Public participation in the planning process is a bluff

Prior to being executed, town planning schemes are submitted to the local and district planning and building committees for legal approval, a process that does not allow for public hearings. As there is little transparency, public participation in the planning process is made all but impossible. Little respect is shown people who have lived all their lives in their neighborhoods and come to love them nor, judging by what is being built today, is being a good neighbor a value the planning authorities care about. For democratic public participation and involvement in the planning process to be improved it is important that we understand the approval process.

The legal procedures of town planning today in Israel, inherited from the British Mandate period with changes made in the Israeli law of 1965, are broken down into two major stages. For plans to become legal documents, they must be approved by both the local and district Committees.

Made up of members of the city council (politicians-laymen), the local (municipal) committee is supported by an advisory staff in the city engineer’s department.

Intended to balance the decisions of the politicians in the local committee, the district committee, by law, is composed of professional advisors representing several government ministries with a direct interest in planning — housing, transportation and the like, as well as a representatives of the municipality, and the Architects Association.

Only after a plan has been approved by the local committee and deposited with the district committee, at a very late stage in its development and preparation, often after years of work, are its documents exposed for public review and objection for the first time.

At this point, several signs are put up, their content indecipherable, with the plan’s complex code number, its site identified by block and parcel numbers. Only if you have this special map of the city or know how to use the GIS will you be able to identify it. The plan’s description is camouflaged in legal language. As it is extremely difficult for a laymen to gain a sufficient impression of what is being proposed, owners of adjacent properties in many cases take on architects and lawyers to help them through this intentional maze of information and evaluate the plan in question. Sixty days are given to respond.

Needless to say the game is rigged from the start. The red letter day having arrived, public objections, if there be any, after being heard politely, are invariably rejected. The District Committee, intended by law to be professional, usually rubber-stamps planning projects, especially those with political backing. Perhaps the most extreme example was Jerusalem’s district committee’s approval of the Holyland Park project, after Mayor Ehud Olmert appeared personally before it to argue the project’s merits.

The Jerusalem municipality’s latest tactic for keeping the public out is creating so-called “policy plans” such as their “policy” for building 30-story residential towers along all existing and proposed light-rail lines without having seriously studied the matter or magically converting into a policy plan the infamous Beit Hakerem Master Plan, rejected after 13 years! (all points to malpractice and breach of trust), thereby bypassing the legal process entirely, barring any  opportunity for public review and objection whatever.

Neighborhood physical planning committees in Jerusalem, financed by the city, whose chairmen lacking experience in this complex field, are assisted by so-called professionals who work part time are poorly paid. As employees of the municipality, they tread lightly. Neighborhoods voicing strong objections to the city’s plans may find their budgets slashed. It comes as no surprise that these committees have failed miserably as intermediaries between the municipality and their community’s residents.

Clearly, there is a need for reforms if we are to play this game on a level field. Changes to the anachronistic Planning and Building Law of 1965, expanding the public’s involvement and participation in the town planning process, are urgently needed.

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