Jerusalem’s Urban Revival

Learning about Berlin’s transformation as an architecture student at the Technion, I couldn’t stop thinking of my own city, Jerusalem. When the Berlin Wall fell and East and West became one, the city was left with dozens of redundant buildings. Two ministries of finance, for instance, were no longer necessary in Germany’s newly united capital. Over the years, architects, artists, urban planners and city officials worked together to turn those empty spaces into art studios, affordable housing, museums, cafes and restaurants.

The way this formerly divided Cold War city had morphed so completely into a cosmopolitan haven of youth, art and creativity got me thinking: if it could happen in Berlin, couldn’t it happen in Jerusalem?

After all, we too live in a formerly divided city. And while some might see that as a liability, I see it as an asset. Like Berlin, Jerusalem is filled with old abandoned structures that could be turned into communal cultural centers. Like Berlin, Jerusalem’s rich history, complexity and diversity is precisely what could make her a haven for young creative minds.

A decade after that Technion class, I can now say that Jerusalem is in the midst of her own urban revival, in which the old and abandoned is becoming new and exciting. As an architect and urban planner, I’ve had a front row seat to this quiet revolution. Until last year, I worked at Israel’s Planning Administration Authority, overseeing national housing and infrastructure projects for the Finance Ministry. I was also responsible for urban renewal in Jerusalem, which led me to the position I hold now, as CEO of New Spirit.

Working in Jerusalem’s private and public sector, I’ve watched this remarkable transformation unfold. Beautiful structures dating back hundreds of years that once stood abandoned are now being transformed into cultural community centers, affordable housing, and shared workspaces. New housing developments are being built for young couples and families, and city planners are employing the concept of mixed use spaces to bring more life to the city.

The result is that Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city, is starting to feel more like a capital city should feel. Of course obstacles remain, but we are beginning to see how much is possible here when civil society, the business sector, and the municipality work together toward a vision of progress.

One prime example of this is vision at work is the Alliance House in Mahane Yehuda. This beautiful 19th century building lay abandoned for over 15 years, until it was granted to New Spirit in 2015 by a private developer who planned to turn it into a boutique hotel. Knowing the bureaucratic process would take years, he gave it to us for temporary use so we could turn it into a center for Jerusalem’s creative community. Today, we house over 100 artists, designers and residents who share studio space and  collaborate to offer public classes, workshops, conferences, events, parties, live performances and art installations. Another illustration of this urban renewal is Re:street, a project we began in 2017 to turn empty storefronts in Jerusalem’s city center into affordable shared work spaces for young entrepreneurs.

This urban renewal is not only giving young Jerusalemites the subsidized studios, shared workspaces and creative events they yearn for, but in turn, giving new life to the city’s sleepy streets and bringing young customers to local business owners. Jerusalem has so much to offer young creative minds, from the beautiful architecture, history and complexity that artists crave, to Israel’s best academies of art and design. Yet for years, Jerusalem has struggled to keep its young creative population from moving to Tel Aviv. We need to give them more reasons to stay.

Jerusalem is a complicated city, with difficult problems to face and various populations to care for. We cannot do this alone. But we can provide inspiration, creating a ripple effect that can be scaled by the municipality and the government for the benefit of all Jerusalem. There are many ways the city government can encourage this urban renewal. For example, offering tax incentives to private investors who donate their real estate assets for temporary social use will make projects like these more common. We are now working on our next big project to revive the historic Pargod Theater, a unique building in the Nachlaot neighborhood that served as a cultural hotspot from 1969 until its closure in 2005. This initiative is a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with the municipality. And there are opportunities like this everywhere for public-private partnerships that could transform Jerusalem into the cultural center we know it can be.

As leader of an organization dedicated to transforming Jerusalem into a true cultural center, I’m constantly thinking of ways to make life in Jerusalem more vibrant and more appealing to all of her residents, young and old, religious and secular. I believe with all my heart that with the right urban planning and renewal of public spaces, we can make meaningful change here. Urban renewal can and should be a tool for social change, and young people are the growth engine for that change.

As Jane Jacobs put it best, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

About the Author
Inbar Weiss is the CEO of New Spirit, an Israeli nonprofit organization founded by young creatives working to make Jerusalem an inspiring and empowered capital city. She previously served as executive adviser to the head of the Planning Administration Authority at Israel’s Ministry of Finance. Prior to that, she was Deputy Head of Staff for the Planning Administration's Jerusalem District.
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