The First Akko Conference on Urbanism

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Creating the Cities of Tomorrow, Today.

A variety of topics related to urban development were discussed at the first Akko Conference on Urbanism (November 17-19), which was held with the participation of researchers and experts from Israel and abroad, policy-makers, planners and academics. The conference included a special KKL-JNF session entitled Between Urbanism and Afforestation.

L-R: Ami Oliel, Karin Bolton, Anat Gold, David Maddox. Photo: Yoav Devir

Yoav Galant. Photo: Yoav Devir
The conference, which was held this year for the first time, promotes an interdisciplinary and intersectoral approach that involves cooperation between different populations, spheres and disciplines. The intention is to formulate a policy for urbanism in Israel on the basis of recognition of the challenges involved in urban development issues. This policy will be presented at the Third United Nations Habitat Conference (Habitat III), to be held in Ecuador in 2016 on the theme of socially and environmentally sustainable urban development.

For three days, lectures, debates, tours, panel discussions and workshops were held at a variety of venues throughout Akko and served as a platform for the launching of new urbanism initiatives. One session that attracted particular interest was held by KKL-JNF on Between Urbanism and Afforestation.

Orna Hozman-Bechor. Photo: Yoav Devir
Other topics that came up at the various conference sessions included From Environmentalism to Sustainability; Nature in the City for Improved Quality of Life; Urban Agriculture; Creating Growth Engines in the Periphery; Economic Development; Urban Tactics for Creating Change; Art and Creativity; Making Information Accessible to the Public; Community Development; Urban Design; Urban Renewal; Population Diversity; Arab Towns in Israel; Interurban Justice and Equality; and a leadership workshop.

“Cities play a major social role, and we have to enable their residents to live appropriately,” declared Minister of Housing and Construction Yoav Galant at the plenum session that opened the conference. “Ninety-three per cent of Israelis live in cities, so when we talk about urbanism we’re actually dealing with a topic that plays a central role in the lives of most people in the country. Wise use of the urban development tools at our disposal is the key to creating a better life for residents of Israel.”

Naomi Tzur. Photo: Yoav Devir
Akko, as a multicultural city, implements projects that bring about physical and social change and thus serve as an example of urban renewal,” said Akko Mayor Shimon Lankri. “We regard the conference as an opportunity to draw up an urban agenda for the entire State of Israel.”

“The vision for Akko has become a reality, there’s been a real change here,” remarked Director of Israel’s Ministry of the Interior Orna Hozman-Bechor appreciatively.

Naomi Tzur, who chaired the Akko Conference, told those present: “Today we founded the Israeli Forum for Urbanism, and from now on we have to work together wisely and judiciously to ensure that the cities of tomorrow preserve quality of life and conserve natural resources, while remaining accessible and sustainable.”

Between Urbanism and Afforestation

David Maddox. Photo: Yoav Devir
At the session held in the historic Knights’ Halls compound, KKL-JNF invited conference participants to a fascinating discussion on the point at which city and forest, construction and open spaces all converge. The session was entitled Between Urbanism and Afforestation – New Life for the Cities. “This is a very important topic and it’s only natural that KKL-JNF should bring it up,” said Chairperson Naomi Tzur.

The opening lecture of the session was delivered by Dr David Maddox of the USA, who spoke on Branding Green Urbanism. Dr Maddox has created an internet platform where some 350 people worldwide exchange views on green urbanism.

“First of all we have to ask ourselves what kind of cities we want,” said Dr Maddox by way of introduction. “We can describe them as sustainable cities that are durable, accessible to all and good to live in. We expect our cities to meet all these demands.”

Pinchas Kahana. Photo: Yoav Devir
He characterized green cities as follows: “They contain mainly energy-efficient buildings; they promote public transportation and have a good water economy. We don’t always appreciate the importance of real greenery such as parks, public gardens and trees.”

Dr Maddox went on to enumerate the advantages of planting trees in the cities: trees raise property values, reduce surface runoff water, save energy and improve air quality. “We have to find ways to encourage residents to take part in this process so that they can help us to create the cities we all want,” he said. He added that it was important to build a shared vocabulary in order to facilitate debate between people who do not share the same opinions. “Cities are ruled mainly by government and business, but in order to make them better places to live in we have to regard them also as ecological systems of infrastructures and human beings,” he concluded.

Anat Gold. Photo: Yoav Devir
“KKL-JNF is active in promoting recreation and leisure as part of the quality of urban life,” said Pinchas Kahana, the outgoing director of KKL-JNF’s Planning Division, who conducted proceedings during the second half of the session. “We want to encourage activities at the local level and include people who experience the region on a daily basis, while also setting up cooperative initiatives and engaging in public debate with all those concerned.”

Anat Gold, the new Director of KKL-JNF’s Planning Division, presented a new approach that she calls “Life Channels,” which she summarized as follows: “The channels of riverbeds are once more assuming a major role in urban planning. Neglected areas are being rehabilitated and brought back into use, and nature is entering the cities and creating a succession of open spaces. This reclaimed land allows for the development of urban parks and areas dedicated to recreation and leisure activities.”

Photo: Yoav Devir
Gold focused on two examples in the Negev: the Beersheba River and Meitar’s Hebron River. KKL-JNF’s rehabilitation of the Beersheba River, with the help of its Friends worldwide, has transformed the city’s polluted backyard into a well cared for urban park with lawns, landscaped gardens, promenades, footpaths, cycle trails, an amphitheatre and an artificial lake. “Beersheba River Park has changed the face of the city, and it is more important to Beersheba than Yarkon Park is to Tel Aviv,” she maintained.

The second example was the community of Meitar, which is surrounded by woodland on all sides and crisscrossed by a network of streams, all of which drain into the Hebron River. KKL-JNF has reclaimed the waterways, built a promenade and brought the neglected sites back to life.

Moshe Sheller. Photo: Yoav Devir
Anat Gold concluded her presentation by saying: “Bringing the abandoned areas back into the city creates a natural environment and provides space for recreational and leisure-time activities. It increases the value of the land, changes urban planning trends and draws people to the city.”

KKL-JNF Community and Forest Director Moshe Sheller explained what constitutes a community forest. “It’s a forest situated in close proximity to a community, it is accessible to residents and it normally serves mainly people who live locally. Community afforestation blurs the boundaries between nature and the city, and so creates towns that are pleasant to live in.” According to Sheller, “Community forests transform neglected backyards into green display windows, but they sometimes come under pressure from development and are under constant threat.”

Vardit Tzurnamal. Photo: Yoav Devir
So far KKL-JNF has developed several dozen community forests in a variety of locations throughout the country. “We’ve come to understand that a community forest can’t be managed like anordinary woodland. We work together with the local authorities and the community, and we don’t behave as if we were the sheriffs of the forest,” he explained.

Landscape architect Vardit Tzurnamal spoke about linear projects as agents for change within the city. She described Netivot’s Nahal Bohu (Bohu River), which is located within KKL-JNF woodland upon which the city is steadily encroaching. KKL-JNF is promoting a master plan designed to attract people to the river and transform it into a lively recreational venue. The proposal includes woodland trails, footpaths, forest sites and bridges across the waterway. In conclusion Tzurnamal mentioned two new projects: the development of parks along Jerusalem’s Begin Highway and a nature trail in Yehud-Monosson that links the center of town to its open outskirts.

Hanoch Tzoref. Photo: Yoav Devir
Hanoch Tzoref
, Director of the Highlands in KKL-JNF’s Central Region, spoke on Theory Versus Reality in Community Projects in the Jerusalem Hills. He said that, thanks to civic activity together with the community in the Jerusalem Forest, a statutory plan had been approved. “The forest is active and it attracts many visitors, but unfortunately the municipality and the community administrations have faded away with time.” 

Tzoref provided additional examples: Adullam-France Park in the Beit Shemesh region, where local moshavim enlisted in the battle against the oil shale plan and won the day; and Mevasseret Forest, which also has a community woodland, though without active local authority involvement.

According to Tzoref, the following challenges have to be addressed if a community forest is to succeed: woodland accessibility, suitable city signposting that points the way to the forest, planning appropriate to residents’ wishes and long-term collaboration with the community.

Akko old city. Photo: Yoav Devir
Pinchas Kahana summed up the session: “Where there is vision, local grassroots activism and an ability to get things done the achievements can be impressive."

After the session was over KKL-JNF set up a publicity booth in the Knights’ Halls’ courtyard, handed out pamphlets and screened films showing a variety of the activities in which the organization is engaged. A significant part of KKL-JNF’s work is closely connected with the topics discussed at the conference: community forests, the establishment of urban parks, the development of settlement in the periphery, open spaces management and sustainable development are all issues with which the organization is closely involved.

Painting the city green

Stav Shaffir. Photo: Yoav Devir
A debate on milestones in urbanism was held with the participation of Anat Gold, Director of Planning at KKL-JNF, Eshel Armoni, Director General of the Ministry of Housing and Construction, and Knesset members Stav Shaffir and Tamar Zandberg.

“KKL-JNF is engaged in extensive activities regarding open spaces, but we also consider its urban activities to be very important,” said Anat Gold. “Among other things, KKL-JNF deals with the establishment of urban parks and the rehabilitation of open spaces, all with the aim of painting the town green.”

“Developing urbanism is a national mission,” emphasized MK Zandberg, founder of the urbanist lobby in the Knesset.
Tamar Zandberg. Photo: Yoav Devir
“Good urbanism is found not only in Tel Aviv and the center of the country. If we continue to build wasteful suburbs they will continue to be expensive and will eat up the open spaces.”

“We have to strengthen our cities and, with the help of local residents, transform them into the most attractive place to be,” declared MK Stav Shaffir, who is a member of the urbanist lobby. Eshel Armoni called for dialogue in which the various issues could be discussed together despite differences of opinion.

The next event included an update from ministerial representatives on what was happening within their areas of responsibility. Netanel Lapidot of the Ministry of Housing and Construction pointed out that the city contains
Shahar Toller. Photo: Yoav Devir
many latent opportunities for growth and renewal alongside the threat of poverty and violence. Karin Talmor of the Planning Administration announced that the Administration would soon be organizing an urban planning competition with regard to specific locations and at the same time an appeal would be launched for innovators to submit proposals for an overall urban context. “We have to think together about how to promote planning for the creation of better urbanism,” said Shahar Toller of Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry.

Thinking differently about urbanism

Meirav Aharon Gutman. Photo: Yoav Devir
The Ramchal Synagogue in Akko's Old City was the venue for a session entitled Between Local Urbanism and a Place in the City: New Thoughts on Urbanism in Israel. “Urbanism is actually an ideology that tries to impose an apparently progressive lifestyle, as if the countryside no longer has any right to exist,” contended Dr Meirav Aharon Gutman of the Technion’s Faculty of Architecture, who chaired the panel discussion. “As researchers we have to approach every city with non-judgmental curiosity in order to discover the unique urbanism that reigns at each location.”

In his lecture on Religion and Urbanism Dr Moriel Ram focused on Akko's non-establishment neighborhood synagogues. “The synagogue as a
Moriel Ram. Photo: Yoav Devir
public space has a number of spiritual, administrative and community aspects,” he said, and went on to describe how synagogues are sometimes perceived as cultural and political outposts. He quoted worshippers in one neighborhood who said, “Without the synagogue we wouldn’t stay here for so much as two hours.”

Sharon Ayalon, an architect and artist who is completing her doctorate at the Technion, presented her research into Art in the Public Domain, with emphasis on theater in Akko. “Theater is a place, an activity and an artistic product,” she said. “The theater contains both the space and the public, because without an audience it has no meaning.”

Sharon Ayalon. Photo: Yoav Devir
In her social research Ayalon examined the connection between works of art and the locations in which they are to be found, using textual analysis, observation of the audience and analysis of the architectural space and organizational and economic aspects.

Dr Nili Schori, an architect who specializes in urban planning, brought up the issue of demographic growth. “There is a religion of crowding, as if without enough people a place doesn’t have the right to exist. We have to make a distinction between demographic growth, which means more people, and urban growth, which is based upon improvement of the quality of life,” she explained.

Experiencing renewal together

Nili Schori. Photo: Yoav Devir
The panel discussion entitled Joining Forces: Developing Tools and Undergoing Renewal was chaired by journalist Neta Ahituv and brought together mayors, decision-makers and academics. The panelists were Bat Yam Mayor Yossi Bechar, Shfaram Mayor Amin Anabtawi, Director General of the Housing and Construction Ministry Eshel Armoni, Professor Eran Feitelson of the Hebrew University’s Department of Geography, and Acco Mayor Shimon Lankri.

Yossi Bechar spoke about the importance of supporting the weaker local authorities so that they, too, would be able to renew themselves and develop. Amin Anabtawi pointed out that existing infrastructures could barely cope with the number of
The panel discussion. Photo: Yoav Devir
residents living in the city today, leaving no room for expansion. “Urban renewal does not provide a complete solution, and the only way is to get out of the city into new neighborhoods and plan modern infrastructures there ahead of time,” he said.

Eshel Armoni explained that urban renewal could take place if obstacles were removed and a suitable economic model was to be constructed. Professor Feitelson pointed out that different cities have different problems and added, “The mayors have to formulate the vision and lead the process of urban renewal.”

Mayor Lankri summed up the proceedings as follows: “If we want a strong economy, we have to
Shimon Lankri. Photo: Yoav Devir
ensure that a place is fit to live in. That’s how we nurtured the neighborhoods in Akko, working in conjunction with the government ministries. It could work all over the country, just as it did with us.”

The concluding lecture of the first evening was delivered by Mindy Turbov of the USA’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. “Our ambition is to create high-quality neighborhoods that will attract residents and investors while improving the level of security and education for the benefit of local residents,” she said.

On the relationship between the government’s role and private investors she said, “I realize that the government can’t do everything on its own, while the private market has vast reserves. The objective is to create incentives for the private sector while protecting the rights of
Mindy Turbov. Photo: Yoav Devir
the local people.” She stressed in her speech that there is no single solution that suits everywhere. “We have to create solutions that fit the problems we have to cope with, in accordance with the characteristics of each location,” she explained.

The evening concluded with a festive performance of authentic Arab music by the Zaman Band, which underscored Akko's multiculturalism. This concluded the first day of the conference, which was scheduled to continue for another two days. The process of thinking most definitely did not come to an end at the end of the day. In the words of Naomi Tzur, the event’s chairperson: “The end of the conference does not indicate the end of the road, but rather the first step in the construction of a worthy vision for Israeli urbanization.”