Jerusalem's light rail is getting ready to roll in to town. Years in planning, the butt of many a joke among locals, it may contribute to a drastic change in the image of the city center, which has seen a good deal of wear and tear in years gone by.
A decade of intensive work to regenerate downtown Jerusalem is already showing some results. It began in 2001, when the government agreed to support the municipal effort, and together they established Eden, the Jerusalem Center Development Company. The "city center renewal plan" was then conceived: an ambitious attempt, unprecedented in Israel, to approach Jerusalem’s renewal and revitalization in a logical and considered manner despite a sense that the city is a “lost cause.” Behind the plan is the premise that downtown Jerusalem is the city’s “beating heart,” and that proper functioning of this heart is essential if the city as a whole is to thrive. Policymakers and planners look to the project as a key means of halting Jerusalem’s decline, stimulating its economy, and improving its image in the eyes of its residents and of the Israeli public at large.
JIIS was called in to document the process and analyze the plan's progress, from urban functioning and land use to public transport and air pollution, from gentrification of historical areas to the need for modern housing for a heterogeneous population. The research team, led by Dr. Amnon Ramon
and Aviel Yelinek
, say they examined similar efforts in Europe and the US when they embarked on their mission: "The declining status of downtown areas and rapid suburbanization decreased the attractiveness of cities in many parts of the world. This meant lower municipal incomes, reduced investment, and the physical decay of buildings and public spaces in city centers. Over the past generation these processes have brought about a new recognition of the importance of downtown areas, and greater investment in their renewal and revitalization – we drew on that experience." Their findings will be published in Hebrew next month (with an abstract available in English).
Underlying the plan is a conviction "that the city’s dignity can indeed be restored, and that its downtown can be transformed into a lively, vital urban hub, as has been done with the historical cores of various European and American cities. You have to remember that Jerusalem’s historic downtown lies at the city’s geographical center, and is still the natural meeting place for its diverse populations: as well as being a modern metropolis, it is adjacent to the Old City, an attraction of the first magnitude for tourists in Israel. And downtown Jerusalem’s architectural distinctiveness makes it a kind of living museum documenting the last 150 years of the city’s history."
The city center renewal process is in full force; it is still too early to say whether its planners will succeed at their task. But the light rail has already rolled through the city once – on a test run – and other glimmers of success can be discerned: a construction boom downtown, the opening of new businesses, a rise in the number of visitors to the city center, and a growing student population, which itself is creating exuberant night life. "The glass is still half full," the researchers say with confidence.