Public Participation Processes: Lessons from Israel

What’s the secret to smart urban development? The answer is simple, says Tomer Chelouche: Engage and respect local residents.

An already tense town-hall meeting was abruptly interrupted by the firm tone of the city engineer: “I can stop this meeting whenever I see fit”. Shouts from the audience annoyed him tremendously. The residents, who had cleared their schedules to participate in the meeting, were also annoyed. They had come to listen to the presentation of a proposed urban development plan and to voice their disapproval of it.

The described town-hall meeting took place in Tel Aviv, Israel. City officials tried out a public participation process of sorts, but failed. What was the city trying to achieve, and why did it backfire? And most importantly – how could it be turned into a success?

Population Growth Leads to Construction Boom

Over 90 per cent of Israelis live in urban areas, relying on a developed and versatile service industry. Within the next 30 years, the number of people living in Israel is expected to more than double and reach 18 million. Trying to accommodate the growing population, new neighbourhoods have popped up in cities across the country in recent years. This construction boom led Israelis to ponder how it will affect their quality of life.

But here’s the catch – the Israeli planning system marginalises public scrutiny. There are no mandatory public participation requirements, leaving this important component of city-building at the discretion of each municipal planning department. With growing urban density, people grow curious – and suspicious – when they hear of new construction plans in their vicinity. They want to be involved, or at least informed of the planning processes. But more often than not, residents feel left out.

City Dwellers as Participants in Urban Planning

The antiquated approach that views city dwellers as a burden rather than an asset is difficult to change. But Israeli cities rose to the challenge and started to voluntarily introduce public participation processes. This much-needed paradigm shift is connected to the rise of the Smart City concept – improving urban quality of life through knowledge.

A good example is the city of Hertzliya, home to 80,000 Israelis. When a new city-wide master plan was introduced, vocal protests broke out. Residents were not prepared for an ambitious plan that projected the city population would double in one decade. They organised to fight the plan and advocated for what they called “sane urban development”.

City officials decided to launch an extensive public participation process. It started with a series of open lectures about urban planning, a kind of crash course for residents who wanted to know more and participate in the planning process. This was only the beginning for numerous neighbourhood-specific and topic-specific meetings. The valuable feedback gathered from residents was later incorporated into the original plan. Some of the input was delivered through a specially designed app which residents could easily use on their mobile devices. Two years after the protests, trust between the residents and the municipality had been rebuilt.

Residents Learn About Development Projects on Guided Tours

Another good example is the construction of the first underground railway system in Israel. Passing through 28 local authorities in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, it’s going to change the lives of millions of Israelis upon its completion. When construction started in 2015, the governmental company behind the project sought to engage residents and inform them of what was happening.

An information booth opened right next to one of the construction sites, and the public was invited to drop by and interact with big screen apps. But hardly anyone came and after one year, the information booth was dismantled. When I heard of this failure, I offered to try a different approach. Instead of inviting the public to an indoor computerised experience, I suggested to invite people to observe history in the making on guided tours.

The urban tour in Tel Aviv that I developed and guided takes participants to spots in the city overlooking construction sites. On the tour, the participants learned about the lengthy history of the project and saw images of what the site will look like once finished. It was a major success with more than 500 participants in several guided tours over one weekend.

The Key to Success – Engagement and Respect

By giving people the opportunity to see and experience urban planning in the making, and involving them in discussions, the city becomes smarter, harnessing knowledge and rallying popular support. Notice that what did the trick in both examples is not some kind of new technology. Although Israel is celebrated as the “Start-Up Nation”, in both cases the mechanism is as old as humankind: showing respect. A city cannot be “smart” by technology alone. In order to involve residents in the decision-making processes, local leaders must tune into the primordial human need to be respected.

Going back to the Tel Aviv town-hall meeting, local residents wanted information and to be asked for feedback, and the meeting was held to achieve just that. But the missing piece is that people want something more, and that is respect.

When the city of Hertzliya organised neighbourhood meetings and incorporated feedback into the city master plan, people felt that they matter. Going to great lengths to vividly demonstrate the construction of the underground railway made people feel engaged and respected. The town-hall meeting in Tel Aviv was organised in a manner that sent the opposite message. It seemed as if the only motivation to hold it was to pacify disgruntled residents. It was too little too late and showed no respect to residents—and they behaved accordingly. A year later, residents managed to topple down the plan that was presented in that meeting, and the city engineer later announced his resignation.

A smart city is measured not only by the quality of its master plan, nor by the adoption of new technologies. It is measured by the way that city officials approach residents. Respect and trust are the key to an engaged urban community, that will support even the boldest of plans and the most innovative of technologies. To be smart you must first be thoughtful—that’s true for people as well as for cities.

Tomer Chelouche

Urbanist at Urbanizator
An Urbanist based in Tel Aviv, Tomer is heading a small firm called Urbanizator with the mission of identifying urban problems and providing urban solutions. As independent cities researcher and consultant, he advises local governments on community outreach and public participation, especially guided tours as an urban solution.
Tomer Chelouche

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