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Jerusalem 2120

The city's 5-year plan uses the same bombastic approach that got us into this mess: It's time to think small

The week just prior to Jerusalem Day was obviously a hectic one for the city’s leadership, which organized and participated in several events connected with its Jerusalem 2020 plan.

One of these events was a VIP-studded conference at the Israel Museum, where Mayor Nir Barkat revealed his 5-year plan to transform Jerusalem into a hub for the tourism, high-tech, and film-production industries. To make the point with — as it were — metaphorical precision, a highly-polished, technically-sophisticated video was presented, featuring the Mayor’s own photogenic presence.

Jerusalem 2020 was developed with assistance from Professor Michael Porter of Harvard Business School (a global authority on “competitive advantage”), who was flown in to appear at the Israel Museum conference in person. Another professor who name adds luster to the plan is creative-class theorist Richard Florida, a popular – and pricey – consultant to cities looking to enhance their hipster appeal. Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s über-wealthy former mayor who famously called the Big Apple a “luxury product,” was also tapped for input.

The intention is for Jerusalem to “stand proud among the world’s thriving capital cities” — a goal for which it was deemed necessary to recruit highly-credentialed — and highly-paid — experts on urban economic strategy.

I suppose it’s natural to consult with academic and political superstars when you want to make big plans for your city. If you’re eager to set mega-projects in motion, to house pre-selected industries in McComplexes that cost a lot of money to build and entail a whole lot of risk — and if you’re bent on doing it all within a couple of terms of political office — it’s probably best that you get global experts to back you up.

If, on the other hand, you’re interested in gradual, incremental, low-risk change; in small projects capable of healing an urban fabric blasted apart by automobile infrastructure; in individual, human-scaled buildings that harmonize with their surroundings and provide affordable space for small businesses conceived by people, not planners — then there’s probably no need for superheroes. All that’s required are common sense and a discerning eye.

And patience. And a lack of disdain for “little.”

Jane Jacobs — the non-credentialed yet widely-revered author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities — was confronted once, at a conference, with the old saw: “Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

She responded as follows: “Funny, big plans never stirred women’s blood. Women have always been willing to consider little plans.”

The incremental, low-risk, “little-plan” approach to city building is being energetically advanced today by an American movement called Strong Towns, under the leadership of “recovering engineer” Charles Marohn.

From the Strong Towns mission statement:

There are no universal answers to the complex problems [that] cities, towns and neighborhoods face. At Strong Towns, we seek to discover rational ways to respond to our challenges using trial and error, building incrementally on small successes while learning early from failures when the risks are still low. This is the time-tested approach that all complex systems use to adapt and thrive.

Jerusalem, unfortunately, has already tried the non-incremental approach, with lamentable results. Yet we are still pursuing this approach — seeking out celebrity profs and financier-politicians to supply quick fixes to complex problems, and throwing a lot of money down the drain in the process.

We’re even capable of chasing after the same celebrity profs whose theories failed us the first time around. Politician Erel Margalit describes his activity in the Jerusalem Development Authority during the 1990s:

[W]hen I worked with Teddy Kollek on bringing high-tech to the city, my guru was Michael Porter, from Harvard, who showed that […] in order to develop a city or an area you have to build a cluster of interlocked industries. We did that, but today I understand the limitations of our activity, because what we in fact built is a series of sterile ghettos of high-tech that are largely cut off from their surroundings and from the community (emphasis added.)

So the Michael Porter connection is nothing new for Jerusalem. Apparently we have a “competitive advantage” in repeating our mistakes!

Now, to be fair, the Municipality avoided putting all of its eggs in one strategy basket this time: rather than going 100% with Porter, it also brought in Richard Florida (Erel Margalit’s “new guru“) and Michael Bloomberg for some nuance, on the assumption that successful city building is a matter of tweaking your guru mix.

But the results will be the same. Erel Margalit is sorry now (a little late, eh?) that so many millions were spent on the Har Hotzvim industrial park that sits in its own car-oriented enclave:

Har Hotzvim (via Wikipedia)

… and on the Jerusalem Technology Park in Malha, which also occupies a suburban bubble on valuable inner-city land:

malha tp across roads_resized

A Strong Towns approach to these urban wastelands would be: knit the city fabric back together, little by little. Downsize those roads and make a pedestrian-friendly street network. Fill those empty spaces in. And: take your time.

But instead of healing these wounds in the city landscape (and thereby promoting our economic and societal health in a natural, unforced way), the Municipality has been busy with other, costlier and riskier projects, ones that will be similarly difficult to fix later on, when regret sets in.

For instance, instead aiming, slowly but surely, to fix the mess at Malha, we have now added a budget-busting sports arena to the area (in addition to the pre-existing stadium) that is similarly detached from any functioning urban context:

arena with parking_resized_1

We have also engineered – at huge public expense — a southern extension of the Menachem Begin Expressway — a city-killer if ever there was one:


begin viaduct_resized

At Jerusalem’s western entrance, the new “business district” that is being developed — from scratch — will be more public-transit oriented, that is true. It will also be a monoculture of superblocs — oversized edifices all in the same style, and serving only those tenants who can afford space in luxurious new construction — hardly the way to encourage the small businesses and diversified shopping on which a city’s economy should be built:

It’s too bad that the present municipal administration didn’t choose to make Charles Marohn its guru. And it’s too bad that a 3,000 year old city feels compelled to plan its revolutions only five years in advance.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.
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