Dear Mr. President Trump,
First of all, I would like to wish you the best of luck as you enter office. Your inauguration has been met by a variety of responses, from enthusiastic support to angry dissent, and I am sure many leaders across the world are anxious to see how your next moves will affect their policy on issues such as economics or immigration.
But there is one tiny country where the top concern has little to do with such issues, and instead, everyone is waiting to discover your policy regarding construction – not in Chicago or on the Mexican border, but within that country itself.
Yes, it does sound odd. China does not require your permission in order to build on its own territory; nor do Australia, Britain or Canada. But in Israel, and particularly in Jerusalem, the word coming from Washington is still key. So, since this issue is likely to come up in your upcoming meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I would like to share with you a little inside information as a member of the Israeli capital’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
1. Urban planning is complex, not least because it is done by humans.
Every Wednesday morning, at 9:30 AM, the Commission gathers in the conference room at the sixth floor of City Hall. Rather than taking in the panoramic view of the Holy City, our eyes usually turn to thick folders concerning hundreds of applications, and occasionally to a piece of pastry or sliced vegetables. But this is no mere bureaucracy: within these folders, the city’s complexities and conflicts come to life, pitting residents versus business owners, secular versus observant Jews, the old versus the young, heritage versus development, and developers versus ordinary people.
2. The city’s population growth far outweighs its land reserves. The first step in planning is locating developable land. In a city such as Jerusalem, with little available land, this is quite challenging. In 2005, research showed that the city can add up to 20,000 housing units within the current built-up area. However, few of those have been built over the last twelve years, while the city has added nearly 200,000 residents, for a total of nearly 900,000.
3. It is difficult to densify existing built-up areas.
Mr. President, you don’t need me to tell you about real estate. But still, here’s a local example: in the centrally-located Katamonim neighborhood, a plan was approved eight years ago for the construction of 6,000 housing units, with about half of these expected to be completed within four years. And yet, to this day, a mere 33 have been constructed. Why? First of all, because planning, especially in Israel, takes time. Buildings under construction today are those that were planned in 2010-2013. Second of all, as a businessman, you know all about asset appreciation; if property owners think that the value of their assets will rise in the future, they will raise exorbitant demands in the present. Add to this the need to clear up building violations, a lack of agreement among neighbors, and a shortage of land for public buildings – and it is clear that urban regeneration on a large scale is very hard to pull off.
4. Subsequently, greenfield construction is much easier.
In Jerusalem, to find suitable land for new development, you have to go far from City Center, into the so-called Ring Neighborhoods, built on the hills surrounding the historic city following the Six Day War. Expanding such neighborhoods as Ramot, Gilo, Ramat Shlomo and Givat HaMatos won’t be entirely sufficient for 15,000 new Jerusalemites every year, but along with stable population growth, it’s a start.
5. Planning is for professionals.
And every urban planner knows: when trying to densify a city that is already small and dense, while preserving open land and acknowledging that large-scale urban regeneration is long and arduous, we have to look for ways to expand existing neighborhoods to immediately adjacent lands. This helps to save on infrastructure, protect the environment and revitalize the city. It’s simply the right thing to do.
6. Not everything is about politics or ideology.
Each of the Ring Neighborhoods houses tens of thousands of people. There are no checkpoints separating them from other neighborhoods and the roads are wide and safe. For Jerusalemites and Israelis all over, they constitute an inseparable part of the city, drawing visitors to their natural features and commerce areas. And while the previous administration, and the world media, insisted on viewing them as isolated outposts housing die-hard extremists, in reality, it is ordinary people who live there. They came to these neighborhoods not out of ideological conviction, but out of a search for quality education, green surroundings, and affordable housing that has all but disappeared in more central locales.
7. When the discourse has become this heated, facts are no longer relevant.
Some people refer to the Ring Neighborhoods as part of “East Jerusalem”, even though most of them are in the north or south of the city. Others choose to ignore the fact that the number of housing units approved for construction in Arab neighborhoods often exceeds that of Jewish ones. And let’s not forget the main claim by opponents of construction, one that has been debunked many times: these neighborhoods are not an obstacle for peace, because no one has ever discussed their removal. If and when a settlement is reached, the existence a few thousand more people won’t decide the fate of each neighborhood.
8. No matter what the reality is, everyone is hunting for headlines.
So after long discussions and heated debate, when finally the Commission convenes to give its approval to a new project, anyone with something to say is hitching a ride. The left says we mustn’t expand the settlements, while the right says we mustn’t freeze them. The media blames the government for bowing to the demands of either side, and governments around the world, alongside the UN, denounce the audacity of Israel to decide where and what to build.
9. And it is usually Jerusalem that suffers.
Both sides enjoy making hay and squeezing political capital out of the proceedings, but they aren’t the ones who pay the price. It is us, the Jerusalemites, who are forced to stand by while the city where I am raising six children becomes a plaything for the higher-ups.
10. Come and see for yourself.
When you visit Israel, Mr. President, I cordially invite you to visit these neighborhoods and see their potential for Jerusalem. In the meanwhile, lifting the strange prohibition against embassy personnel making their own visits to these neighborhoods would be a constructive first step.
Your inauguration speech, Mr. President, was all about placing America and Americans first, while respecting other countries’ prerogative to do likewise for their own citizens. It’s not even a country I’m speaking for, but a city. It is a place that deserves a future to dignify its past, that is not interested in conflict and politics which should not get in the way of natural development and affordable housing. That’s the whole deal.
With appreciation and my best wishes,
Jerusalem City Councillor