Running a city as complex and multifaceted as Jerusalem is not easy.Those in Safra Square entrusted with the city’s future are immersed in the endless details of its day-to-day upkeep. The challenge of keeping Jerusalem on an even keel often leaves few minds free to set a course forward. To have a genuine urban strategy, cities need someone to take a step back and examine the bigger picture.When New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg retired in 2014, he set out to provide such a resource not only for his hometown, but for major cities all across America. Bloomberg Philanthropies pledged $45 million for the creation of “Innovation Delivery Teams” in five US cities to streamline the work of their municipal governments. Each team handpicked issues of chief importance to their city, with remarkable results in a short time frame. The bureaucratic red tape for opening new businesses in Chicago was significantly cut down; in New Orleans, murder rates dropped by over 20% in merely two years.
It is sensible, therefore, that the model pioneered in the US should be replicated here by the Start-Up Nation. In early 2015, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Jerusalem Innovation Team (JLM i-team) to help the municipality grapple with the strategic challenges facing the city today. Though it reports directly to the mayor of Jerusalem, the team maintains its independence, focusing on a limited set of clearly defined areas and initiating projects to better the lives of Jerusalemites.The shape and character of public spaces is a key aspect of urban living that affects residents, whose private space is so constricted.In Jerusalem, decades of haphazard planning with limited resources led to a patchwork development of community centers and parks that has focused on the physical dimension of these public spaces without investing much thought or creativity in harnessing them to strengthen communities.“Shaping public spaces with elements that connect people to their neighborhood helps create a bond between residents and their city,” explains Dena Scher, head of media and communications at the JLM i-team. “More importantly, you create a stronger platform for residents to connect with each other.”The concept of “place-making” has been central to the JLM i-team’s vision for the renovation of some 26 parks and other public areas across the city. The famous colorful umbrellas that until not so long ago lined up above Nahalat Shiva, quickly becoming a curiosity not only among Jerusalemites but around the rest of the country as well, are perhaps the most widely known and most popular of the team’s initiatives. Since its inception, it has worked closely with artists and local inhabitants to pinpoint key spots of each neighborhood around Jerusalem where beautification would have the strongest impact on the community.The team began a collaborative project in Pisgat Ze’ev that brought over 200 residents together to roll up their sleeves and paint street art on dozens of outdoor staircases and traffic circles around their neighborhood, imbuing it with new life using only a few simple brush strokes. This January, the JLM i-team orchestrated a citywide “Festival-on-Wheels” that used specially designed “content-mobiles” to carry out pop-up cultural events in neighborhoods ranging from Mea She’arim to Sheikh Jarrah, thus a colorful flamenco show, impromptu theater and a science exhibit were brought to the doorsteps of Jerusalemites all over the city, each event “tailored to the unique character of the neighborhood,” emphasizes Scher.Involving Jerusalem’s residents in the decision-making process behind such projects has been a central objective of the JLM i-team. Residents who take a more active role in shaping their environment ultimately relate to it more strongly. An online platform inviting Jerusalemites to give feedback on life in the city will soon be launched for this purpose.Jerusalem’s youth – coupled with some 40,000 students from all over the country who chose to pursue their studies in the capital – have been on the team’s agenda since its inception.Only a small fraction of the thousands of young professionals who graduate in Jerusalem each year choose to make it their home. Instead of contributing to its social fabric, many opt to seek their fortunes in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Realizing the strategic importance of stopping this relentless brain drain, the team prioritized fostering an active and lively community life.Strengthening the personal connection to the city of students while residing here makes it more likely that they will choose to remain. Establishing networks for medical professionals, PhD students, government employees and educators in a joint effort with the New Spirit NGO is another means to that end.The best platform for creating professional communities is the lunch table. The lack of restaurants and eateries in business and industrial areas like Har Hotzvim or the government district leaves thousands of working men and women hungry not only for a good meal, but for an opportunity to socialize and mingle with colleagues working in the floor above or below.The team’s “AutoChef” initiative will unleash a fleet of food trucks to serve these famished folks the finest dishes Jerusalem’s culinary scene has to offer on a daily basis right outside the workplace.Restaurateurs will enjoy good business, workers will enjoy a proper lunch and professional ecosystems will grow stronger. A network marches on its stomach.Working hand-in-hand with enthusiastic residents, the JLM i-team seems to have left its mark on the city and will continue to do so. Much of the effort has focused on lifting up the weaker elements of Jerusalem society – above all thousands of at-risk youths.Three municipal groups and dozens of NGOs address the issue of teenage dropouts living on the streets, some even drug-addicted, yet there is surprisingly little coordination.“Each organization has its own definition of what constitutes at-risk youth, explains JLM i-team director Sharone April.“We identified this as a major challenge for Jerusalem and have been working on creating effective cooperation between these groups to put petty politics aside and focus on what is best for these teenagers.”The i-team is working to coordinate the efforts of all NGOs fighting the same problem based on in-depth research and comprehensive mapping of the youth-at-risk phenomenon. Meeting weekly to discuss each of the 168 known runaway teens living in the city center, a new on-the-ground team representing many of these groups matches each youth with the NGO best suited to his or her conditions. Consultation and coordination between the groups provides decision-makers in the municipality with clarity regarding what is happening on the street, recently culminating in a decision to construct two new shelters specifically for youth-at-risk.The eyes and minds leading the JLM i-team have achieved much in two years for the capital. Ultimately, however, without the entrepreneurial energies and creativity of Jerusalem’s residents themselves, such top-down efforts could never have had the same impact on daily life in this town.“We want every resident of Jerusalem to take an active part in making this city a fun place to live, a city to be proud of,” concludes April.“The JLM i-team is working hard to strengthen every neighborhood and connect every community.”