Gerard Heumann

‘There’s an elephant in the room’

Quoted above is a senior planning and building bureaucrat, a deputy division head, close to Jerusalem City Engineer Yoel Even. Several concerned members of the Beit Hakerem neighborhood Physical Planning Committee had come to Safra Square to meet with him in order to discuss a number of large-scale projects in their neighborhood threatening to destroy its intimate character.

What did he really mean when he said “There’s an elephant in the room”? He might have said more directly: “Let’s just forget it.”

Within this cultural climate where serious debate is no longer possible and uncomfortable views excluded, democracy is clearly in danger, civil society weakened. Government institutions we put our trust in that don’t honor their responsibilities have failed. We as citizens have been betrayed. All that now remains is money and power, markets without morals.

The unfortunate reality today is that political involvement in planning in Jerusalem is at its height Real-estate developers have been given the upper hand. From Mayor Lion on down, not one of the decision makers or their advisors has the necessary education or experience to judge architecture, urban design or city planning. Lion is an economist, the head of the planning committee is a former journalist for a Haredi newspaper, the city engineer is a civil engineer, the staff are graduates of faculties of geography. Public participation in the planning process is a bluff.

The inevitable results are misguided and costly planning policies, if they could be called that, lacking any professional basis. Comprehensive, three-dimensional planning is nowhere in sight, producing urban renewal monstrosities, destruction of the public realm and neighborhood communities with showers of towers of a conformity beyond belief.

Proposals in brief:

1. Professional urban planning advisors at the mayor’s side.

2. The prerequisite for Chairmen of Local and District Planning and Building Committees: a minimal understanding of urban planning and design.

3. Advisors to municipal Planning and Building Committees: architects and urban designers of significant experience.

4. The term City Engineer cancelled, in its place “Chief Urban Designer” who must hold a Master of Architecture and Urban Design degree along with significant experience in the field.

5. Graduates of faculties of geography given responsibility only for initial programming to be tested by balanced site capacity studies, never by over-simplified demand.

6. Public participation in planning process reinforced in the Planning and Building Law.

7. An International Committee for Planning Jerusalem to meet yearly.

8. The Jerusalem Master Plan revised and prepared for approval.

As for the elephant in the room, he should be escorted to the nearest zoo accompanied by those who brought him there.

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