.5 to -1.5 Mts. Through a series of soundings, it has been shown that the distribution of the archaeological remains and the nature and structure of the soil varies from one location to another across the area of the former Palace.
Based on these principles, including no digging of the ground, distributing loads to avoid soil compression as well as external piping etc., the Nara Prefecture intends to develop the detailed project for the temporary structures. Currently, the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan is studying the above-mentioned plans and technical reports.
The World Heritage Centre received a new letter, dated 10 March 2007, from the “Society for Protecting the Heijyokyo Capital Site”, contesting the validity of the explanations provided by the State Party. In particular, the NGO considers that the Urban Planning Council of Nara and appointed Experts’ Committees are not independent from the Government, and that the expert study which determined the fluctuation of the water table is not reliable. Finally, the NGO questions the very need for the highway, in the light of demographic projections that predict a considerable reduction in population (and therefore car traffic) in Japan over the next 40 years.