Town planning is often seen as a fairly benign profession, however the last week has been a reminder just how powerful a simple line on a plan or map can be. I have recently returned from the Middle East, where I worked for the United Nations Development Program and United Nations Habitat as part of an Urban Planning Advisory Team (UPAT) attempting to picture and plan for a future State of Palestine along 1967 borders - a critically important but entirely ignored spatial plan.
The International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) arranged the UPAT and brought together 12 planners from around the world with the intention of undertaking a rapid, creative spatial visioning exercise. The team was split into two parts two parts, one half focused on the West Bank and the other on the Gaza Strip. The challenges of planning in the West Bank are well documented in the UN Habitat report Right to Develop: Planning Palestinian Communities in East Jerusalem (http://unhabitat.org/books/right-to-develop-planning-palestinian-communities-in-east-jerusalem/), however the UPAT was able to add to the discourse by thinking pragmatically about public transport and public realm improvements for Ramallah, Jerusalem, Jericho and Bethlehem.
Notwithstanding the challenges faced by Palestinians trying to live, work and plan for the future in the West Bank, the situation in Gaza is considerably worse.
It is hard to explain what it is like to experience Gaza first hand. Yes, a great deal of it is currently very badly damaged or destroyed, but it is also a beautiful place. Our local planning and architecture counterparts are very capable and have spatial land use plans in place for each of their five governorates, there is also a National Spatial Strategy and many other plans prepared for infrastructure, commercial and residential development. However plan implementation is extremely difficult - Gaza has been afflicted by three wars in the past six years, and is still under a suffocating blockade. It has also lost large sections of land within its borders, turned into no-mans-land within firing range of Israeli (and indeed Egyptian) military.
In addition to these considerable challenges, attempts by Gaza to “build back better” are further hampered by only a fraction of pledged international development donations having been paid, and the supply of most building materials being blocked by Israel.
In addition to over 9,000 homes still lying destroyed and 134,000 more left damaged, many industrial buildings, community facilities and farms have also been lost, thereby removing places for people to work and play.
In the face of these very significant obstacles, we asked people to consider how they hoped Gaza would look, feel and function at an unspecified time in the future when a State of Palestine would have full sovereignty of borders that would be open for the movement of people and goods, as it is now within Europe. Although we tried to focus on macro level spatial visions, some possible short-term local interventions also emerged. Initial ideas, sketch concepts and precedent images suggested:
• Pocket parks for the many children who play on the streets;
• Ecological system improvements for Wadi Gaza (as part of wider planned measures to address critical water and sanitation risks);
• Transformation of a former rail corridor into a priority walking and cycling trail; and
• Facilities to support the sharing economy.
More details on the proposed spatial vision and design concepts will be shared in a series of three magazines, to be presented at the 51st ISOCARP International Planning Congress “Cities Save the World: Let’s Reinvent Planning”, which will take place from 19 to 23 October 2015 in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.
It was an honour to be a part of the ISOCARP UPAT and I hope that we can make a small contribution to Gaza once again being a vibrant and successful crossroads in the Middle East.