Daniel Orenstein

Purging the public from public planning

The interior ministry is maligning environmental groups to get them out of the path of unfettered development

The Jezreel Valley in northern Israel is not what it used to be. Once hailed by Israel’s national composer, Natan Alterman, for its glorious beauty, agricultural fields, and its peace and solitude, is today in the midst of unprecedented development, with roads and rail lines checkering the valley and industrial zones and residential neighborhoods sprawling across the basin floor. In the Arava, where residents report that their landscape and open spaces are precious to them, rail lines, mining, water conduits and airports are all in the planning and implementation stages. In the Sharon region, 90% of the residents report that they want to preserve the rural character of their communities, and are fighting to prevent natural gas infrastructure from dominating their coastline. And the residents of the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolis clog the roads north and south every weekend to seek relaxation and a glimpse of nature in Israel’s last open spaces. This temporary migration reaches a crescendo on every national holiday when the police and land management agencies plead to the public to stop coming to the national parks and forests, as they are already filled beyond capacity.

Israel’s growing population and shrinking open spaces warrant a professional and multi-talented planning authority that can reconcile competing needs and desires of the population in the short and long term. If sustainability – social and economic development coupled with the maintenance of the ecological systems on which we depend – is our goal, then public participation in the planning process is one of the most crucial ingredients. As revealed in a recently completed systematic review of sustainability projects around the world, a common theme throughout all the projects is public participation and transparency.

In Israel, our history is not bad in that regard. Our robust planning system has multiple layers of opportunities for the public to be engaged in the process, including the opportunity to submit opinions, public hearings, transparent protocols, engagement of planning professionals, and inclusion of public representatives in planning bodies. Even with these tools, the challenges for assuring long-term sustainability and the preservation of our ecological resources is immense.

Yet Interior Ministry Gideon Sa’ar and Binat Schwartz, head of the ministry’s planning authority, want to dismantle one of the key elements of our planning system’s sustainable strategy. In a cynical spin on the popular protest against rising housing prices, Schwartz, in a recent editorial in the Marker, blames the current situation on environmental organizations and their representatives in planning bodies. Under the false claim that there is not enough land for residential development, they want to purge planning bodies of anyone they deem stands in their way from quickly designating land for development wherever they see fit.

Their current “reform” is culling public representatives from planning bodies, starting with the Subcommittee on Principle Planning Matters. That task of that subcommittee with the clunky name is to advise the National Planning Council on issue that the Council requests, including issues concerning national and regional outline plans, public appeals, deviations and more. A recent meeting of that subcommittee in March dealt with residential expansion of a moshav, road infrastructure, development of agricultural land, proposed deviations from statutory outline plans, illegal construction, sewage infrastructure and more. All of these topics are directly relevant to public health, open space preservation, ecological integrity, and social and economic equity. They are not simple technical conversations.

The subcommittee included, until recently, a host of government appointees, in addition to representatives of the environmental movement, settlement institutions (the Jewish Agency and others), future generations, and professional guilds (planners, architects and civil engineers). These non-governmental representatives have been dismissed as part of the Saar-Schwartz “reform”. This was a step in the wrong direction. In the shadow of the Holyland fiasco and the exposure of insidious economic interests within the planning system, what we need is more, not less, public input and transparency.

To justify tossing the public representatives from planning bodies, Schwartz paints herself and Israel’s citizens as victims of an all-powerful environmental lobby. She blames the emigration of young Israelis and their lack of hope on the environmental movement, preventing her from building apartments. In truth, the environmental movement had a single representative on her 18-member committee – enough to serve as a watchdog, but not to bottleneck the system. Schwartz, on the other hand, is both powerful (chosen by Haaretz as one of 100 most influential people in Israel) and has used her various influential posts to support development over local and environmental concerns and to find ways to push development quickly through the planning system.

More importantly, as my colleague, Professor Amnon Frenkel, argued in the pages of Y-Net, the housing crisis is symptomatic of a far greater crisis penetrating Israeli society: income inequality, lack of social welfare, poverty and exploitation of workers. Those problems won’t be solved by rapid expansion of the housing stock.

This purge of public representatives in planning bodies is only a small part of a broader picture that includes several other proposed “reforms”. Sa’ar and Schwartz support significant revisions to National Outline Plan 35 that only a few years ago was hailed as a critical new strategy to address Israel’s rising population density. It would seem that they are engineering the systematic deconstruction of the Israeli planning system, allowing government officials to play with our most precious natural resources without the hassle of considering the long-term needs of the country. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s population will likely reach 10 million by the end of this decade, and will likely double within 45 years. Protecting the quality of life and environment in Israel will be of even greater urgency. The growing need for a public dialogue cannot be allowed to fall victim to the Sa’ar and Schwartz’ proposed “reforms.”

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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