From disaster to resilience : a comparative study of legal frameworks for managing the seismic risk of existing buildings.

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Master of Laws
University of Canterbury
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Eade, Cameron

Though rare and unpredictable, earthquakes can and do cause catastrophic destruction when they impact unprepared and vulnerable communities. Extensive damage and failure of vulnerable buildings is a key factor which contributes to seismic-related disasters, making the proactive management of these buildings a necessity to reduce the risk of future disasters arising. The devastating Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 brought the urgency of this issue to national importance in New Zealand. The national earthquake-prone building framework came into effect in 2017, obligating authorities to identify existing buildings with the greatest risk of collapse in strong earthquakes and for building owners to strengthen or demolish these buildings within a designated period of time. Though this framework is unique to New Zealand, the challenge of managing the seismic risk of such buildings is common amongst all seismically-active countries. Therefore, looking outward to examine how other jurisdictions legally manage this challenge is useful for reflecting on the approaches taken in New Zealand and understand potential lessons which could be adopted.

This research compares the legal framework used to reduce the seismic risk of existing buildings in New Zealand with that of the similarly earthquake-prone countries of Japan and Italy. These legal frameworks are examined with a particular focus on the proactive goal of reducing risk and improving resilience, as is the goal of the international Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The Sendai Framework, which each of the case study countries have committed to and thus have obligations under, forms the legal basis of the need for states to reduce disaster risk in their jurisdictions. In particular, the states’ legal frameworks for existing building risk reduction are examined in the context of the Sendai priorities of understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk governance, and investing in resilience.

While this research illustrates that the case study countries have each adopted more proactive risk reduction frameworks in recent years in anticipation of future earthquakes, the frameworks currently focus on a very narrow range of existing buildings and thus are not currently sufficient for promoting the long-term resilience of building stocks. In order to improve resilience, it is argued, legal frameworks need to include a broader range of buildings subject to seismic risk reduction obligations and also to broaden the focus on long-term monitoring of potential risk to buildings.

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