The Jerusalem Institute is an old hand at hosting events to present its latest research and publications. But at its recent symposium addressing its book, Downtown Jerusalem: The Story of Jerusalem’s City Center and Its Regeneration, there was an unusual meeting of empirical evidence and intimate personal memories.
For example, Dr. Amnon Ramon, co-editor of the book, offered a historical review of life in Jerusalem, and the development of its downtown area: he began at the end of the 19th century, pointing out the architectural and functional changes that took place, and by the time he reached the 1960s-70s he was describing the areas he played in as a child and where he walked with his family on weekends, watching the changes take place. He noted that an important element in the regeneration of the city center, beyond its physical development, is how it can impact on the sense of pride felt by its residents.
The Municipality's Chief Architect Ofer Manor outlined some details of the regeneration plan, which is still in process, and the concerted efforts to change the center's image from a general "hazard" in the last 20 years to a true meeting place. He described the complex planning process and some of the dilemmas that arose along the way – such as how to increase building density without harming the unique character of some areas. In this case, he said, the solution was to gradate the permitted building height, starting low around the Old City and increasing to high rise in the very center of the city.
Additional details were provided by Lior Bar-Dor, Deputy CEO of Eden, a company set up by the Jerusalem Development Authority specifically to implement the city-center plan. Following years concentrating on infrastructure, the team turned to address other facets of the public space, from where to place sculptures and whether to standardize façades down to the selecting right garbage receptacles. One major change that can be seen as a direct result of the regeneration efforts, he claimed, is the number of students now living in the city center – some 1,600, up from just 150 before the plan began.
JIIS researcher and co-editor of the book Aviel Yelinek then offered an international perspective. The Jerusalem case drew primarily on a European experience, he said, particularly cities that have their own deep history. "Encouraging commerce, investing in culture, especially in the public domain, and improving public transport are all considered tools for promoting urban regeneration in Europe."
The book was published in cooperation with the Jerusalem Development Authority and Eden. The third co-editor was Assaf Vitman.
The evening ended with the screening of a movie by Eli Abir and Aliza Eshed, A Price Is a Price, a charming look back at some of the stories behind the shops and businesses that "everyone knew" in downtown Jerusalem in years gone by. There were many heads in the audience nodding in fond recollection of another era.