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Elka (on the right) guiding a tour in the city center for the clinic's "Friday tours" project

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Why do we need Urban Clinics? insights from a former Urban Clinic fellow, Elka Gotfryd

 

For the past year and a half, since graduating from my master’s in planning at Hebrew University, I have been working as a community urban planner at the Lev Ha’ir (downtown) community council.  One of the first tasks came when the Department of City Improvement notified me that they were planning to upgrade a local playground. I was to ensure that the park would indeed cater to children of all ages, and that the children’s needs were being addressed.

I asked myself: Who knows better what children want than the children themselves? I led a “Kids Planning Conference”, where approximately sixty neighborhood children were asked to draw their dream playground.

This approach to civic engagement was successful for two reasons. Firstly, I was able to make well-informed decisions. For example, the children suggested playground equipment that we hadn’t previously considered.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the children and their families are now very proud of their public space. Since the renovation, they have taken more responsibility to maintain a clean and safe environment. For years prior to the upgrade, parents felt a certain level of neglect towards their neighborhood. The intensive, interactive process and keen attention to the community’s needs have instilled in these parents a newfound sense of satisfaction, gratitude and trust.

I have to admit – when I began studying planning, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I grew up in Toronto, Canada; when I moved to Jerusalem, I started my undergraduate degree in political science and geography. The natural progression of things was to continue to a degree in urban planning; the subject always interested me, but I had no idea that planning could be such a significant tool to address social injustices, to enhance lives, and even just to make people happy.  In Emily’s course at the Urban Clinic, I started to understand that planning is not only about institutions, establishments, or authorities – it’s about people. It’s about interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s about being creative. It’s about the bottom-up. It’s about empowerment, and about just giving people the opportunity to make a difference and watching what happens. 

When I finished the course, I approached Emily and asked if I could work with her. I think that was the beginning my career taking shape.  At that point, I was the Clinic’s only fellow. I was feeling very blessed, because I knew that my friends were working in offices while I was exploring and seeing the world and soaking it all in.

My first task at the Clinic was to help organize the Israeli delegation to the World Urban Forum in Napoli, Italy, where I saw Israelis open up to new ideas and new partnerships, as they realized that good things were happening in places that were worse off than Jerusalem – and that was because of a strong community and social approach to planning, as you might see if you take a look at the Clinic’s summary of WUF7 in Medellin.

“Social injustices always have a spatial aspect, and social injustices cannot be addressed without also addressing their spatial aspect.” This quote by Peter Marcuse is one of those pearls of wisdom that I don’t stop thinking about.  It’s the basis of my professional approach and it inspires me to believe in my practice. It has also brought me to the next step in my career.

Thanks to my very lucky streak, I now know what I want to do – which I think many 27-year-olds nowadays aren’t necessarily saying.  I’ve recently been accepted to a second master’s degree at the Pratt Institute in NYC, in Urban Placemaking and Management, where I will delve further into other aspects of planning, such as design and local economy. After that, I plan to make beautiful, sustainable and viable places together with communities wherever I might find myself a few years down the road.

I feel like I got really lucky.  And I think every student should have the opportunities that I’ve had to gain real, hands-on experience and exposure, and to complete his or her degree knowing that s/he’s ready to engage, and ready to be a professional.

I am confident that, if more students would have the opportunity to explore and to be exposed during their degree studies, the Hebrew University would start breeding the best, most socially aware, most sensitive and most creative planners this world is going to see – which, of course, would contribute first and foremost to Israel’s planning system.

If you ask me, urban planning is one of the most important fields there is – it’s basically like intensive care or medical treatment for the places we live in. Hence: the Clinic.