A few months ago, in cooperation with the UJA – Federation of New York, we began a project to work with a number of community centers to assimilate principles of deliberative/ participatory democracy that respects all the different voices in the community (see a previous post on this). At the Gilo Community Center, which we have been in contact with for several years, this was an opportunity to show that it is possible to collaborate successfully on a large scale, and not just to organize mass impressive events that take months to prepare and 6 months to recover from (which we did a few years ago).
In some areas of Gilo one of the major problems was parking. There are 3 streets – DellaPergola, Hamechanechet and Baruchi – that are very problematic. People park there helter-skelter in the evenings, blocking others, and one must look for neighbors who will move their cars in order to leave the parking area. It is even dangerous – ambulances find it difficult to go into and leave the streets and it also creates a problem for public transportation – the buses just aren’t able to pass. In initial conversations that we had with the professionals in the Municipality, it seemed that nothing could be done and nothing could solve the problem. According to these professionals, there are not ways to change the situation – from their perspective, the residents just needed to stop blaming the community center and the Municipality…
The community center decided to have a residents meeting and asked us to help in the process. Our approach is that we mainly mentor the community center staff and probably facilitate the actual meetings. The community center staff does most of the outreach work etc., because in the end the community center needs to assimilate the deliberative democracy methods and it knows the situation in the field much better than we do.
The first meeting with the residents was fascinating. After we listed and documented all the relevant problems that the residents and professionals raised, we moved to suggesting solutions to the problems that were collected. It is important to note that because the professional staff (including the relevant regional planner and director) sat together in this meeting and discussed the issues, there wasn’t the regular “ping-pong dynamic” in which residents complain and professionals defend themselves. Solutions that the residents or professionals thought were potentially successful but not relevant – were discussed in a respectful manner (even though the atmosphere was tense and the manner of speaking was typically Israeli…). For example, a number of residents suggested cutting down the trees between the parking areas in order to create more parking spaces. The planning officials then explained that the present situation is actually the opposite – the parking spaces were planned first, and the trees were planted later, to fill in spaces not designated -or appropriate – for parking. Thus, removing trees would not solve anything.
But, to our amazement, several elegant solutions were raised that the professional staff did not think of at all and which did seem suitable. One of them, in the context of DellaPergola Street, was to designate parking spaces according to families and thus reserve at least one parking space for each family, and the rest of the automobiles would park in other parts of the street or on other streets. We won’t get into the technical details, but it turns out that the professionals did not think about this solution because they didn’t believe that the residents would like the idea, and in any case, they assumed that someone would object and would shoot it down.
The Gilo staff called a second residents meeting. After massive advertising of the outcomes of the first meeting (which is significantly important, because there were many who didn’t come to the first meeting because they assumed that nothing would be accomplished). We enabled the residents to respond in other ways as well – email, telephone, etc. In the second meeting a lot of points and hesitations were raised regarding the designation of parking spaces. Again, the to-the-point discussion amongst all present brought about a formula that works. After the meeting, the community center staff and the regional municipal planner and director progressed in the technical areas related to the designation of parking spaces, as well as in work with all the street’s residents. A number of residents went from house to house and explained the situation and helped to designate the free parking spaces. Slowly, in discussions with tenant associations and additional residents, a map of agreed-upon designated parking spaces was formulated. There were definitely some residents who were more difficult to please, but correct work by the residents solved the problems one by one.
And it is happening as we speak – there’s just been the first day of painting the parking spaces, and the second day will take place next week. We definitely see the success of the process.
From our perspective, this is a significant case in which we showed that residents, staff and officials can cooperate together, without getting stuck in objections and bureaucracy. We believe that more and more processes like this in Jerusalem will create a more respectful atmosphere between city residents of different identities, less alienation between the residents and the ‘establishment’, and especially a feeling that the residents can be partners in the successes in the city and enjoy them. There are other successes in Arnona, Givat Messua, Baka’a and beginnings in Gonenim and Romema – but we will talk about that at a different opportunity.