Design Meets Diplomacy
Over the past three years, while teams of politicians, lawyers, and international negotiators have attempted to hammer out a sovereign Palestinian state—and, more importantly, an eventual peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians—Los Angeles architect and urban planner Doug Suisman has quietly focused on a largely overlooked aspect of the conflict-ridden issue: What might Palestine look like after a peace accord is signed?
His answer is the Arc, a proposed urban blueprint of a Palestinian state that enables fluid movement between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; high-speed trains whisking businessmen and tourists to the Gaza airport and eventually connecting to cities in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
The idea to draft a formal urban plan came about in 2003, after President George W. Bush publicly endorsed a two-state solution. But for all the talk of establishing a Palestinian state, there had been no discussion of what it would look like.
AFTER THE WAR.
So Rand, a Santa Monica (Calif.)-based, independent, non-profit think tank, commenced a $2 million study, "Building a Successful Palestinian State," intended to establish a set of conditions under which a sovereign Palestine could succeed. The study addressed issues of economic development, health, civil society, and demographics, and estimated its recommendations would cost roughly $33 billion over the first 10 years.
Rand then hired Suisman to design a vision and develop a physical concept of the state based on Rand's conclusions. "This was not about how to get to peace," says Suisman, "this is about the day after." It's also an opportunity to avoid the problems evident in post-conflict nation building such as in Iraq.
Suisman approached Palestine not as a politically charged hot potato but rather as a densely populated urban space. He had been to the region just once, in 1972, but had more than a passing familiarity with congestion and urban sprawl, having designed transit systems and public spaces in Los Angeles.
In designing the Arc, the first issue he had to address was rapid population growth. According to Rand's estimates, within 15 years the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza would double to 6.6 million. The project also had to take into account the possibility of tens of thousands of returning Palestinian refugees. So housing was the first priority.
He then considered how future Palestinians could sustain growth and preserve parkland, and what kind of transit network would be needed to move people between their jobs and houses.
The system posed myriad challenges. For starters, the Rand study cited corruption and authoritarian practices on the part of the Palestinian ruling authority, not to mention the weight of the Israeli occupation. Logistically, the West Bank and Gaza are non-contiguous entities separated by Israel. While the fluid movement of people and goods between them is essential, mobility between the Palestinian territories and Israel has been hampered by Israel's security-related road closures.
"Previous diplomatic accords all had safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank but never made it operational," says Suisman. "We envisioned a continuous mobility. You can get on a train in Gaza and get off in 33 minutes in Hebron [West Bank]. Seamlessly, this would unite the two pieces physically, economically, socially, and psychologically."
Suisman describes the Arc as a "backbone": an infrastructure corridor, including a rapid rail line, a highway, a national aqueduct, telecommunications, and an energy and fiber optic network, that can accommodate population growth and new urban development. The curving north/west line links the West Bank and the Gaza strip, with east/west lateral branches connecting other cities and towns.
In addition to enabling movement, the Arc offers a strategy for sustainable urban growth.
For example, the train stations are intentionally placed outside of traditional city centers. "We are growing a new linear district from the old city to a new station area," says Suisman. "That way the old and new city centers are connected by a local form of public transportation. This leaves breathing space between each area." It also allows for the development of new residential and economic centers that would accommodate the growing population.
When Suisman presented the plan to the Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Jihad al Wazir, then the Palestinian Authority's deputy finance minister and now the deputy governor of the Palestinian Monetary Authority, was moved to tears. "The elegance of the design really struck me," he says.
"When you're involved in the nitty-gritty of the details you don't see the big picture. We had all the drawings and plans but we really did not have a comprehensive view. And then out of the blue an L.A. architect offers a sleek design that really integrates and provides a vehicle to [deal with] the social ills of Palestine, distribute services, and [make] efficient use of resources."
While the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is still plagued by contention, the Arc offers one area of possible agreement. "Even a total pessimist can draw optimism from the vision of the Arc," said one of Israeli's leading newspapers, Ha'aretz. And Al-Quds, the Jerusalem-based daily of the Palestinians concluded that: "This huge project is certainly intended to put Palestine on an equal footing with the developed countries as to modern transportation and high-tech communications."
This year, the American Institute of Architects recognized the project with a National Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design, and Suisman received a Progressive Architecture Award from Architecture magazine. Last year, the project won the P/A Award at the Center for Architecture.
Despite the positive response, the Arc team—which hopes that the project will be implemented—has had to contend with the realities of the volatile region. Implementation of the project hinges on its acceptance by the relevant government leaders, but as the Intifada faded, hostilities shifted and new political factors emerged.
Last year, Israel withdrew its settlements and military presence from the Gaza Strip and a small window of opportunity to further develop aspects of the plan in Gaza closed after the area quickly fell into chaos. Rand had been in advanced negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on a cooperation agreement to provide technical support on a national development agenda.
ALTERNATIVE IS DESPAIR.
But following the January election of Hamas, classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, the United States and the European Union cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority and made any business dealings with the government illegal. As a result, Suisman is no longer allowed to conduct any meetings with Hamas-affiliated Palestinian officials.
"The election caught us all by surprise," says Suisman. "It was a setback from many perspectives. I was discouraged but our friends tell us that the Middle East is always like this. There are always ups and downs, progress and setbacks. You have to accept this kind of volatility and you can't stop looking ahead because the alternative is to give up in despair." As a result, Suisman, who has presented the Arc project to Israeli leaders, the White House, the European Union, and the World Bank, has begun the process of involving the private sector, the U.N., various non-governmental organizations, and other governments in the region in the process.
Despite the setbacks and hurdles, Suisman is still pushing forward with the project. In September, 2006, a two-day conference on the Arc project is being held in the region under the auspices of the Aspen Institute.