Let's get our priorities straight

Building on the western hills overlooking Jerusalem - as Moshe Safdie proposes - would be disastrous.

By ELIHU D. RICHTER
October 23, 2006 19:41
4 minute read.
environmentalists protest against safdie plan 298

against safdie plan 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

I am part of a coalition opposing the building of 20,000 dwelling units on more than 26 square kilometers of natural woodlands and forests in the western hills overlooking Jerusalem - commonly known as the Safdie Plan after its architect, Moshe Safdie. The newspapers are full of stories reporting that budgets for nationwide earthquake readiness programs, missile defense and even for basic training of IDF reservists are inadequate. Nobelist Roger Kornberg says the government is starving our institutions of higher education. Schools did not open in Kiryat Shmona because filth and dirt was not cleaned up by unpaid municipal workers. My friends in government tell me of steep cuts in budgets for schools, rehabilitation programs for the disabled, day care services, neighborhood community centers and cultural programs. There are no budgets for removing dangerous pedestrian "black spots" on our city roads, or creating something so elementary as a citywide bicycle path network. East Jerusalem remains neglected. Our capital remains Israel's poorest big city. THE SAFDIE Plan promotes abandonment, withdrawal, disengagement and flight from the center of the city. It directly promotes, subsidizes and accelerates the migration of middle-class families westward away from Jerusalem. Younger couples seeking jobs and better education for their children continue to leave. Since the 1950s, city planners have reported that urban sprawl weakens a city's core center and undermines its tax base. Poorer neighborhoods are left behind to decay, increasing the risks for stagnation, friction, crime and violence of the kind seen in the Katamonim in the early 1970s. When there is urban sprawl - building out rather than in - the costs of providing and maintaining essential services in water supply, sewerage, transportation, education and health services for every new family are substantially higher. And, of course, the Safdie Plan with its roads and housing on the crests of western hills would destroy the last iconic vistas west of the city and excise its green lung - an obscene defacement of our legacy to our children and grandchildren. Now is not the time to pour billions into a project that will weaken the core of Jerusalem, divert resources away from existential priorities in national security, safety and education and undermine its status as the capital city of Israel. The absurdity of the Safdie Plan is that it's proffered as a solution to the housing shortage in Jerusalem when it compares unfavorably with the alternatives. The Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem has identified lands closer to and in the center of Jerusalem that would provide housing for 60,000 families. Safdie would provide much less at greater cost. GOING AHEAD with the Safdie Plan is the major pretext for building a huge network of ring roads in the western hills of Jerusalem. This network - one more manifestation of the distorted priorities of "asphalt Zionism" - would produce the Los Angelization of Jerusalem. The plan would set in motion what urban planners call "predict and provide" - meaning, if you build roads to relieve congestion, these roads will induce more congestion, which then creates the pressures for building more roads. Massive road building means cost overruns, corruption and plundering the treasury, and that means less investment for defense, education, earthquake protection, job creation and strengthening essential services for the core of the city, especially its weaker neighborhoods in the Katamonim, Talpiot, Kiryat Hayovel, Kiryat Menahem, Neveh Ya'acov, Mea She'arim and, yes, the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The Safdie Plan has failed to address the well-studied direct and indirect public health impacts of urban sprawl and massive road building. The major effect of urban sprawl is increased dependence on the automobile for getting around. The Hebrew University School of Public Health, in 2004, submitted a report to the National Planning and Building Commission reviewing the substantial epidemiological literature on these impacts. The school called for the introduction of a "health impact assessment" of the Safdie Plan and its alternatives. The direct effects of building out will be more road deaths and injuries in the young, more coughing, wheezing, asthma and obstructive lung disease. Everyone from infants to adults will be affected. We'll see more cardiac problems, low birth weights and the like. More time in the car means less walking to school for children and adults and more obesity. Urban sprawl means that pollutants from the tailpipes of the automobiles of wealthier commuters go into the windpipes of poorer inner city residents. There will be the potential and contamination of aquifers from run off of greases and fugitive exhaust dusts. Backers of the Safdie Plan, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have neglected the geo-strategic, economic and social impacts of urban sprawl and massive road building on the Jerusalem area. The Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem wants not only to save the hills around Jerusalem, but Jerusalem itself. We say, go from "predict and provide" to "predict and prevent." We need to stop squandering budgets on Asphalt Zionism and invest massively in real infrastructure, i.e. education, schools, libraries, community centers and universities. We need to make Jerusalem a magnet for younger families and its universities appealing for students of all levels the world over. The Safdie Plan will help to suck Jerusalem dry. It is bad for Jerusalem and bad for Israel. Tche writer, a physician, is professor emeritus of occupational and environmental medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Hadassah School of Public Health and a consultant to Metuna. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem.


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