Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The downtown trophy wife

Is it sensible to take a center-city area that up to now has been characterized by a mix of uses, and to designate it solely for "culture and tourism?"

Relatedly: should historic buildings be, on principle, emptied of workaday uses and dedicated exclusively to "culture and tourism" uses (e.g., boutique hotels)?

Such is the approach that the Jerusalem Municipality is currently taking toward Jaffa Road and environs -- the area that most locals simply think of as "downtown" but which is increasingly being referred to as the "historic city."

I think that this approach needs to be subjected to public scrutiny. I, for one, see two major problems with it:

1) The segregation of uses that it imposes will make downtown Jerusalem a much less attractive destination for regular Jerusalemites and Israelis, essentially rendering it a tourist trap whose artificiality will be perceived by the more discerning tourists;

2) By removing historic buildings from circulation as facilities where normal, everyday activities take place, and by devoting them to tourist-oriented uses, the planning echelon will be dividing Jerusalemites and Israelis from their own architectural heritage, thereby impoverishing them culturally.

As noted in my last post, which discussed the recently-approved plan for a high-rise office park at Jerusalem's western entrance, Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon has stated that "anyone who doesn’t have to enter the city shouldn’t do so. Leave the historic city to culture and tourism.” Downtown Jerusalem, according to Kahlon, is simply too fragile to "take the load" of the governmental/clerical functions currently housed within it ("You toss out two pieces of paper there and the city is filthy"), and is altogether suited to the expression of "much greater meanings."  The idea is that certain activities are just too mundane for the traditional architecture of downtown Jerusalem, and should be transferred to the envisioned skyscraper complex at the city's entrance -- "Rova Mevo Ha'Ir."
Generali Building, via Wikipedia (Magister)
In keeping with this idea, government offices now located in Jerusalem's "historic city" are slated to be moved to Rova Mevo Ha'Ir. Furthermore, according to Haaretz, "the Planning and Building Committee is also discussing a plan to turn the old ministries' offices, some of which are located in historic buildings, into boutique hotels."

One building that has been mentioned as a prime candidate for such a re-purposing is the "Generali" Building at the corner of Jaffa Road and Shlomzion HaMalka St., built in the 1930s to house the offices of the Italian insurance agency Assicurazioni Generali. The Generali Building is currently home to a number of Israeli government offices, including the Interior Ministry's Jerusalem District administration.

I haven't had anything to do in the Generali Building in years and don't know to what extent Israeli citizens are inconvenienced by having to conduct their business in that particular location. Deputy Mayor Kahlon claims that the presence of government functions in buildings such as this one "cause[s] terrible traffic downtown, as well as parking shortages". I find this assertion rather curious, inasmuch as Jaffa Road has been closed for some time to vehicular traffic other than the light rail -- the idea being that people should get to that part of town via public transit and forego the use of their private automobiles. If you're riding the light rail, why do you need parking? How can there be traffic jams in a part of town where cars are no longer allowed?

I don't pretend to know whether public-sector efficiency is best served by concentrating government offices in one specially-designed compound -- i.e., Rova Mevo Ha'Ir. It does strike me, though, that when ordinary citizens come downtown to run errands at government facilities, downtown can only benefit-- since a citizen who enters the area for one purpose will likely remain there for others. Logically, it would seem that when downtown Jerusalem is emptied of its government offices, regular Jerusalemites and Israelis will have less occasion to go there. Are we quite certain that this is what we want?

I personally don't have much reason to go downtown, as most of my needs can be met in the Talpiot Industrial Area -- the badly-neglected "secondary" CBD that, in my view, actually functions as primary CBD for a sizeable chunk of Jerusalem's population.. However, this past summer I enjoyed a brief but instructive city-center idyll that brought home for me just what is wrong with the Kahlon plan for this part of town.

Mushtasfa Jerusalem (District Health Office building),
 via Wikipedia (Ranbar)
Pictured at left is a historic building at 86 Jaffa Road -- one that, presumably, the Municipality would want emptied of its governmental functions and turned into a boutique hotel. This Ottoman-era edifice was constructed in 1882 as a residence and later turned into a hospital; since the British Mandate period it has housed the Jerusalem district health office.

I had to bring my 3 year old daughter to this building several times this past summer, for a series of anti-rabies innoculations (after she was scratched by a stray cat). Never having needed the services of the district health office before, and having no prior knowledge of the facility's whereabouts, I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself ushering my daughter into this distinguished old structure, the formality of whose arched stone gate is set off by a soothing little front yard and welcoming, geranium-filled porch:

Rather than having to sit in an institutional waiting room for the prescribed 20 minutes post-innoculation, my daughter and I (and the other kids I brought along on the various vaccine visits) were able to enjoy our mid-morning snack out here on the district health office porch, joined by the occasional employee on coffee break. When we were through, we stayed downtown, running different errands each time. On one occasion we picked up inexpensive crafts supplies at a discount store; on another -- paperbacks at a second-hand bookshop. I got to familiarize myself with some clothing stores I had never seen before. We bought slushes and iced coffees, burekasim and cookies. We discovered a newly-renovated playground in the downtown area that constitutes a worthwhile destination in and of itself.

Had we not needed the services of the local rabies prevention unit, we would not have patronized any of the aforementioned downtown businesses. We simply wouldn't have been downtown.

Our forays to the city center were both enjoyable and productive. We didn't go there for the specific purpose of experiencing "culture." We got a healthy dose of "culture" just by taking care of some decidely mundane business at the scenic venue of the Jerusalem district health office. And we were able, afterward, to run a variety of errands on foot, within a radius of just a few city-center blocks. Culture and commerce, pleasure and efficiency -- the blessings of mixed-use development.

Unfortunately, current urban thinking in the Jerusalem Municipality appears to have stalled at the "separation of uses" stage. Much lip-service is being paid to the idea of mixed-use development, but the plans being actively adanced call for a fairly rigid compartmentalization of uses.

Whether 86 Jaffa Road in particular has a boutique future in store for it is not the point. The point is that Kobi Kahlon thinks "we have to empty [Jerusalem's historic downtown] of all the officialdom [פקידות] and other uses. This city has far greater meanings."

I'm sure that when Kahlon talks about Jerusalem's "greater meanings" his intentions are reverential -- and that is the problem. It's one thing to appreciate the city's history and to want to  preserve its unique character in those areas where "character" has a tangible presence in architectural form. However, putting specific parts of the city on a pedestal and dictating the kinds of uses that can take place in them, is quite another matter. It's almost like the objectification to which men sometimes subject women -- an idealization that ultimately devalues.  Rather than having someone alive and dynamic to relate you, you end up with a porcelain doll, a trophy wife, a puppet.

In the case of downtown Jerusalem, what we could end up with, if we're not careful, is a sterile museum in which tourists lap up lattes and empty their pockets to purveyors of kitschy Judaica while street mimes and jugglers leap and frolick in a frenzied effort to conceal the emptiness at the core of downtown -- a place where no actual work goes on, where no real life is lived, where nothing productive happens. 

We already have an "Old City" that is devoted to religion, tourism and religious tourism. Do we really want to start calling that part of town the "Old Old City?" Must Jaffa Road now become a "New Old City" -- a static Disneyland of handsome traditional architecture housing nothing but cafes and boutiques?

I don't want to be unfair to Kobi Kahlon. I have no problem with his desire to add office space in the city entrance area or even, necessarily, with the transfer of government agencies to that part of town -- provided that such transfers are clearly in the public interest. What bothers me is the assumption that governmental and commercial/corporate affairs are best managed out of dedicated skyscraper complexes, while historic downtowns and traditional architecture should play a merely ornamental role in the life of a city. In the present post I have looked at the latter half of this false dichotomy. In my next post I hope to discuss the former in greater depth.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jerusalem's Rova Mevo Ha'Ir: copying the wrong Parisian model

A couple of decades ago, give or take half a decade, I spent an academic year in Paris on an American study abroad program. After 10 months of thumbing my little red Plan de Paris par arrondissement (= old-school GPS) to a pulp, I found myself facing a summer short on cash -- but unwilling to retreat to the States before I could legitimately claim to have spent an entire calendar year in Europe.

Luckily Georges, the heroically non-judgmental and patient program director, was able to arrange temporary work permits for such underfunded students who insisted on remaining abroad.

 Which was how I found myself, over a period of several weeks, shuttling from picturesque central Paris to the futuristic La Défense business district at the city's western outskirts, where I had landed a job heating up frozen croissants and serving "instant" espresso to those employed in the surrounding skyscrapers.

La Défense -- Stairway to Heaven by
Dmitri A. Mottle, via Wikimedia Commons
By "shuttling" I of course mean a Métro ride, but a space-shuttle association would not be far off the mark. Going to La Défense was like rocketing or beaming up to the moon or some kind of space station carved into a forbidding alien landscape that, by dint of hard labor, had been made marginally habitable for humans, but not attractive to them. Considering that I had spent most of a year tirelessly criss-crossing the streets of traditional Paris, it says something that I never spent a moment in La Défense beyond what the timeclock dictated. The fact that I was working -- though technically in Paris! -- in a fast-food joint  à l'américaine, serving up bad imitation French cuisine to Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who, in any other setting, would surely have turned up their noses at such travesties, said it all.

So my question is, why would Jerusalem want to do this to itself?

The Israeli (and international) media have lately been abuzz (in English: here, here and here) over an "ambitious" plan to transform Jerusalem's western entrance area -- referred to in Hebrew as Rova Mevo Ha'Ir -- into a sleek and ultramodern business district, complete with the skyscrapers that are thought necessary to project a municipal image of exuberant money-making. "The city as economic engine."

The plans for Rova Mevo Ha'Ir have actually been in the works for several years (Mayor Nir Barkat, who assumed office in 2009, was the project's primary initiator). When the plans were first publicized, a similarity to Paris' La Défense district was proudly proclaimed. Apparently,  the mere hint of a resemblance to something European was thought sufficient to place the project in a positive light.

La Défense is not normally considered a success from the perspective of urban vitality. One author and lecturer in the urban planning sphere, Alex Marshall, calls the complex "stunningly dead." Charles Siegel , writing recently at Planetizen, points out that there are better models for smart growth than the "stale modernist model of La Défense." In fact, when the Rova Mevo Ha'Ir plans were first publicized in 2009, and hailed as Jerusalem's answer to La Défense, Siegel commented, again at Planetizen, "Virtually everyone agrees that La Défense blighted Paris' skyline and is an anti-urban design. Just what Jerusalem needs to destroy its historical character."

Unfortunately, those charged with planning Rova Mevo Ha'Ir seem unable to differentiate between design elements likely to foster vibrancy and ones liable to create deadness. Much lipservice is paid to designing with the pedestrian in mind, but the plans themselves paint a different picture.

The slideshow prepared by Farhi Zafrir, the architectural firm that won the Rova Mevo Ha'Ir competition, is a frustrating mish-mash of declared aspirations to walkable urbanism and simulation images that give such aspirations the lie.

Not the least annoying feature of the slideshow is its dubious referencing of traditional city design -- its deployment of photos of bustling European streets featuring human-scaled low- and mid-rise architecture -- in order to "prove" the value of the monolithic skyscraper project that it is actually trying to sell.

Farhi Zafrir first make a ploy for audience sympathy by describing, in Slide 2, the current sorry state of the Jerusalem entrance area. That part of town is certainly a mess -- as the architects put it, "sparse and dispersed construction," "separate and isolated compounds," "a roadway rather than a street." The pictures speak for themselves. Yes, almost anything would be better.

In Slide 3 the architects treat the viewer to a warm and fuzzy photo selection featuring narrow, Nathan Lewis-type streets, European version, full of fine-grained architectural detail and hip young city dwellers doing their thing en masse. "Priority to pedestrians" is the slogan here.

Having been thus buttered up, the viewer is then meant to be duly impressed by slides 4-11, which show us how Farhi Zafrir are going to rescue us from the dreaded stroad situation that currently exists, by building an architecturally monotonous, dedicated business, government-office and hotel district (the Israeli planning echelon's idea of "mixed-use development").

via Jerusalem Municipality

Yes, there is an emphasis on transit-oriented development here -- the project's much-touted connectivity to the Jerusalem light rail and the (future) high-speed Tel Aviv -Jerusalem train. Yet it is disturbing that all this accessibility is meant, ultimately, to keep people out of Jerusalem's historic downtown -- to artificially, and in a sense even dictatorially, concentrate certain activities -- and the people engaged in them -- in this one particular area.

For instance, the idea of transferring government ministry offices from their current locations in historic downtown buildings to the sterile office park of Rova Mevo Ha'Ir, and of turning the historic buildings into boutique hotels, may seem, at first glance, to have a certain poetic justice -- relegate the dry government paper-shufflers to dull modernist edifices! Save the pretty buildings for hunky and babalicious vacationers who can appreciate them! -- but it flies in the face of everything the New Urbanists have been telling us about real mixed-use development and the vibrancy it produces.

Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon has been quoted as saying, "Anyone who doesn't have to enter the city shouldn't do so. Leave the historic city to culture and tourism."  That is one of the most disturbing statements I've heard/read in a long time. Kahlon feels that by diverting jobs and government offices to the Jerusalem entrance, the "historic city" will be spared traffic congestion and "parking shortages." Unfortunately, it may also become depleted of anything resembling real life, and turn into a giant museum. I'm reminded of Alan Davies' (The Urbanist) recent description of Venice
In a physical sense Venice is pedestrian nirvana, but in my opinion it’s also a one dimensional city. The throngs of people along the canals are almost all tourists. The businesses only provide lodgings, food and fodder for tourists.
Is that what we want Jerusalem's historic downtown to become?

 My special bugbear: the Farhi Zafrir slideshow references La Défense (slide 12), in a manner that can only reflect ignorance or disingenuousness on the part of the designers.

I can't seem to copy the slides into the blog, but here is a La Défense plaza photo very similar to that used by Farhi Zafrir in slide 12 of their presentation:

David Monniaux via Wikipedia
The above photo (that is, its counterpart in slide 12 of the architects' presentation) is grouped together with a couple of photos of traditional European public squares, including an open-air market scene that looks something like this:

Street market at the bottom of  rue Mouffetard -- David Monniaux, via Wikimedia Commons

Farhi Zafrir's aim is to entice the viewer with street scenes that most people would be happy to see in their own city, and which the viewer is meant to understand that the architects are going deliver via their proposed Jerusalem entrance project. Yet one can see at a glance that the La Défense scene (the one that most closely resembles Farhi Zafrir's Rova Mevo Ha'Ir simulation) has little in common with a traditional street market scene.

In the La Défense photo, people scuttle like insects across an exceptionally uninviting, oversized plaza, dwarfed by brutal-looking buildings that do not work together as any sort of defined streetscape or provide the sense of enclosure that human beings generally require if they are to feel comfortable in a given built environment.

In the traditional-Paris street market photo, you've got it all: lovely and varied architecture on a human scale, enclosure, "intimate anonymity."

I humbly submit that this grouping of a photo of the La Défense plaza together with photos of traditional European public squares is a cheap ploy intended to persuade the public that a relatively isolated, limited-use high-rise complex can offer the pleasing urban ambience of a more traditionally-designed quarter. In my view, this reflects questionable ethics on the part of Farhi Zafrir.

It is too bad that the local planning echelon, and the architectural firm that it chose to design Rova Mevo Ha'Ir, couldn't have mustered up a bit more ambition, and devised a plan that would have increased Jerusalem's office-space supply in a style that respected the city's architectural traditions -- as in the Le Plessis-Robinson model described so compellingly by Charles Siegel. As Siegel points out, neo-traditional development can be "dense enough for smart growth" and can deliver its density "in a more attractive and livable environment than the typical modernist development."

But very likely there are no templates for neo-traditional design in the software used by Farhi Zafrir -- so they settled for a stark modernist office park, hoping to pass it off as successful urbanism.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Israel's Construction and Housing Ministry versus Yoav Q. Public

Yoav Lerman, whose runs the popular Od Blog Tel-Avivi (“Another Tel Aviv Blog”) and is one of Israel’s foremost New Urbanism activists, has been individually sanctioned by the Ministry of Construction and Housing – for no other reason, apparently, than that he has exercised his right to criticize the Ministry.

Lerman, according to the short bio accompanying his blog, is a doctoral candidate in Tel Aviv University's Department of Geography and Human Environment, where he conducts research on "pedestrian movement in urban environments and the factors affecting it." He also directs "a research project funded by the Israeli National Road Safety Authority related to pedestrian safety." He serves on the board of Merhav -- the Movement for Israeli Urbanism, and has participated, as an expert panelist, in that organization's annual Israeli Mayors' Institute on City Renewal.
Lerman wished to register for a conference sponsored by the Ministry of Construction and Housing, to launch the Ministry's new urban street design manual -- a topic of obvious relevance to his professional concerns. Considering both his credentials and his personal standing in the urbanist community (not many blogs have five-year anniversary events organized for them), it hardly seems possible that his registration request could have been rejected.

Yet rejected it was, and in a manner shocking for its sheer crudity -- its gross violation of democratic norms.

I offer below a translation of the letter that Lerman received from the Ministry's Deputy Chief Architect, and of a portion of the blog post in which Lerman relates the incident and his response to it. A few words of background:

I have been following Od Blog Tel-Avivi for a while now, and so far as I can tell Lerman is situated well within the mainstream of New Urbanist thinking. He is generally critical of what he sees as a sprawl orientation on the part of Israel's Construction Ministry, an orientation that dictates the creation of car-dependent suburban communities and peripheral urban neighborhoods that lack services, amenities and shopping within walking distance of residents and that are unserved or underserved by public transit.

In one blog post from May of this year, Lerman posited a direct link between a murder that took place in a Be'er-Sheva park and the Ministry's anti-urban policies. In this tragic incident, which was widely reported in the Israeli media, a young father of two was stabbed to death by youths in a park below his apartment building when he went down to complain about the noise they were making. Lerman attributes the prevalence of such delinquent gatherings to the incompetent way in which Israeli communities are designed: "[t]he Israeli planning echelon is creating suburb after suburb in which only four elements are present -- dwellings, parking spaces, parks and roads. There is no commercial activity, there are no cafes, no jobs and -- worst of all -- there is no reason why any adult would want to move around these places on foot." The lack of an adult presence on the streets voids "the suburbanized public space" of "informal adult surveillance" -- i.e., no "eyes on the street."  At the same time, the car-less teenagers who live in these places are forced, by default, to congregate either in garages or in "dark and deserted parks."

Readers with an urbanist orientation will find nothing earth-shattering in this analysis; still, one could argue that Lerman overstated his case somewhat. He certainly chose a sensationalist title for his post: Murder by Planning [רצח על רקע תכנוני]. Now, Lerman is a witty and engaging writer, and one can understand how he might have found such a title irresistible; I think it can hardly help but appeal to anyone who already shares his views.  But readers unacquainted with such concepts as "mixed-use development" and "eyes on the street" might well have trouble agreeing that the Construction Ministry's zoning practices, however detrimental to urban health, were necessarily to blame for a cold-blooded stabbing; and it is perhaps only human nature that the various cogs in the Ministry machine would feel personally implicated here. Perhaps such gems of pithy vitriol are best reserved for instances in which the planning echelon bears obvious, unequivocal responsibility for fatalities, as in the Raquel Nelson affair.

Whatever the case may be, there is no excuse for the way in which the Chief Architect's Division in the Construction and Housing Ministry responded to Lerman's conference registration request:

Dear Mr. Lerman,

The upcoming conference is open to only a limited number of participants and is intended for planning and implementation personnel, not for those involved in incitement; we are therefore obliged at this stage to turn down your request.
Moreover, since the new urban planning guidelines were drawn up by the State, at the behest of one of its "superfluous entities," namely, the Ministry of Construction and Housing, and since they constitute a perfect formula for future murders within the public space, the basis for your interest in attending the conference is not exactly clear to us.
Not only that, but since we have good reason to believe that our response will immediately be posted on the slanderous blog that serves as your customary vehicle of expression, we would greatly appreciate your taking the opportunity to publicly apologize for your earlier attacks.
The Chief Architect's Division

The disrespectful and vindictive tone in which this governmental entity chose to communicate with a law-abiding citizen speaks volumes about the state of democratic culture within the Construction and Housing Ministry. As Lerman points out:

Some employees in the Construction Ministry's Chief Architect's Division appear to have taken personally my opinion that the Construction Ministry is a superfluous entity and feel that, on this account, they are somehow entitled to impose upon me individual sanctions unconnected to the matter at hand. In my innocence I had assumed that a citizen of the State of Israel has the right to criticize the government and its ministries if he sees fit to do so, in the hope of ensuring needed rectifications or at least of generating discussion on topics worthy of being addressed. This is an everyday occurence in Israel, a country where freedom of expression is the order of the day. I fail to understand why this freedom ends at the door of the Construction Ministry, and it seems that the Ministry, whose boss I am (as are you), could use a refresher course in demoracy. In all my years as a blogger I have never encountered so disgraceful a response from the government establishment, even from entities that have been subjected by me to prodigious amounts of criticism (the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality first and foremost). Fortunately, most of these entities have realized that the criticism, however harsh and uncompromising, is not personal, and is certainly not directed toward any specific cadre of functionaries, but comes, rather, from a place of wanting to improve things.

Construction Ministry spokesperson Ariel Rosenberg, responding to Lerman's post on another site where the affair was publicized, reiterated that the conference had been intended for "planners and engineers -- the target audience that will actually be adopting and implementing the guidelines formulated in the new manual," and noted that all other parties who had sought admission to the scheduled conference had been placed on a waiting list. He went on to express strong disapproval of Lerman's mode of expression ("murder by planning" did not go over well), characterizing it as excessive and "bordering on libel." These statements, taken on their own, might seem reasonable enough -- one man's strong criticism being another man's libel -- but the concluding sentences of Rosenberg's response show his true colors -- that is, the Ministry's true colors -- in an embarrassing way:

 [J]ust as public servants must take care to interact with the public in an appropriate and professional manner, so must the public weigh its actions and words wisely when criticizing the actions of official bodies. Mr. Lerman, like journalists and others who are involved in the field or who take an interest in it, may attend the conference in order to learn about the positive activity underway -- space permitting, as noted above.
The thinly-veiled threat (weigh your words when dealing with us, or suffer the consequences) does not reflect well on the Ministry. Nor does the complacent, patronizing attitude embodied in the spokesperson's words -- the presumption that anything coming out of the Ministry must be "positive," and that the Ministry is doing the larger public a favor when it allows it a glimpse of its inner sanctum.

Given this attitude, what might one expect of the Ministry's vaunted "professional" activity -- its competence in shaping the environments that we all live in? No one is more eloquent on this topic than Yoav Lerman:
If we take Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias' statements on the subject of housing as a reflection of his views, we find him to be utterly ignorant of the needs that housing shouild meet, excepting, perhaps, the simple provision of a roof over one's head.  The Housing Minister tends to express himself in terms of volume -- "We've authorized a gazillion and a half apartments," "We've put two trillion housing units on the market." But he pays no attention to the details, particularly to location, transit, dwelling sizes and features, or access to opportunities. The Housing Ministry thus continues to market apartments that no one wants, rather than moving in directions that the market is demanding, and that current economic development makes possible.
And to conclude, I demand an apology from the Chief Architect's Division in the Ministry of Construction and Housing [...] An apology for imposing individual sanctions, for not being able to accept criticism, and, in particular, for the poor quality of the Israeli public space. Any employee of the Chief Architect's Division (or of the Ministry itself, or anyone else) who wishes to do so is welcome to publish a response post on this blog, and to explain why the Ministry of Construction and Housing is necessary and what successes may be laid to its credit, and why the Israeli public is willing to pay more to live in areas that were planned, for the most part, during the British Mandate period, than to live in those that the Ministry was involved in planning.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Brander Park and Gardens, City Center -- a Jerusalem Playground Review

I recently had the pleasure of visiting a renovated playground in the city center -- the "revitalized downtown Jerusalem" that I sometimes mock in a spirit of contrarianism. This wonderful new playground definitely creates an incentive (which I previously found lacking) to go downtown with the kids ...
Name: Brander Park and Gardens
There is a plaque identifying the park's donors as  Dr. Jerome and Mrs. Frances Brander of Atlantic City. On maps, however, the area seems to be called Meir Sherman Garden. When the conundrum has been resolved, Gd willing, I will update.

Location: King George Street, downtown Jerusalem (adjacent to Independence Park).

Transit: Egged lines 4, 4A, 7, 7A, 8, 8A, 9, 9A, 17, 17A, 19, 19A, 21, 21A, 31, 031, 32, 032, 38, 74, 75.
Shade: There's plenty of shade in this park, making it quite usable at all hours of the day, even when the sun is at its harshest. In addition to the many trees scattered throughout, some of them quite old and venerable ...

... there is the welcome addition of a large artificial shade structure covering a selection of attractive, new-style "dynamic" play equipment.

Obviously these shade structures cost money and one can't expect that every corner of a playground will be encompassed by them. Still, it's kind of a shame that this line of cool and varied swings is so entirely exposed to the sun -- I doubt one can use them comfortably after about 9:00 a.m.:

All in all, though, this is a well-shaded playground/park, where at least half of the play equipment is sufficiently shaded for mid-day use, and where comfortable picnic spots can always be found:

Play equipment and features:

Play equipment seems to have its own fashion trends, which wax and wane. A few years ago every new playground in these parts featured a climbing/slide structure with tunnels and turrets, a kind of all-in-one facility around which the entire play area revolved -- like the department store on which a mall is "anchored."

Over the last couple of years, however, things seem to have evolved. My first inkling of the changing times came on a family trip to Zichron Yaacov two summers ago, where we were enchanted by what seemed to us a wonderfully original playground full of strange kinetic-dynamic-futuristic play structures of a kind we had never seen before.

Now these structures are popping up here in Jerusalem as well. The novelty hasn't worn off yet -- maybe it never will:

As noted above, an entire section of the playground is devoted to the swing concept in a variety of ultramodern incarnations. The swings are attractive and fun -- for older children; none is suited to a toddler, unless she's in someone's lap ...

There's a separate toddler play area with some nice features, including this sleek bouncy snake:

The train structure is very attractive, but was in full sun and hot to the touch at around 10:30-11:00 a.m. when we were there:

Other notable features and amenities:

-- Bicycle racks

-- There's a regular water fountain near the toddler play area, and a more "advanced" one off the older-child area -- the water is chilled, and the fountain has a bottle-filling installation:

-- Rarity of all rarities in Jerusalem playgrounds: a restroom. My son tried to get in but couldn't figure out how. I have no idea whether it works, is cleaned/maintained, etc. Nor do I want to be the one who checks this out. Perhaps an intrepid reader will care to update me on this, for the benefit of the wider public ...

-- Brander Park leads directly into the larger, open green space of Jerusalem's well-known Independence Park, an area suitable for picnics, ball-related activities, gatherings, etc. Independence Park has no play facilities per se and I never thought of it as a full-service attraction in and of itself for kids, but nowadays it makes a nice, relaxing side-trip when everyone has tired themselves out on Brander Park's exciting play equipment. Of particular interest is the man-made water feature -- small pools and streams, mainly in shade, that attract kids like flies and offer adults a cool and refreshing interlude amid the downtown bustle:

But don't bring your bathing suit, or drink the water. It might embalm you:

Age range: Toddler through adult:

Snack factor: Many restaurants, cafes, bakeries and convenience stores a short walk away on Jaffa Rd. and along the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall; a kiosk selling ice creams/ices, snacks and cold drinks (as well as less child-oriented items such as lottery tickets and cigarettes) is located at the park's Meir Shaham St. entrance.

Schmooze factor: This is not the kind of playground you go to in order to meet up with a regular crowd of neighborhood moms and childminders -- a valuable feature of certain other playgrounds that I have reviewed.. Brander Park is downtown, so it gets a more transient and varied clientele, and that is its strong point and brand differentiation. One sees locals of all stripes, tourists, plenty of dog-walkers, etc.

Seating: Seating has been handled thoughtfully and generously throughout the park, whether in the form of wooden benches (a fair number in shady spots), a circular stone bench surrounding the main play area, or stone tree and shrubbery platforms that do double duty as seating:

Multiple uses within the park: Brander Park certainly has much to offer within its borders, especially if those borders are extended to include Independence Park. It has several play areas (suited to different age groups) that are distinct and intimate yet flow gracefully into each other; lawns for kicking a ball around, picnicking, etc.; steps and platforms that beckon young children to climb on them; the babbling brook of Independence Park; areas of noisy togetherness and spots of repose. You won't be bored here.

Beyond the park: Self-evident, considering the downtown location. In the immediate vicinity, on King George Street, are certain tourist-itenerary items such as Yeshurun Central Synagogue, the Great Synagogue and Heichal Shlomo.

Prior to the renovation, I never considered this playground to be anything that I would travel out of my south Jerusalem comfort zone for. In general, I always regarded downtown as rather child-unfriendly and resented the lack of a worthwhile play area there. I never could bring myself to run errands in the city center with kids in tow. I've hardly been downtown at all these last few years, as most of my needs can be met closer to home (i.e., in Talpiot); in fact my unexpected recent forays there were occasioned by nothing less than the necessity of getting my three year old vaccinated against rabies at the Health Ministry facility at 86 Jaffa Rd. I dreaded the trip downtown with her, thinking that Brander Park, as I remembered it (a rickety old merry-go-round?), would not compensate her adequately for the innoculation experience. In the end I was pleasantly surprised on all counts: the rabies prevention unit is run efficiently and located in a beautiful old building that is worth visiting on its own merits; the little one was enthralled by the shop windows of Jaffa Rd. and the passing trains; and I discovered the Brander Park renovation.

I'm not naive. I know the Jerusalem Municipality didn't have lowly residents like me in mind when it decided to renovate this playground, but rather the tourist population. Yet this is one instance where the locals truly enjoy a collateral benefit. "Mixed-use" has become a catchword of the downtown Jerusalem revitalization scene, but it appears to refer mainly to a mix of commercial, office and hotel/residential space in new high-rises slated for construction. Yet by creating a truly fun place for children in the city center, the planning echelon has done much to enhance downtown Jerusalem's mixed-use status -- without having to reach skyward.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Memorial to Bad Urbanism on Derech Beit Lechem

Derech Beit Lechem, or Bethlehem Road, is a long street that runs through Jerusalem's Baka and Talpiot neighborhoods, parallel to the thunderous traffic artery of Derech Hevron. Derech Beit Lechem, though itself a busy thoroughfare in parts, would not normally be called "thunderous" (a car word) but rather "bustling" (a people word). When one talks about Derech Beit Lechem one tends to draw on a lexicon of chicness and boutiques, cafes and gentrification.

This vocabulary mainly describes the section of Derech Beit Lechem that extends between Rivka Street (near "Tsomet HaBankim") and Yiftah Street. There is considerable urbanist consciousness in that part of town; Baka activists have garnered media attention by protesting planned changes in traffic patterns that would, in the words of architect and Baka resident David Guggenheim, "have destroyed the delicate urban fabric" of Derech Beit Lechem.

There is, however, another Derech Beit Lechem -- one whose urban fabric is not so delicate: the Talpiot Industrial Area end of the street, between HaTenufa and Derech Baram. On this stretch of Derech Beit Lechem, one side of the street features old industrial buildings ...

... flanking a forlorn, vacant lot where the infamous Versailles wedding hall disaster occurred eleven years ago yesterday, on May 24, 2001. No one, apparently, wants to build something new here:

Site where the Versailles wedding hall once stood, now offering a direct view of the ubiquitous Holyland project.

The opposite side of the street, on this stretch of Derech Beit Lechem, houses some of Jerusalem's poorer residents, in a compound of decrepit shikun buildings (1950s-era mass housing for immigrants) currently slated for urban renewal:

And it is on this side of the street, directly across from the now-desolate space where the Versailles disaster occurred, that a "memorial garden" has been created in honor of the disaster's victims:

Is it just me, or does this "garden" seem wholly inappropriate, whether as a memorial to the casualties of a collapsed dance floor, or as a feature of a street where, after all, human beings continue to live and go about their business? Well, I guess if I thought it was just me, I wouldn't be writing this post, would I?

Here's what I think is wrong with the Versailles memorial site:

1) It has a distinctly military-cemetery feel, as though the designer (architect David Guggenheim -- the Baka activist mentioned above) thought the site was meant to commemorate a battle where heroic warriors fell, rather than a civil disaster. Those tall, straight-arrow cypress trees standing at attention under the brutal midday Mediterranean sun, surrounded by a stark grey concrete wall bearing the names of the fallen ... This military ambience is all wrong, given the civil nature of the incident.

2) The site is unsuited to an area where, as I noted above, people live, play, work, and pursue everyday activities. Basically, a large chunk of public space was hijacked and turned into something that no one can use. This isn't a cemetery, it's a street. Would David Guggenheim want something like this on his end of Derech Beit Lechem?

To be more specific about why the memorial is unsuited to an area where people live and "do stuff" (as opposed to a military cemetery or some kind of national battlefield park):

-- The "garden" is shadeless, meaning that no one can spend time there during normal daytime hours. Wouldn't it have been more meaningful, a more fitting remembrance of the departed, to have planted some shade trees, and arranged them in an inviting way, with some benches under them, creating what we refer to in Hebrew as a pinat hemed -- a "cosy corner" that would have elicited gratitude from local residents and passersby, and, perhaps, have stimulated actual contemplation of the names of the disaster victims -- rather than concealing them?

-- The overall layout is such that one can't be in the site; one is forced to
walk around it. As I said: a hijacking of public space. One can speculate that Guggenheim intended something deep by this: perhaps the set-up of trees-mounted-on-a-platform, upon which we gaze as outside observers, was meant to evoke the moment just before the dance floor collapsed beneath the wedding revellers -- a moment that was captured for posterity on video, and viewed by many thousands of people.

Whatever visual metaphor Guggenheim had in mind, it does not, in my view, justify the removal of a public space from public use. The local residents didn't cause the disaster. Why should they not have the use of their street in its entirety, and in aesthetically pleasing form?

And if the site of the catastrophe itself -- directly across the street from where the memorial "garden" was installed -- has lain desolate for the past decade, wouldn't that have been the logical venue for a monument of some kind?

-- Also, what's with the grey, blank wall on the outside of the memorial? 

Not that it was necessary or desirable to have this grey starkness on the interior walls, either -- but how can one justify putting a blank wall directly across from what is, essentially, a nice, modest, pleasantly dense and human-scaled stretch of multifamily dwellings:

The Versailles disaster, in which 23 people perished and 350 or more were injured due to "quick and dirty" construction methods and owner negligence, demonstrated one kind of price that society pays when the needs of actual human beings are treated with cavalier disregard by those responsible for our built environment.

The Versailles disaster "memorial garden" demonstrates another cost that we incur, as a society, when those responsible for our built environment disregard the needs of actual human beings. No, no deaths are likely to be directly caused by an ugly and unusable memorial garden. But I would argue that negative urban features such as these have a cumulative effect. They make it seem okay to do inappropriate things with the street; to design and build inappropriately. They alienate us from the street, with devastating effects on our quality of life and long-term health. Twenty-three fatalities in one shot is indeed a terrible tragedy. But when, as a society, we adhere to a lifestyle in which the street is a place to be avoided, we suffer health consequences that, though more insidious, reach much farther.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Outdoor advertising: Jerusalem should follow Tel Aviv's lead ... and copy Paris

For about four years now I've been cringing at sights like the following:

It's true that after a while you can get used to things that once drove you nuts. I guess some of the shock value of these Jerusalem Municipality advertising installations has worn off by now; but I still think they are ugly, strident, vulgar, and altogether inconsistent with the subtlety and refinement that I associate with Jerusalem. I also think that they have, for the most part, been inappropriately placed. Moreover, they are not very effective at their appointed task -- delivering commercial and cultural information -- for reasons that I will set forth later in this post.

I used to have a theory about how these ad installations got authorized to begin with. The fact that they first appeared under the mayoral administration of ultra-Orthodox Uri Lupoliansky made me think it was an encroachment of the pashkevil aesthetic into parts of Jerusalem where that aesthetic didn't belong. Now, Lupoliansky did get a lot of flak from the ultra-Orthodox community for trying to clear the streets of unauthorized posters in haredi strongholds like Mea Shearim -- but it was also during his term as mayor that these formal ad installations began to appear throughout Jerusalem, including in the non-haredi parts of town. The two phenomena -- the Mea Shearim cleanup and the citywide oudoor advertising free-for-all -- were apparently two sides of the same coin, the latter being an "authorized" communication channel that supposedly kept the former in check.

Whether the introduction of municipal ad installations had the desired effect of keeping unauthorized posters off the walls of Mea Shearim, I don't really know -- but I tend to doubt it. Whatever the outcome on that side of town, I had never noticed a problem with bandit billboards on, for instance, Emek Refaim St. (in the lively and heterogeneous German Colony), and so I consider the placement of ad installations there to constitute an introduction of visual pollution where there had been none before:

Stately entrance to old Templer cemetery, Emek Refaim St. -- an appropriate site for commercial advertising?
 Basically, at the time of their initial appearance I regarded these Jerusalem advertising boards as manifestations of a warped aesthetic sense, combined with a drive to inject money into the city coffers by any means, fair or foul. And I wanted the installations gone.

Well, I still want them gone; but in the meantime my attitude toward outdoor publicity/advertising has gained a bit of nuance. I've come to recognize that different cities, and different parts of the same city, can take different approaches to advertising. At one end of the spectrum, New York's Times Square can hardly be imagined without its giant billboards. By contrast, Los Angeles has banned digital billboards and multistorey signs. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, Sao Paulo, Brazil, via its Clean City Law, has rid itself altogether of billboards, posters and bus ads.

And then there's Paris with its Morris columns:

Jeune femme traversant le boulevard -- Jean  Béraud (via Wikimedia Commons) 

A more up-to-date version:

via Wikipedia
In 2006 considerable public controversy was generated by a Paris Municipality decision to "unclutter" the public space by reducing the number of its iconic poster columns, which since the 19th century have been considered a major and inexpensive medium for publicizing cultural events in the city. What is worth noting is that the Parisian pillars have been historically dedicated to the purpose of supporting the arts -- not of enriching the municipality, as appears to be the case with today's Jerusalem ad installations.

It's also worth noting that the Morris columns of Paris, with their "crown" detail, etc., are designed with an obvious concern for aesthetics. Not only that, but the very concept of a three-dimensional pillar display, rather than a flat "screen-like" expanse, has something distinctly human, tactile and fun about it. This was brought home to me recently as I took a good look at an object that had been lying around my house since my oldest son was a toddler -- a cardboard stand-up street scene that could serve as a child's primer on the New Urbanism:

The street scene (apparently a European import) features an advertising pillar (far left), and you can see how, under the right conditions, outdoor advertising might contribute just the right degree of liveliness to a street environment, without being overwhelming or vulgar. In this image, if you look closely, you can make out two children playing peek-a-boo around the column. Now picture a real-life street scene, in which well-dressed Parisians glide around a cylinder of this kind in an elegant pas-de-deux as they scan it for news. It almost looks like a form of two-way communication.

Although I spent time in Paris as a student many moons ago, I somehow never thought to connect those Morris columns with the Jerusalem ad installations that have sprouted like poisonous mushrooms around the city over the last four years. They are so different visually that I simply couldn't place them in the same universe, although technically they both fall into the categories of street furniture and outdoor advertising media.

The pashkevil connection aside, what I find so objectionable about the Jerusalem ad installations is the sheer lack of humanity evident both in their design and in their deployment.

The Parisian pillars are not intended for view by drivers, but by pedestrians (their invention pre-dates the auto, after all). Even when they are placed at intersections (as in one of the above photos), they clearly are meant to catch the eye of the human being crossing the street, not the driver waiting for the light. And (at least based on a scan of images -- and there are lots of them -- via Google) they are by no means placed exclusively at intersections.

By contrast, the Jerusalem installations are pretty consistently situated at intersections, including many that get very little foot traffic:

Hebron Rd.-Shmuel Meir Blvd.

 Several things are worth noting about the above photo, but at present I will focus on the fact that this is an intersection at the city's periphery that hardly anyone crosses on foot -- meaning that the advertising here is intended exclusively for drivers waiting for the light to change. Yet, except for the most boldly-printed headlines, no driver, sitting across the road from the installation, can possibly read what is written on those posters. This is typical; I have noticed it at many intersections around the city. The ad installations are supposed to be doing double duty by targeting drivers and pedestrians alike.  Yet they fail miserably with regard to drivers, as they do not take human visual capabilities into account! Those responsible for the installations' design and placement seem to have thought they were going to be communicating with windshields, not with people.

(Given this inefficacy, it's really too bad that the lovely pastoral view of an olive grove had to be sacrificed to the municipal advertising imperative.)

My favorite, of course, is when the ad installations are positioned near traffic circles. Apparently, drivers are expected to crane their necks to make out what's written on the posters while they're driving around the circles:

Traffic circle at entrance to Har Homa. You can't make out anything on those ad boards while you're whizzing past ...

Yet I would argue that even when the installations are placed in spots with heavy pedestrian traffic, they are not particularly effective. It's true that on a busy street like Emek Refaim, people will definitely stop to look at them. But you have to step back awkwardly in order to focus on the text of the posters ...  

... risking collision with other people at a teeming intersection, and then shield your eyes from the psychadelic glare. The installations, jam-packed with posters superimposed each on the other, in eye-blistering colors that clash both with each other and with the otherwise stately and graceful Jerusalem landscape, are simply not scaled for the human eye at street level.

What is more, they take up an awful lot of visual "space." Unlike Morris columns, which attract attention but do not overwhelm, the Jerusalem ad installations are a form of visual hijacking. Look at how the view of a lovely Old Katamon house and its garden is obstructed by -- not one, but two -- installations:

Here an ad board disrupts the tranquillity of a residential Baka street:

The above intersection, Efraim and Gideon streets, is just a couple of blocks away from both Emek Refaim and Derech Beit Lechem -- two major commercial hubs that have certainly received their share of ad installations. Couldn't the Municipality have let this quiet little street slumber in peace? Or do they think the Day-glo colors contrast elegantly with Jerusalem stone?

And, what about the local residents who have to look out their windows at the backs of these things, or the pedestrians who have to accept these grey and lifeless metal backsides as part of the streetscape:

It's nice to know that Ariel, the Jerusalem muncipal company that is responsible for these eyesores, takes pride in the installations' aesthetic caliber.

On its website Ariel doesn't bother to name either the company to which it has contracted the twice-weekly changing of the posters, or the "sponsor" that it "recruited"  several years ago to "replace 300 old and broken-down installations around the city, at a cost of millions of shekels, in exchange for advertising rights to the upper portion of the installations." [emphases mine -- Julie@walkablejlm]

The term "recruited" struck me as intriguingly vague. Isn't this the kind of service that a municipality would normally  publish a tender for?

I did some digging, and came up with the following:

In 2008 the Jerusalem Municipality did issue a tender for the provision of outdoor advertising/street furniture services -- after a lengthy period in which such services had been provided by multiple companies on a short-term contract basis. Jerusalem was, at that time, following the lead of Tel Aviv, which had recently entered into an agreement with a multinational outdoor advertising company following a tender process. The idea was that various local and international companies would submit their bids, and that Jerusalem would end up with a professional, aesthetically-pleasing and unified municipal street furniture "style", provided by an organization with proven design expertise.

However, the tender caused an uproar in the Israeli outdoor advertising industry, as its conditions seemed to automatically disqualify local competitors and leave the playing field open solely to large foreign companies -- necessitating intervention on the part of the Israel Anti-Trust Authority.

I haven't, as yet, been able to trace the entire train of events that succeeded the tender's publication and the subsequent outcry; what is certain, however, is that a few months after the tender was published, it was cancelled. None of the foreign companies that might have been expected to submit bids, did so. Why? Well, apparently there was something irregular about the Jerusalem tender itself. Among other things, the time period stipulated for the provision of services -- 15 years -- was considered unusual in the industry, and made the tender an unattractive proposition for the relevant firms.

What is one to make of all this?

Was the original tender a farce? I wouldn't want to hurl accusations without having all the facts, but something doesn't add up.

It's not clear to me who is currently responsible for designing, erecting and determining the placement of Jerusalem's ubiquitous ad installations, and whether they are also responsible for the graphical end of things. As far as I can tell, the company that appears to be in charge of designing and deploying the posters plastered on the installations is Diyuk Advertising & Distribution,  a company whose website proclaims the availability to prospective clients of 300 ad installations "throughout the city" -- "Eeeeeverybody can see you" [כו ו ו ולם רואים אותך] !

Who is Diyuk Advertising & Distribution? Diyuk was founded in 2005 by Udi Moshe Cohen, "after a decade of experience in outdoor advertising and broadsides [מודעות רחוב] in the ultra-Orthodox and religious sector, as well as in the secular sector which has traditionally had less exposure to the broadside medium" [emphasis mine -- Julie@walkablejlm]

Basically, Diyuk is a pashkevil company that got a good gig: bringing the Mea Shearim pashkevil look to all parts of the city. Although they don't list the Jerusalem Municipality as one of their clients, and are not mentioned on Ariel's website, what can one conclude from the "Shiltei Yerushalayim" page of their website, but that they are the de facto operators of the municipal ad installations? It's not clear to me whether Diyuk was actually responsible for deciding on the installations' infelicitious flat-screen format and idiotic placements, or whether Ariel should get credit for this. But they certainly appear to be responsible for the overall look.

Compared with the Jerusalem Municipality, the Tel Aviv Municipality exhibits both decent taste in its choice of outdoor advertising format, and relative transparency.

Tel Aviv, in 2010, contracted with JCDecaux, the company that currently handles Paris' Morris columns, to replace its old ad installations with columns in the Parisian style. Actually, a photo taken from the JCDecaux website shows a rather plain metallic cylinder, somewhat reminiscent of a cola can and decidely less attractive than its Parisian counterpart:

But no matter. It's a whole lot better than what we've been used to in Jerusalem. And the Tel Aviv Municipality doesn't seem to feel the need to keep its contractor's name a secret. The municipality published a tender, which was duly won by a large and experienced international company in the street furniture/outdoor advertising industry. The fact that JCDecaux was the only contender doesn't bother me too much; at least the process was open and transparent, unlike the mysterious "recruitment" that took place in Jerusalem.

This lack of transparency, and the sheer ugliness and inefficacy of the Jerusalem ad installations, may have been consistent with the Lupoliansky administration's unprofessionalism; I certainly didn't expect any expansion of the phenomenon under Mayor Barkat. Yet the installations have proliferated since he entered office.

Should a local company that does shoddy work be preferred to a multinational that demonstrates professionalism? I don't think so -- certainly not where Jerusalem's visual environment is concerned. Of course, it would be great if a local company -- whether ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, secular, Christian, Muslim or Bahai -- acquired professional skills in the outdoor furniture/advertising sphere even remotely comparable to those of a company like JCDecaux. (Just compare Diyuk's website with that of JCDecaux, and decide which company you would rather have in charge of outdoor advertising in the Israeli capital -- the holy city of Jerusalem.)

To sum up:

If the Jerusalem Municipality wants to provide a platform for the effective transmission of information related to culture and the arts, it would do well to adopt -- as Tel Aviv has done -- the kind of column or pillar format that works so well in European cities, and to place these columns in shopping districts, near community centers, in public plazas and on sidewalks that are wide enough to accomodate them -- thereby targeting pedestrians in areas where there is heavy foot traffic. The flat ad installations currently in use, positioned at all sorts of intersections where they often block views of attractive architecture and greenery, are absurdly ineffective at conveying information to drivers, except in those instances where the entire space is devoted to a single large commercial ad. The attempt to target both pedestrians and drivers (and to communicate both cultural and commercial information) using the same format was ill-conceived, to put it mildly. And (again putting it mildly) the Jerusalem Municipality would do well to display rather more transparency regarding its choice of service provider in the area of street furniture/advertising.