Their ignorance, at our expense

A dangerous mix of urban planning and politics threatens the character of some of Jerusalem's neighborhoods.

A laborer works on an apartment building under construction in the Har Homa neighborhood of Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
A laborer works on an apartment building under construction in the Har Homa neighborhood of Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli politician involvement in urban planning has proved a disaster.
The distance between what our politicians need to know concerning urban planning and what they know is greater than ever. The long and growing list of ministers, members of parliament and mayors who were either indicted, went to prison or should have, accused of breaches of trust or taking bribes tied to building projects, didn’t get that way by chance. They did it for the money. Certainly. But there’s more to it than that. The Holyland Park in Jerusalem serves as the ultimate example. Those who were convicted simply didn’t see what was self-evident. Had they not been so completely ignorant they would have easily recognized that the monstrous hulk on the hill spelled corruption.
Before being elected, former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, served for five years as chairman of the Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee. What did he know about physical planning before assuming this powerful post? What did he learn during this extended period of time? Apparently, not much.
At about that time he was also the client for the national headquarters building of the Yad Sarah health services institution which he founded. Situated on Herzl Boulevard in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood, this massive structure inexplicably presents a closed façade, oblivious to the major transportation bus-light rail intermodal interface directly opposite and is unrelated to existing adjacent commercial frontage. Still today, a golden opportunity exists for lucrative commercial within the building at street level.
No less than four generals along with several high-ranking military commanders have served as Israeli ministers of housing.
A pity that the design of quality neighborhoods and housing has no connection whatever to a ground army gaining ground in a war supported by tactical aviation and supply lines.
Mayoral elections in Jerusalem are scheduled for October 2018. What building project can the incumbent mayor show as part of his campaign? The answer to this question was not long in coming. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat recently posted his gargantuan proposal for decking Begin Boulevard in the valley separating the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus from the Beit Hakerem neighborhood. The plan, which calls for the construction of 2000 home units, includes four 40 story towers resembling the Azrieli complex in Tel Aviv. Barkat proudly states that this plan exemplifies “thinking out of the box,” an expression borrowed from his hi-tech days.
The project, which clearly violates the unique and intimate character of Beit Hakerem, has already engendered great resistance on the part of the neighborhood’s residents.
Incredibly, Barkat, who himself resides in Beit Hakerem, seems intent on severely impacting his own neighborhood. Every Israeli city and town has seen this movie before. Uninformed, self-serving, shortterm thinking has almost always governed here.
Most of us have little doubt as to the good and honest intentions of Finance Minister and present housing czar Moshe Kahlon, which are most, unfortunately, hardly enough. The housing plans backed by his ministry are all large-scale, thousands of home units in each project. It isn’t as if numbers are unimportant. To densify is, of course, necessary, as is building fast and at a reasonable cost. It’s just that one crucial matter is being forgotten: That these thousands of free-standing residential towers he has helped and is helping to create, which ignore the two primary life-giving elements of public urban space – the street and the square, will be with us for generations to come, destroying our social fabric.
It was Winston Churchill who said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
If in our haste for solving the shortage of housing, public urban space, and the natural environment are disregarded, the result will be an ugly Israel with a poor quality of life.
Beautiful and livable cities have well-informed policymakers at their head. For quality architectural and urban design to come into being, it must first be desired by our top political echelon in whose power it is to create the social and economic climate enabling its existence. Having succeeded in this they must then choose well, keeping in mind that the selection of architects and planners has an important moral dimension.
Rejecting cronyism in favor of high talent that is inextricably bound to true human purpose, they must do all they can to permit top-flight professionals to do what they know best. The matter is urgent.
We are fast reaching the point of no return.
The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.