Placemaking week 

The Israel Placemaking Week (May 2015) was organized by the Urban Clinic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Lab for Urban Innovation and Sustainability at the Tel Aviv University.  Ethan Kent and Philip Winn, two senior staff members from Project for Public Spaces, led a series of workshops in Tel Aviv, Lod, Arabeh, and Jerusalem. They shared their work experiences and best practices with decision makers, professionals, artists, and urban activists in order to explore the possibilities for improving public spaces throughout Israel.

What would Israeli cities look like if they were planned around public spaces instead of large-scale development projects? What if we made sure our neighborhoods and cities were not only Livable, but also Loveable? What would happen if we changed how we govern our public spaces, in order to allow and encourage organic, creative, and spontaneous community initiatives? These are some of the questions Kent and Winn dared participants to answer throughout Placemaking Week.

May 10 | Neve Shaanan

It is no secret that Neve Shaanan is a struggling neighbourhood. The first workshop of the week, hosted by the Tel Aviv Municipality, brought participants to explore the heart of the neighbourhood, stretching between the new and old central bus stations. Now, more than ever, this area suffers from social rifts; natives feel threatened by the thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who now call it home. One City Council member began with an anecdote: one week after his election, a neighbor asked, “You’ve been elected, so why are the Sudanese still here?”

Ethan Kent and Philip Winn from PPS took the opportunity to explain to participants how a focus on place as a common ground might encourage more positive communication among residents, regardless of race, class or gender. Processes of deep public participation in the reimagination of shared space can be a tool for building trust, community empowerment, sharing ideas, and taking advantage of existing local resources. Following this concept, the City has organized a series of exploratory workshops, where natives and immigrants will gather to share their visions for public space in Neve Shaanan.

May 11 | Lod

Urban renewal has tended to skip over peripheral cities like Lod. Considering this context, the diverse group speakers at the “Urbanism First” conference focused on trends of geographical bias in Israeli planning. Mayors, planners, economists, academics, press and activists challenged existing mechanisms: Is the master plan the most effective tool for generating change? What type of economic development is best suited to cities that are not high in demand? How might we navigate public spaces when faced with mixed or even conflicting populations?

The PPS workshop focused on the Lod market. Residents and merchants alike praise its community vibe and fresh produce; yet, in the same breath, they note that the place suffers from neglect, accessibility issues, and a general decline in consumer activity, partly due to the successes of markets in neighboring cities. Workshop participants identified points for potential interventions, collaborations, and new uses that might help to maximize the market’s phenomenal potential. For example, surrounding religious institutions might direct their existing tourist activities toward the market, community organizations could offer cooking lessons or other classes to local residents, and museums could utilize the market as an outdoor mobile exhibition space. 

Suggestions for more immediate interventions included replacing existing wire fences with more inviting and aesthetic edges and entrances, bringing in food stands or trucks, seating, and umbrellas, and adding signage for better orientation. As one participant noted, “Even if the only lesson we take from this workshop is that there is an option for lighter, quicker, and cheaper interventions until the long-term plan goes into play – it was a worthwhile experience.”

May 12 | Arabeh

The workshop in Arabeh took place as part of Joint-Ashelim’s annual event, in collaboration with “Better Together”, an organization that supports social initiatives in the area. Like many other Arab cities in Israel, Arabeh suffers from a lack of public spaces, accessibility and mobility issues, insufficient funding, and general disinvestment. This year, the hosts of the conference decided to utilize the Placemaking approach in addressing a new community park, with a specific stress on the meeting point between the physical and the social. “At the end of the day, the participants go home to their neighborhoods… and this exposure has great influence on how they see themselves. What goes on in the mind of a child who lives in a neglected place? Does he feel comfortable to invite his friends to his home? When we asked residents what most troubles them, they responded – the physical environment. We must infuse our work plan with this understanding,” said Shmuel Yelma, a senior staff member of Ashelim.

Throughout the workshop, residents and activists directed participants’ attention to the many challenges that arise in addressing resident needs through planning, such as accessibility, neglect due to multiple landowners, and the difficulty of developing privately owned public space in Israel. Philip Winn, from PPS, proposed to focus on smaller places first, even if there seems to be a need for accommodating private vehicles and many parking spaces. “If you’re standing in a place with potential that currently serves as a parking facility, you’ve got to ask yourself: how many people is this place serving, and how many people are prevented from enjoying its potential? Is this the best use for this space? This idea scares people, because people tend to think that if we get rid of one parking spot, we’ll likely get rid of them all, and we will never have a parking space ever again, anywhere, ever. But that is not reality. Change doesn’t work that way; change is incremental.  Even when there is a dire need for parking, we must think about whether, if we make this a better place, people will be willing to walk just a bit longer in order to get to it.”

Participants also identified opportunities for collaboration for the regeneration of areas adjacent to public buildings, such as the local school yard, or even the area outside a health clinic that could become a place to meet and learn about health issues. One suggestion was to prepare a map of these types of sites, which could benefit from physical interventions such as installation of terraces, handrails, or even outdoor escalators that would allow the older population residing on the hillside to arrive more easily at the senior day center located at the foothills.

Since the workshop, the plan for the new park has been implemented, and a group of community members inspired by the park’s success have come together in order to reimagine other public spaces in Arabeh.

May 13 | Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Municipality hosted its workshop as part of a kickstarter event for its new policy, which focuses on bringing life to all of the city’s neighborhoods, beyond the downtown core, by creating good public spaces in collaboration with artists, businesses, residents and civic organizations.

Mayor Nir Barkat, in his opening remarks during the morning session at the Bloomfield Science Museum, expressed the City’s excitement about this direction. “We know that as soon as a resident does something in his neighborhood, the neighborhood becomes his. The idea is to have this process adopted by the Community Councils in each and every neighborhood of Jerusalem. We’ve already seen a lot happen in Deer Valley or the Railway Park; now, we want to bring Placemaking into the smaller places, both private and public, places that the City doesn’t necessarily know how to care for.”

The afternoon workshop in Kiryat Yovel focused on an existing plan, promoted by the Department of Business Development, proposing physical improvements to neighborhood’s commercial center. Workshop participants observed the center, noting that it was bustling with local families, elderly residents of the nearby old folks home, a social event held by the Secular Yeshiva, and coffee-shop patrons. To the surprise of many observers, the locals, when asked, advised not to touch anything, expressing appreciation for the local community energy and not wanting to lose it. One participant, who works with local youth, even expressed a concern that if we do “too good a job” in revamping the place, the youth who gather there at night will stop coming. He explained that much of the place’s appeal for teenagers is their perception that it is abandoned at night.

With a place- and people-oriented approach, rather than a project-oriented one that focuses mainly on extensive physical renewal, it is possible to be sensitive to these concerns and needs, propose minor and incremental changes, and relate only to the issues that require attention rather than fixing what isn’t broken. With slow and steady progress, the unique quality of the place will not be lost. Some suggestions for Kiryat Yovel included wayfinding for better orientation, improving the secondary entrance, installing bulletin boards, and showcasing local art. Long-term interventions might be to allow businesses to take advantage of the space, bringing their merchandise outside, or to utilize the neglected rear parking lot as a community amphitheater.

The sessions in Jerusalem spurred exciting new directions. Since the workshop, the Eden Downtown Development Company has announced its intention to expand its jurisdiction, beyond the downtown core, in order to support neighborhood Placemaking initiatives throughout the city. Together with the Urban Clinic at the Hebrew University, Eden has established an Urban Scholar grant program, in which students from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design will propose design interventions in a number of spaces throughout the city, while working closely with community councils. This collaboration between University and City is an integral part of the Urban Clinic’s vision of strengthening the role of the academic institution as an urban catalyst, or a “good neighbor”.

May 14 | In Sum

Placemaking Week came to a close with a final conference in Tel Aviv, arranged in cooperation with the Ministry of Construction and Housing. The conference, attended by urban professionals, government officials, activists, and anyone interested, summarized the workshops that took place in Tel Aviv, Lod, Arabe and Jerusalem. Members of the concluding panel, who were active in the organization of the local workshops, brainstormed about potential challenges that might prevent the Placemaking approach to be adopted in Israel. PPS staff prompted the discussion, saying, “Now that we’ve shown you all of these lovely examples of things that can be done cheaply, quickly, and in collaboration with communities, tell us all of your excuses why you won’t be able to do them here.”

One of the main issues raised was the standardization and regulation of public space, which prevent municipalities from providing unique services (such as street furniture or playground equipment) and make it difficult for NGOs to organize events in the public realm. Ethan and Philip suggested focusing on temporary pilot projects or perhaps the creation of bureaucracy-free zones, in order to make room for trial and error, at least in certain designated areas. “If the pilot goes well, you’ll be able to explore how it might be possible to introduce it to the system. But first, you’ve got to give room for experimentation, and even for failure.” Others participants proposed mechanisms like budget allocation for small community projects, or creating a bureaucratic “shortcuts” for civic organizations that are seeking permits.

The discussion also shed light on severe doubts regarding the implementation of Placemaking where conflict is prevalent. In an environment where land and its control are such pertinent issues, will the creation of shared community spaces only increase tension? PPS staff shared that, in some cases, Placemaking has helped transform areas characterized by social segregation into places of positive interaction. “We have seen that one of the more important mechanisms in achieving this goal is installing a “governor”: Who takes responsibility for a place? Who claims ownership? It could be the security guard from the building across the street, the hotdog vendor, or someone who is hired especially to take care of the place. In places where conflict is prominent, we believe that such a person or group could be vital in maintaining a peaceful and cooperative character.”