Annual Conference of the Israeli Planners' Association

About Shira – I’m an urban planning graduate student and Jerusalem resident, an Israeli who grew up in an English-speaking home as the daughter of American Olim. I married last year and currently work in a preservation architecture office.

Summary and impressions by Shira Lichtenbaum

 

Planning the lands of evacuating IDF bases

The hottest topic of the day and the one that provoked the most emotions was the controversial deal that accorded the Ministry of Defense the right to plan the evacuated areas of the army bases it will be moving south. The session that dealt with this issue took place in the largest room available and was completely full, with a tense atmosphere and high emotions bubbling under the surface.

The mood here, however, was calm in comparison to the previous session, in which the crowd was openly aggressive towards the young lawyer who represented the Ministry of Defense. He endured several pointed verbal attacks from the crowd, cheered on by the rest of audience while the moderator, sympathetic to the cause as well, stood by and watched.

So what exactly is going on here? Why has this issue raised Israeli planners’ ire?

Certainly, this is an issue worthy of attention. The Ministry of Defense plans to evacuate five large bases in the center of the country and move them to the south. There is nothing new about this – the plan has been in the works, in one variation or another, for dozens of years. This time, however, it appears to be actually happening, and in large part because of the role the Ministry of Defense is playing. The Ministry is not only acting as the project manager for the new plans but also as the developer – hiring planners and architects, running the entire process and deciding on the goals. And those goals appear to be heavily weighted towards financial gain, as the profits are intended to fund the move.

This is noteworthy for two main reasons: first, the scope of the planning, and second, the location. The Ministry is declaring that it is currently planning 27,000 new units – an enormous amount, which doesn’t even include the plans in the works for commerce and employment areas. Multiply that amount by the average household size – roughly 3.5 people – and the result is that the Ministry of Defense, of all parties, is the one responsible for planning the equivalent of three new (small) cities. Moreover –and this is the second point – these are areas in the very center of the country, in the heart of the highest demand locations in Israel today. Noteworthy is the army base of Tzrifin, on the east side of Rishon LeTzion, which existed already in the British Mandate era and is the size of a small city today.

Seen in this light, it is hardly surprising that the issue is contentious. I tried to think exactly what reasons could explain the attending planner’s passionate objection to this deal.

Outwardly, it seemed to me that part of what was infuriating the planners was the very fact that the Ministry of Defense got the right to plan at all. Perhaps this was professional ego? As the woman next to me cried out: “It’s not professional!” True, but unprofessionalism is hardly rare in these parts and doesn’t tend to normally raise such passionate objection. 

Another related reason is possible resentment for the Ministry of Defense in general. As another participant shouted from the crowd: “You’re the ones who always prevent other peoples’ plans, now you won’t have yourselves to stop you!” There were murmurs of assent from the audience, confirming that this appears to be the attitude much of the present felt for the Ministry of Defense as well.

Also possible is the way this all looks from the civilian point of view. Amiram Oren, expert on military land use in Israel, said during the session that no matter what will be planned, the public at large won’t like it – it seems too militaristic to have the Ministry of Defense plan at all.

However, what appears to be the largest problem is the price tag being attached to the planning – it acts as a financial incentive to fund the move southward and to encourage the Ministry’s cooperation. This incentive may underlie all other planning considerations and cause disregard towards fair and just planning. For example, as planner Nili Shchori explained at the session, the Ministry of Defense is operating on one financial plane and the local municipalities, who will absorb the new areas, on another. The Ministry is interested in building in order to sell at the highest value possible. The municipalities, on the other end, will have to deal with the operating costs and provide the services to the new residential areas, a cost they claim they will not be able to withstand.

Throughout these sessions, I kept thinking: What an amazing opportunity – new cities in the heart of Israel! And it seemed to me that all these dissenting energies were moving the debate away from the real issue, which should revolve less around who is doing the planning and more around the content of these plans. It may be difficult to separate these two factors but we should not allow the main issue to be overshadowed. Perhaps it’s time for a public debate centering on what these plans should include and how these new areas can serve to answer the country’s current pressing needs.

 

Planning for Population Groups

This session dealt with planning for different population groups, and the sense was that this name basically served as a catchall for randomly connected lectures under that general category. That is to say, the lectures didn't form a very cohesive whole, however, some of them, in and of themselves, were thought-provoking and informative.

The moderator was Chana Maron, who is one of the few planners in Israel who deals extensively with planning for aging. She opened by presenting the challenge for today’s planners: focusing on social aspects of planning. There is a growing trend of legitimizing social groups who didn’t used to have a voice, and now they want to have a part in the public sphere. She asked us to therefore all to keep two questions in mind as we listened to the lectures: Is the urban expanse on the verge of a revolution? If so, how should the public space reorganize itself?

The first lecturer was Lewis Bar-Nir from the Ministry of Senior Citizens who began by discussing the life expectancy revolution, the bottom line of which was that senior citizens are a growing sector of society and the need to address their issues is growing as well. One of the main of goals of the Ministry is working to change the image of the senior citizen as a needy burden on society. He also discussed the need for updating the system outlining the programmatic needs of the senior citizens, comparing the schools and kindergarten system to the only need usually represented: the “senior’s clubs,” which he finds lacking. He mentioned a new program of the Ministry – a chain of senior’s health centers, similar to the baby care centers (Tipat Chalav) – which could be added, for example, to the programmatic needs as well.

Yuval Cohen from Ben-Gurion University presented some interesting findings from his research which shed light on the connection between urban design and pedestrian traffic. The main issue seemed to be connectivity between the public and private sphere: the tighter the connection – by, say, zero lot-line building – the more pedestrians appeared. His research team came up with a model that is able to predict pedestrian traffic based on urban design criteria. The good news – walkability can be built into the neighborhood. The bad news – it’s not happening, and in fact the newer neighborhoods have less and less of the criteria that appears to encourage walking. Yuval lost me, however, as he went into the more technical discussion of the model. He also did not elaborate on the possible applications of the model which would have been apt and I was left with the sense that we could have heard a lot more on this topic which was unfortunately not possible to the nature of these sessions.

The next speaker was Alisa Rosenberg from the Technion who began with a very interesting background on new forms of informal, bottom-up urbanism – DIY urbanism, guerilla urbanism, temporary urbanism. This discussion left regretfully little time for her main topic – women’s walking patterns in Sakhnin, which she placed in the abovementioned theoretical framework. She described this act of walking as a subversive act, one in which the women found a way to put their own stamp on the city – walking as a pluralizing element of the public sphere, in a society where women can be very limited. I found the theoretical discussion fascinating and would have liked to have heard more about different ways in which informal groups or individuals claim their spatial rights. This perspective demands of planners to see the urban landscape in a new and more flexible light.

Perhaps the most interesting speaker of the all the lecturers I heard that day did not speak at all – he signed. Meir Atadji is a deaf architect who serves as the accessibility consultant for the Holon municipality. He lectured by signing to his translator who sat in the audience and translated the sign language to speech. Meir brought examples of the difficulties faced by those with disabilities in the urban landscape – accessibility to the wide variety of urban day-to-day activities that most of us take for granted. The warmth and down-to-earth humanity Meir exuded while discussing the unique challenges that people with disabilities face was humbling and stands in stark contrast to the academic or bureaucratic tones often heard in the planning world. Perhaps the most important message Meir left us with was the example he served as a professional with the very disabilities he was working to help, which served as a very powerful stereotype-breaker. I’m sure he will stay in the minds of those who attended as a name and face during the next discussion of planning for that anonymous group of “the disabled”.

All in all, despite the lack of cohesiveness, some thought-provoking and fresh perspectives were brought to light, and these lectures were able to provide a – too short – glimpse into the challenges of planning for different types of cultures, societies, groups and ages.