Whose City Is It Anyway?

A thought-provoking new book uncovers the power struggle between residents and the planning authorities that has raged for decades.

The photos are recognizable from everyday life. In one corner of a public park, boys are getting ready for a ball game, setting up goals and marking off territory that strangers should not dare approach. In other corners, large groups gather for birthday parties or family picnics and mark off a patch of grass with flags and balloons. Others light barbecues under the trees despite the signs warning against doing so.

In open public spaces, young people congregate, and protest tents and improvised housing for homeless people are set up (and evacuated because they are said to be disturbing the public order ). Senior citizens hold ad-hoc debates and take over benches on the streets.

Mea She'arim - Toby Fenster - February 2012
Toby Fenster

In mixed cities, including those with Christian communities, there are ways of dividing public spaces based on nationality - Jews, Arabs, foreign workers and refugees. Not necessarily out of choice. In many neighborhoods and housing projects, ground-floor apartment residents use the adjacent public space as if it were their private area and mark it off with plants and other objects. In ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, there are signs prohibiting the public from wearing clothes defined as "immodest" and the public space is gender-segregated.

It seems the public space is a constant arena of competition, if not clashes, between groups and sectors, interests and uses, many of them informal and unplanned. This competition can be seen as a takeover of the space, acquisition, privatization or appropriation, sometimes in violation of written regulations, procedures or laws. On the other hand, it is also an authentic expression "from the ground up" of distress and addresses vital needs, protest and outrage against an obtuse establishment or discrimination. It reflects creative ways to survive in the space and acquire "the right to the city" - a term coined by sociologist Henri Lefebvre, raising the question of who owns the city.

Prof. Tovi Fenster's new book "Whose City is It? Planning, Knowledge and Everyday Life" (Urban Red Line series, Hakibbutz Hameuchad ) answers this question and adds: This question also encompasses the statement to the effect that the public space belongs to 'everyone,' and the everyday is the site of constant objection to the gap between professional knowledge and local knowledge, and between the vision of 'the planners and the experts' and the grassroots voices."

The right to object

The book, from which most of the above examples are taken, reviews the balance of power as it is reflected in planning - how everyday life fits into the planning process - and details those who are pushed below the planning radar. Fenster is a key figure in the research of human rights in planning and a critic of the "Western, modernist and capitalist" planning that prevails in Israel. She is a geographer and urban planner, space and gender researcher and one of the founders of nonprofit organization Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights.

Her new book was written before last summer's social protests, "but it relates to the phenomenon," she says, "because protest is not just a one-time demonstration but is reflected in the way a city is used. Every one of us has the right to object. Even something like closing in a porch can be seen as an expression of opposition, creativity and a kind of culture and protest. Every such action has its social context. After all, Israel is building itself and there is room for more dialogue."

For the past three years or so, Fenster has headed a lab for research on planning, the environment and the community at Tel Aviv University's geography and human environment department, in which 10 researchers are working on advanced degrees. The lab combines theoretical research and practical work with communities to implement the concept of spatial and planning justice. The researchers were recently invited by the Bat Yam municipality to formulate an urban-renewal plan for one of the city's older neighborhoods as an alternative to pressure from lucrative real-estate ventures.

One of Fenster's key motives for writing the book was the desire and need to question the prevailing argument that professional planning knowledge in Israel is scientific and democratic and, therefore, neutral and free of "power and identity biases," says Fenster. Chapter after chapter lifts the veil of supposed neutrality over the planning process, revealing the forces operating behind it.

Everyday life and local knowledge are presented as "the practicalities of opposition." The historical chapter on early colonialist-modernist planning in Palestine and its impact on planning in Israel today, is a key chapter that should be shown to the entire planning chain of command - from the decision makers to the professionals - before they dare to approach a site.

In an informative analysis of planning during the British Mandate period, Fenster points to a tendency to separate Jewish and Palestinian residents in public spaces as the primary influence over planning in Israel and the iron-clad principle guiding it to this day - from the separation wall to the ugly incident of the Kibbutz Gevim acceptance panel, which rejected an Israeli couple as "socially incompatible" when they applied to live there.

Western planning models imported to Palestine and Israel from Europe - primarily the garden-city model - are another major influential factor. They are responsible for the suburbanization of spaces and the isolationist image of Jewish communities in Israel, which Defense Minister Ehud Barak once defined as "a villa in the jungle."

In the book, Fenster discusses at length struggles waged by three sectors of the population - the Bedouin, the Ethiopians and the Palestinians in East Jerusalem - against the planning establishment. The common thread linking all three is the local residents' different definitions of the spatial needs, ownership of the land and the concepts of community and development than those of the planning establishment. Those with "omnipotent" planning knowledge demonstrate a total oversight of local knowledge. The planning hegemony, Fenster notes, "uses its power to shape the space according to the dictates of professional knowledge that do not meet the needs of communities and create discriminatory and oppressive solutions."

The right to a city, as Fenster sees it, relates to the politics of identity, and the right to a city is also therefore "the right to a body" in the public space and "the right to a house" in the private space.

"It's very uncomfortable for me in Mea She'arim," says a Jerusalem resident in an interview during research for the book. "It's hard for me to accept the authority of someone who is extreme and excludes me from humanity. It's the same in churches and mosques."

An Arab interviewee from Jerusalem feels more comfortable in Tel Aviv than in western Jerusalem and the Old City because, in Tel Aviv, "they are more open-minded, more left wing." An Israeli-Jewish woman in London admits she does not feel comfortable in the house designed by her partner for them and that "to me, belonging means living in my personal space where I decide what will be in it. Total control."

A gay couple from Tel Aviv talks about refraining from "intimate behavior in spaces outside the home. Not because of a lack of confidence, but because someone will look. It's not very popular to see men hugging and kissing." And there is a long list - replete with conflicts and power struggles - that crosses neighborhoods, sectors and genders.

Fenster gathers in her book most of the theoretical issues and current critiques of modern planning and combines them into a complete picture of the other side of the planning coin. Her uncompromising, critical position reveals and lifts veils, and prompts second thoughts. After all, how upset can you get over a porch that was closed in without the proper permit if you know that this is a form of social protest? Fenster does not sink into embittered critiques and instead points to the light at the end of the tunnel, to the growing awareness among the public and the authorities of the fact that planning is not a matter of fate or a supreme power, and to the proven achievements "local knowledge" has registered in recent years. Saving the Gazelle Valley in Jerusalem or reducing the number of floors in the Assouta Medical Center complex in Tel Aviv are just a few examples of these achievements.

They are only specific examples, but they point to "a new trend of fighting from the grassroots to shape the urban space." The very existence of the social justice protest that swept up different segments of the population this past summer, and even before it, indicates a change that "will undoubtedly affect the balance between local and professional knowledge in planning." This optimistic tone is in itself a refreshing change.

We can only hope it does not collapse, given the book's uncovering of the ongoing cruel treatment of those eligible for the right to a city. In honor of the book's publication of the book, the first in Hakibbutz Hameuchad's Urban Red Line series, on March 20, Tel Aviv University will host an evening seminar featuring Prof. Uri Ram, Dr. Yishai Blank, Dr. Tamar Berger and Dr. Amalia Ziv. Another seminar will take place in April at Beit Ha'am on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard - a grand remnant of the social protest.