Best laid plans

The 'Safdie debacle' highlights the need, critics say, to revamp the building process.

tractor image 298 88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
tractor image 298 88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The battle against the Safdie Plan, which called for building 20,000 housing units on 24,000 dunams in the hills west of Jerusalem, mobilized one of the largest coalitions of activists ever assembled in the city, comprising environmental, planning and social action groups as well as MKs, artists and intellectuals. The effort garnered more than 16,000 public objections, including that of Mayor Uri Lupolianski. The scope of the opposition campaign, and the Safdie Plan's subsequent rejection by the National Planning Council in February of this year, renewed the public's confidence in its ability to effect change. It also raised questions about the efficacy of the planning process itself, which only involves the public at the objections stage, after a significant amount of time and money has already been spent developing a plan. According to SPNI's national director of community development Naomi Tsur, the "Safdie debacle," which saw a decade and a half spent commissioning, finalizing and promoting the Safdie Plan only to have it be overturned, highlights the glitches in the planning system and reaffirms the need for its restructuring. "The opponents of Safdie maintained throughout the campaign that the planning process was upside down, and that all the debates and discussions that took place in the last couple of years should have taken place before the whole thing began," explains Tsur. "It illustrates that if you did things differently you could save a lot of public funds." According to Tsur, the Safdie Plan is one of many plans with a similar story. A plan to develop the Valley of the Gazelles, the 227-dunam plot of open space that sits at the corner of Rehov Herzog and Sderot Begin, was in development for 10 years but was overturned at the objections stage. Similarly, the Israel Lands Administration tried to push through a plan for a hotel complex and a 150-meter-tall observation tower along the Sherover Promenade in Armon Hanatziv. That plan faced objections in 1999, then passed through the subsequent stages of the planning system until it was finally rejected this year. And the city center, particularly along Jaffa Road, she adds, has been left undeveloped for decades, as the process has been held up by landowners fighting over building percentages. A multi-stakeholder process, Tsur asserts, comprising not only the planning authorities and landowners but business interests, the public and the transportation system, could go a long way in improving the planning system, and ultimately the look and feel of the city. "If you change the planning course, you change the future. Any act of planning constitutes a future segment of our city." Tsur, together with the Coalition for a Sustainable Jerusalem, is pushing for a revision of the planning process to include greater public participation. Presently, Tsur reveals, the public is only involved after a plan has already been approved by the local and regional planning committees. And even then, she adds, the public's role is as objector rather than proactive contributor. AS BENJI HYMAN, a lawyer who specializes in planning and building law, writes in his book Planning and Building Law: A Public Guide, "Objections are submitted and heard relatively late in the planning process, after the planning authorities have already determined that their basic stance is to authorize the plan. The objector is in a position of weakness; he has to persuade the planning establishment to reconsider its decision and not to authorize the plan at all or at least not according to its original features." Submitting an objection also requires a tremendous investment of time, money and knowledge. Private individuals can hardly compete with the vast resources available to investors, politicians and public officials. The lengthy bureaucratic procedures for filing an objection are deliberate, contends Tal Perry, a resident of Givat Mordechai. The notion of public participation is more "fashionable than sincere," she says. "Authorities trying to adopt the concept don't really want to know what the public knows and thinks, or to hear what they have to say." Rather than encouraging partnership between the public and the government, Tsur says, the system works to alienate the public. "These are not major decisions of state. These are about what neighborhoods are going to be like in the future, and who has a better right to be part of that than all the people living in the area?" Planning professionals agree. "The negative form of public inclusion is not enough and reflects an outdated world view that the public is a nuisance," says local urban planner Nili Baruch. "The public knows best. Their local knowledge needs to be combined with the planner's professional expertise - they can't be separated." "We have to change the mind-set of the decision makers from 'dictators' in charge of the building process in Jerusalem into 'public servants,' with much more sensitivity and will to learn from the public," says Jerusalem city councilman and opposition leader Nir Barkat, who sits on the District Planning Committee. "An earlier phase of getting public input for every building permit must be added to the approval process." "The basis for improving the system is information and inclusion," says Hyman, "It needs to be much better organized and accessible, with willingness for real dialogue. The different perspectives of the planning authorities and public balance each other and it's important that both are present." Although the public is frequently faulted for prolonging the authorization of plans, in fact, Hyman notes, a 1986 study by the Technion found that on average, plans that are objected to only extend the process of approval by two weeks. "What is to blame for the planning process's lengthy timetable is not the public, but the leisurely approach of the planning institutions themselves," he says. "There are more than 100 set deadlines within the planning process, but the planning institutions don't stand by any of them, and there are no sanctions for doing so. I would be surprised if [only] one or two plans nationally met their deadlines." "There is also a very important issue, which is the identity of residents with the city and their own responsibility to the city," Tsur adds. "Part of Jerusalem's problem is people getting up and leaving, and one of the reasons they're leaving is they don't see a solution to the problems that face them." According to Tsur, a planning process that encourages public input earns the public's goodwill and stems negative migration by granting more power to its citizens. "By inviting anyone who wants to give their input and understanding about how the city should be planned, you will have a city where people want to stay," because its residents will feel a greater sense of control over their circumstances. "The public doesn't always have a comprehensive vision," adds Katamon resident Michaella Cohen, "but it's important for the public [to be involved] because it's our life that building plans have the potential to improve or worsen." JERUSALEMITE PINI Lozowick, a longtime supporter of the Coalition for Sustainable Jerusalem, recently took initiative on the matter by hosting a private gathering of some 50 locals, in hopes of creating a consortium of Jerusalem "stakeholders," or people who have an interest in the future planning of the city. Among those present at the meeting were special guests Daniel Drukarz and Allan Ledden, planning specialists from London who were invited to share some of the lessons and ideas that underpin strategic planning matters affecting the UK's sprawling capital city. In 2004, London implemented a new planning strategy known as the London Plan, a spatial planning blueprint for the city. The plan was drafted by the city's fledgling strategic planning authority, the Greater London Authority, which is headed by the mayor. "London was previously regulated by 32 independent boroughs, each pointing in a different direction," explains Ledden, one of the authors of the London Plan. "And it was, perhaps, a lot easier for the development industry to pick them off one by one, isolate them and push through their development plan without having a strategic authority in place. That's a lot more difficult to do now when you've got a mayor with planning powers and he is able to enforce the terms of the London Plan." The changes to London's planning system came about in response to significant population growth projections for the city. "By 2015, a city the size of Jerusalem [700,000-800,000 people] will be added to London's population. So London faces a core issue, which is how it can plan properly for population growth in an environmentally sustainable way," says Drukarz, who heads the Planning and Regeneration group for the London law firm Pitman Solicitors. Although the London Plan has been in effect for only a few years, Ledden and Drukarz say it has already had a positive influence on development in the city. "Before the Greater London Authority was in place, there was a feeling, particularly at the local level, that the development industry was calling all the shots [and] that it was building where it wants, both in location and in the kind of development it wanted. [The feeling was] that there was nothing in it for the community itself, and that the community wasn't involved in the process," says Ledden. "Also, little or no regard was being paid to the environment so that these schemes were coming forward with… little thought about the impact the development would have on the community as a whole. Would it require more green space? Would it require more health services? All those issues were being ignored by the development industry, because they weren't part of the requirements to comply with. "Now that they're enshrined in the London Plan," Ledden explains, "it adds a degree of certainty. Everyone knows that these issues have to be addressed before you put a development proposal in place - they can't be stuck on as afterthoughts." He adds: "We're not saying that London is perfect by any shape, way or means, or that we've solved all of our problems. All we're saying is that there's a process in place which helps us identify what those problems are, and opens a debate as to what the solutions should be." One key component that lies at the heart of the London Plan and the city's planning process in general is partnership between local and national government, NGOs and community groups. The other key component is public participation, which consists of ongoing consultation with the community and transparency in the process. As part of this, Ledden explains, an annual monitoring report is published. "There are set objectives and targets within the plan, and at the end of each year there is a report done to see to what extent have these targets and objectives actually been achieved, and if they haven't, what changes need to be implemented to enable those targets to be achieved." The reports are prepared by the Greater London Authority and given to the mayor of London, and he, along with the 32 boroughs and several other public-interest groups, consult on all these matters. "It's very much an ongoing process," says Ledden. "It's not just here's the plan, this is what we are going to do in the next 10 to 15 years." "The whole process is very transparent," Drukarz adds. "All the information is available to the public on the Internet in real time and everybody's view is welcomed, accepted and taken into consideration in formulating and reformulating policy. Nobody is shut out of the process." "People are invited to make written representation, and there's also an opportunity for them to be heard at a public hearing. Those representatives are heard by an independent, third party government-appointed inspector, who writes a report based on everything he's heard and then makes recommendations based on it," Ledden explains. Furthermore, "Each of the 32 London boroughs has to produce plans which must be in conformity with the London Plan. Before they can follow their own plan, they have to produce a certificate of public participation, which shows what steps they have made to get people to participate in the process and are they sufficient. "Most boroughs go far further than the required minimum and have public meetings, information available on the Internet, conduct petitions, put stuff in the local newspapers - everything you can think of to get people to understand the process, participate in it, and have their comments made so that they feel, at the end of the day, that they own the process, that this is not some high in the sky back plan that's been imposed by central government, and that this is their plan that they've helped to write and that they are helping to enforce." PUBLIC RESPONSE to the London Plan, Ledden says, has been very positive. "You cannot please all of the people all of the time, but you can make them feel that they've had an opportunity to have their say and for their say to be taken into account." "And that's such an important part of the process," he continues. "It means that it's much more likely that the aspects of the London Plan are going to be followed, and that people are going to put forward development proposals that incorporate that plan because they know this is what the local community wants." "I think that following the public meeting organized by the SPNI," says Ledden, "it became obvious from local residents there that they are very keen to participate in the planning process, but feel they aren't able to do so under the current way that the planning system in Jerusalem is organized. "We're suggesting that a debate needs to be opened as to what Jerusalem's planning problems are and everyone needs to participate, both national and local government, NGOs, and the local community in particular, so that you can then identify solutions." Drukarz adds: "The fact of the matter is, it's worked in London and if it can work in London, which is different than Jerusalem but is many times the scale in magnitude, it can work in Jerusalem." However, cautions Tsur, "None of this can happen if it's [just] Sustainable Jerusalem becoming friends with the people who were involved with the London Plan… There is no way that non-government civil groups can do it alone. What we hope to do is to enter into a dialogue with City Hall, and to create a new process," she says. "The city could invite over this team of experts from London and we could all start this brave, new world. I don't know if it can happen, but we've certainly got to give it a try." Barkat agrees. "Experience from London can really help a great deal, since learning from success is the best way to improve, much better than re-inventing the wheel. I believe they [London planning professionals] can help change the attitude of current municipal leadership to be more open to the public," he says. "Jerusalem must recognize the flaws in the current planning system… and spend time re-planning and learning from others. Only then, I believe, can we continue."