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Jerusalem was forgotten in the tumult surrounding the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, but the question of its future has reached a critical stage, as well. The plans for the city's westward expansion, with thousands of new homes, will be submitted shortly for final approval by national planning authorities.

No one should envy the city's planners, who are charged with shaping the outlines of the city while navigating its complex demography of Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, as well as socioeconomic issues that are causing the flight of wealthier residents. All of this is set against a murky municipal future in which a separation fence cuts off parts of the city, and in light of the fact that one government has already agreed to transfer Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian sovereignty.

These difficulties, however, do not justify sacrificing large amounts of open areas to new construction. The creation of a contiguous band of neighborhoods from the northwest to the south of the city will cause great damage to the natural landscape and the ecology, as well as to the quality of life of Jerusalem's residents. It is difficult to accept the arguments of the municipality and its development authorities that the construction will harm only a small percentage of the area. Perhaps the buildings will occupy only a small percentage, but they will be widely scattered and the effects of the construction will be significant.

The city's problems are also no justification for plans that could exacerbate Jerusalem's economic and social difficulties. Planning experts disagree about whether new neighborhoods would help retain middle-class residents and support the existing city or merely pull this population out of the center of the city, creating a separate, isolated city on the outskirts. The new neighborhoods could represent a new magnet for the ultra-Orthodox. That would not contribute to the economic development of the city. In any event, it is clear that the economic effects on the city of any new neighborhoods must be considered thoroughly.

The only policy on which the experts and the public agree is the importance of strengthening the city center and supporting existing neighborhoods. For this reason, it would be better to retain the idea of expanding the city westward as an option to be reevaluated in the future, not forgetting to review the environmental impact, if it becomes clear that the rate of development in the existing city is insufficient to halt urban flight and economic deterioration.

Supporters of the construction plans say that in order to save Jerusalem, they should have already been put into action. But until the city can provide a reasonable quality of life, education and employment opportunities in its current state, prospective residents will have no reason to move there. Instead, they will opt for the neighborhoods in the west, from which they can easily travel to other cities both for shopping and for employment.

To prevent Jerusalem from deteriorating further, the difficult issues must be confronted. One of these is improving the quality of life for the city's non-Haredi inhabitants in order to keep them from leaving. Another, which is obviously not the responsibility of the planners, is to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or at least to create the conditions for normal daily life.

Some interesting recommendations have been made for the master plan that would provide more employment options for the ultra-Orthodox - a development that could help the city. The planners are also recommending placing more emphasis on separate public spaces for different communities.

"In a multicultural city, there is a real advantage to a spatial division of population groups," the latest master plan claimed. According to this philosophy, each group is given its own cultural space in which it can conduct its way of life. The spatial division reduces the areas of friction between groups without negating the possibility of contact - at places of work, commerce and leisure - that gives meaning to the communal urban experience.