Zion Square in Jerusalem
Zion Square in Jerusalem Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Daniel Bar-On
Jerusalem's Zion Square from a different angle. Photo by Daniel Bar-On

Though strategically located in the very heart of Jerusalem, at the junction of Jaffa Road and the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall, and historically important as well, Zion Square is far from what it should be, lacking any real sense of "place" or identity. For all the public expenditure on it over the years (its current incarnation represents the third time it has been redesigned since Zion Cinema was demolished, in 1979), it remains today little more than a mere corridor.

About a month ago, dozens of Jewish youths brutally assaulted three young Palestinians in the square. One of the victims had to be hospitalized in intensive care. A special police team was set up to investigate the suspects, nine of whom were detained and subsequently indicted. But the police do not deal with the causes of criminality, and certainly not with the design of the physical environment of a crime scene, even though this can play an important role.

Dominating the square (to the south) is the Kikar Zion Hotel, a massive structure unrelated to its surroundings, with its lower levels occupied by Bank Hapoalim. The ground floor of this building, a half-level below the square, is bare - just a series of columns - a boon to drug dealers and prostitutes. The new light-rail line on Jaffa Road is to the north, a new department store to the east, and two additional banks take up invaluable ground-floor frontage to the west. The all-important Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall terminates at the square without the slightest design response.

The space itself is ill-defined, lacking a sense of enclosure or any visual focal point. But perhaps more important is the fact that no fewer than three banks and a major new department store border the square, killing any opportunity to give it life.

When a bank or a department store closes in the afternoon or evening, it becomes dead space. To make matters worse, the upper levels of the buildings adjacent to Zion Square are occupied mainly by offices. Windows are the eyes of a building. Here, after business hours, there is no one behind them, and natural visual surveillance (eye contact ) is nonexistent. Such a setting is a perfect invitation to criminal activity.

In an urban environment, the street-level design and functions of a building are of the utmost importance. It is the interaction between adjoining buildings and the square that should make it interesting, lively and safe. Plazas are successful when life goes on around them, as well as within. A thoughtful mix of small-scale retail businesses and several cafes bordering Zion Square, and residential mixed with office use above, would ensure that it doesn't die at 7 P.M. Places of entertainment, such as a theater or cinema, would help activate the square at night.

With economic incentives, it should be possible to get the existing banks to relocate. As they own many branches, the city can permit them to transfer their existing building rights to more appropriate locations, or alternately, could encourage them to move to an entirely new location, by offering building rights bonuses.

The basic underlying ideas behind the proposals listed above are as old as Jane Jacobs' landmark book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," first published in 1961. Since that time, cities worldwide have instituted all manner of urban design guidelines for preventing precisely the kind of problems that exist at Zion Square. Among those guidelines have been measures that specify permissible uses in buildings situated along major commercial thoroughfares or public open spaces, and that limit the length of ground-floor frontage of certain types of businesses, such as banks and chain stores. Measures of this type, supported by a reasonable city tax policy on smaller commercial enterprises, have in recent years been tried out successfully in such cities as New York, San Francisco and Vancouver. Needless to say, no such ordinances have ever been experimented with in Jerusalem.

Zion Square is not alone in its plight. The newly designed Davidka Square, half a kilometer up Jaffa Road, is dead as a doornail, and Safra Square too is deserted. Desperately needed, then, is an enlightened public policy regarding the city center and its relationship to overall land use (with special emphasis on the pedestrian level ) that would reflect its crucial role as the capital's social center. While it's clear that the city is making great efforts to revive the center, after years of neglect and construction - on the matter of public squares, it has shown little ingenuity. Zion Square is the perfect place to begin.

Cosmetic solutions - such as architect-artist Ron Arad's 2006 proposal for a sculpture covering the entire square and part of Jaffa Road itself - have less than nothing to do with the problem. It is high time to take it out of the hands of amateurs. Thoughtful urban design will not only enliven the downtown area, but also play a most important role in guarding our personal safety and security. Although well-designed open public spaces may not be capable of eliminating the violent racism that was behind last month's attack, they can make it less likely for such attacks to take place in the city's heart.

Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.