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.

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