Make planning and building a major issue in the next election

An open letter to Members of the Knesset

While all agree that economic urban densification is necessary, over the last 30 years Israel has become Nadlanland, The all-important public and social component in our lives has been rapidly disappearing. Government agencies have consistently favored the private sector whose principal goal is maximum profit in the short term, speedy production the rule, future generations be damned. Israel in the midst of an ethical crisis clearly reflected in the way we build. Within such a social and economic climate, quality architecture, urban design and planning are all but impossible. Unsurprisingly, architectural and urban design quality have hit rock bottom.

Political involvement in planning and building in Israel has proved disastrous. Moshe Kahlon as housing czar approved plans most destructive to the nation’s social fabric, public health and environment whose effects will be felt for generations to come. Those thousands of anti-urban and anti-social free-standing residential towers will come back to haunt us.

Two Jerusalem mayors were sentenced to prison. Four former heads of Jerusalem’s Planning and Building Committee have met with police.¬† Israel cannot continue to depend on grossly ignorant and corrupt politicians, but must rely on qualified professionals and made to understand that with all of their inherent logic, in the final analysis architecture and urban design are arts and professions requiring high talent and ethics in order to properly serve the public at large.

Our obese and ever-growing planning and building bureaucracy is deathly ill. Many senior public servants are unqualified for their posts. A former City Engineer was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the Holyland affair. Jerusalem’s present City Engineer is a civil engineer incapable of judging architecture and urban design, the head of Jerusalem’s District Planning and Building Committee, a lawyer. The prerequisite for these important positions must be at least a Master Degree in Architecture and Urban Design.

Over the last generation graduates of city and regional planning programs have taken over most key planning positions nation-wide, their education and experience limited to quantitative aspects exclusively. Having zero aesthetic sensibility and utterly incapable of forming a viable three-dimensional planning and design policy, the physical environmental effects of their decisions have been catastrophic, not to mention the hundreds of millions of shekels that have gone down the drain, their incompetence at our expense.

The documents of a major master plan for Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood, one of the city’s finest, covering 930 dunams, worked on for ten years, were not worth the paper they were printed on, never checked properly by those responsible in the City Planning Department and in the District Committee over the course of a full decade. Most of those responsible are still there, several have even been advanced, among them the present head of the National Planning Administration. Breach of trust must never be tolerated.

Major reforms to our planning and building bureaucracy and decision-making process are of urgent necessity. In place of totally inept, self-serving and often ignorant and arrogant bureaucrats, needed are honest, committed professionals, our best and brightest, capable of forming comprehensive, long-term and viable planning and building policies.

Acting as servants of today’s greed-infected social and economic order, malpractice on the part of architects has become almost acceptable. Concealing vital information from planning and building committees, failing to show a project’s physical environmental context and presenting computerized three-dimensional simulations selectively to sell a project or blurring out problematic proposed building elements is not uncommon. Required courses in professional ethics must be made part of the curriculum in all of our schools of architecture,

Public hearings on planning and building are a farce. Obvious to all is that Local and District Planning and Building Committees go through the motions only to take important decisions made in advance. In place of secrecy, transparency. True public participation in the planning process is possible only Community Councils be made independent of the municipal government’s influence.

Well-informed clients come before fine architecture and urban design. An essential educational program in planning and building on the national level is called for.

Israel’s natural and built environment has been a victim of ineptitude, ignorance, malpractice, breach of trust, corruption and naked greed for far too long. Continuing to bury our heads in the sand, we’ll wake up one day to find that even Jerusalem was up for sale. We yet have a chance to embrace a new paradigm, an architecture and urban design tied to true human needs and purpose, creating a far more just balance between the individual and the collective for the Common Good.

Positive change to this dire situation can only come if quality architecture and urban design are fully supported by our political leaders. I appeal to the leaders of all political parties and Members of the Knesset to make planning and building well a major issue in the upcoming elections.

About the Author
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.
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