Community-Based Design first stop in Jerusalem

Bad urban planning has been a curse for cities for many decades. Rigid planning processes produced mega projects inspired by modernity and modern solutions. In the process they eradicated entire coherent neighborhoods and communities for the sake of modernization, zoning, gentrification or public-interest installations such as traffic improvements, shopping malls, landfills, incinerators, or industrial zones. Most developed countries have learned their lessons. But, many developing countries prefer to repeat mistakes, rather than learn from their predecessors. Thanks to pioneers such as journalist and writer Jane Jacobs, urban planner William H. Whyte, and architect Jan Gehl, groundbreaking ideas were introduced about designing cities for people. 'Placemaking', which developed from the theories of Whyte, brings public spaces to life through community-based design processes. As communities have their own ideas and aspirations about the place they live, when city planners and developers truly listen to these aspirations and welcome grassroots involvement, they spare themselves headaches. They not only avoid common problems such as traffic-dominated streets, little-used parks, and isolated or under-performing urban projects, but they end up creating happier communities and better places in the city.
Israel considers itself a developed country and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat aspires to a smart city, with ground breaking technological initiatives for communication. However, when it comes to urban planning, the city sometimes seems to be living in its glorious past.

Attending the hearing of the Regional Planning committee on objections on running the green line of the light rail along Emek Refaim, was like watching a film of the past. The Municipality is eager to move ahead with a planned grand project, but the local community will not play along unless the plan is reconsidered and totally revised. The outdated practice of the Municipality to ignore the community early in the process is now backfiring, as a strong, coherent and highly-skilled community is determined to fight back to save its neighborhood from the destructive traffic plans advanced by the Municipality.

The Municipality of Jerusalem, within its overall plan for light rail transportation in the city is advancing a plan that will turn Emek Refaim street, the spine cord of the historic German Colony neighborhood, into a through way. Proposing a combination of light rail and vehicular traffic, the plan is threatening to kill one of the most precious historic mixed-use neighborhoods of the city. Cutting historic trees of 140-years old, installing 11 traffic lights in a stretch of one kilometer, raising barriers between the east and west sides of the street, running 70m long trains every 3 minutes, and flooding small side streets with traffic, are only some of the justified concerns of the local community. Other concerns, shared with the local businesses, include a 3-6 year construction stand-still along the middle of the neighborhood, noise, pollution, water and electricity outages, that threaten to close businesses and force residents out of the neighborhood. But the highly skilled community, is also concerned about the professional merits of the proposed plan.

‘If we suppose that quality of life and all these concerns are not important, and we only look at the quality of the proposed plan, we come to the conclusion that this is a very bad plan. It is irresponsible', says Prof. Yona Rosenfeld. 'The plan gives no answers to viable alternatives and given the demographics, it will be obsolete the day it is opened to the public,’ argues urban planner Alan Baumgart. ‘Take security concerns for example: if a terrorist attack stops the light rail traffic on Emek Refaim and a vehicular traffic jam is formed alongside the light rail – as it is planned – the neighborhood is in danger, because no ambulance or fire engine could get through to support the neighborhood,’ he adds.

Prof. Rosenfeld and Baumgart were among the experienced professionals-neighbors who presented their recommendations to the Regional Planning committee, complied in a 120-page report. The work produced in-house by leading experts living in the community and outside consultants hired by the community, shows that it takes a strong community to save a  unique neighborhood. 

The Emek Refaim community is strong and determined to save its neighborhood. A unique neighborhood among the last remaining in the city with a real community and thriving public space, which is accessible and daily visited and enjoyed by all residents of Jerusalem. It is really a struggle between planning for people and planning for transportation. It is about the survival of one of the best urban mixed communities in the city, with a variety of land-uses, mixing residential with more than 100 local businesses, health institutions, banks, shops, and schools serving the entire city.

The Regional Planning committee hearing took place on July 20, at the Bait Vagan Hostel on Hapisga street. At the first half of the hearing, the Amutat Refaim BaMoshavot, the NGO created by the local community supported by more than 2000 households, presented its objections to the plan and presented alternatives. On the second half the committee heard the concerns of individual residents who filed complaints.

The Amutat Refaim objections were presented by the local residents-professionals, among them architect and urban planner and UNESCO Chair on Modern Heritage Prof. Moshe Margalith, urban planner Alan Baumgart, sociologist and social worker of Hebrew University and Israel-Prize Laureate Prof. Yona Rosenfeld, literature Prof. Ariel Hirschfeld, Michael Sela, environmental expert Rona Zamir, local businesses representative Moti Yehoshua, and attorney and local businessman Assaf Obsfeld. They expressed their concerns from the damage that construction will cause – a lesson learned from Jaffa road light rail construction - to the repercussions of bad planning in the functioning and safety of the neighborhood once the light rail is installed. They emphasized a viable alternative, which the planning team never considered or evaluated, namely, to run the light rail in a tunnel under Emek Refaim, like it is planned for Geula neighborhood.

A short film was screened breaking down the baseless aspiration of the Municipality that ‘Emek Refaim will be the new Jaffa Road’ explaining the differences between the two streets and the dangers of applying something that may be suitable for one street to another where it is not necessarily suitable. The only thing that the two streets have in common, though, is undoubtedly, the damage to be caused to the local businesses during construction.

At the end of the session, Mordehai Avraham, chairman of the Amutat Refaim BaMoshavot, clearly expressed the voice of the community: ‘We will not allow the light rail to run down Emek Refaim!’ and added ‘Urban planning is not transportation planning! The city is ready to expel people from the city just to implement a bad plan, but we will not let this happen. We will fight until the end and take the City to court if necessary. Fortunately, we are not alone. We are not the only example where the city is not considering the concerns of the local community.’ He closed by saying that ‘tunnels for public transportation are built all over the world, including the English-French Channel Tunnel (spanning a distance of more than 50 klm at 75 m below seabed). Only in Israel we are told that it cannot be done!’

 Watch the video here: