Grandiose planning

Ignorance, personal ambition and ineptitude have inevitably led many mayors to support grandiose planning.

Tel Aviv skyline  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tel Aviv skyline
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Of all our political figures, mayors are positioned to do the most good or the most harm in matters concerning urban design. Their direct impact on the appearance of their cities is great. As they choose city officials responsible for setting physical planning policy, their indirect influence is significant as well. That growing line of chairmen of powerful municipal planning and building committees, assistant mayors, we see appearing in court almost daily were chosen by them. Mayors are, in effect, the chief urban planners of their cities.
The main point: the education of our mayors, wherever obtained, together with their prior experience, is unlikely to have prepared them to choose well and make crucial design decisions. Stated simply, judging by the results, it is highly doubtful there is even a single Israeli mayor who understands urban design.
Ignorance, personal ambition and ineptitude have inevitably led many mayors to support grandiose planning and building projects that were doomed to failure long before they were built.
How was Teddy Kollek to know that the City Hall complex he sponsored at enormous public expense was improperly tied to historic Jaffa Road, the principal transportation artery, and that Safra Square at its heart, monumentally scaled, would remain lifeless, as public squares are successful only when life goes on around them as well as within? Had they been better informed it is just possible that former Jerusalem mayors Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski, both sentenced to prison for their role in the affair, their eyes opened to that gargantuan hulk on the hill called Holyland Park, would not have supported it.
And who was it that backed the building of the Tel Aviv central bus station that has spread disease to its entire surrounding area? Does Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai understand that by permitting spontaneous and often unplanned physical development, he is advocating anarchy? It was the late Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat who during the First Gulf War prayed for a Scud missile to fall on Kikar Atarim, as he had no better idea of how to rid himself of this beachfront slum. Needless to say, few have had the courage to admit their mistakes.
At the hands of their mayors, several Israeli cities have already suffered irreparable damage. In the face of the unprecedented rate of change and the number of large-scale projects being built nation-wide today, educating our mayors in matters of design has become an urgent necessity.
In this regard Israel is of course not alone. Founded in 1986, The Mayors’ Institute for City Design (MICD) in the United States, for example, helps transform communities through design by preparing mayors to be the chief urban designers of their cities.
MICD achieves its mission by organizing technical assistance workshops where mayors engage leading design and development experts to find solutions to the most critical planning and design challenges facing their cities.
A precondition for the existence of quality architecture, urban design and planning is that there be a well-informed client. Isn’t it high time we had a national Mayors’ Institute for Urban Design of our own? Federation of Local Authorities in Israel – are you there?
The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.