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Do Not Rely on Technology – Instead, Communities Will Save Urban Spaces.

By Bella Alexandrov

Applications and communication networks are a trend in city planning, but not a substitute for people.

Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces, sensors, communication networks and even a computerized street-sweeping system – smart cities are the new trend in urban areas, which claim to provide a solution to the quality of life in the city and to move Israeli cities into the 21st century. But will they bring salvation?

For a city to be good for its residents, for it to provide added value and attract young people to live there, it takes far more than technology. Smart cities are the right model for managing today’s urban environment, but are not the key to changing the city itself. We must think about the day after – how to not find ourselves in an innovative robotic environment that neglects its people, a model that would not narrow the gap between rich and poor neighborhoods, and instead – how to create truly strong cities in Israel.

Instead of smart cities, give us sensitive cities, centered around citizens, where new buildings are not empty, where there is vibrant urban life. How do we do that?

The name of the game is “Community”. The establishment of urban communities, which encourage local forces to come together and create a sense of belonging for young adults, will inspire them to create initiatives within the city and to become involved citizens.

A community enables residents to become part of a place, and to together create innovative projects and solutions for complex social problems using the knowledge of local residents. Community also creates motivation among its members to take care of their cultural, educational and economic future. When their future is interwoven with the old neighborhood in which they live, the profit is doubled.

Take, for example, “The Network” community of Be’er Sheva, in the south region of Israel, which managed to bring young people back to older neighborhoods. They transformed their older neighborhood into a multicultural area, vibrant and young, with cultural and leisure centers and an abundance of community. This was also the case in Hadar neighborhood in Haifa, where Hadar Young Adults Community was established. This is a process that ensures community resilience not only for those leading the change, but also to veteran residents who have been abandoned and forgotten by the grandiose plans of the government. The strengthening of feelings of mutual responsibility between residents and their city offers a new and creative response for young people, and will return a small portion of the debt Israeli society owes to forgotten places – our older neighborhoods and weakened cities.

An urban community has the power to influence and transform the urban space, if only given the chance. For example, the “Green in the City” Community in Harish worked in cooperation with the municipality and influenced the sustainable planning of the entire city. The “Ahuzat Negev” Community in Ofakim established a city archive, which tells the story of the city and its people for the first time. Be’erot Community in Be’er Sheva rehabilitated a local public school that was about to close.

If we understand that instead of urban alienation, it is possible to create urban connection, we can change the rules of the game. No more reliance on alienating technologies to manage the city’s residents, but instead, real people who conduct commerce and develop entrepreneurship for the benefit of all. We will no longer continue to develop an estranged and anonymous society, but instead one of people who together create a thriving communal urban life and environment.

So before investing hundreds of thousands of shekels in the next urban app, before we create more neighborhoods and victims of short-sighted government planning, I call out to the mayors – invest in communities! It’s under your nose and it’s so simple.

Give entrepreneurs in the field the creative space they need, work together with your residents, believe in them and dream with them. In this way, we will fight the phenomenon of negative immigration from the cities, reinvigorate old neighborhoods, reduce social gaps and return the most authentic and basic feeling to the city, a feeling of home.

Bella Alexandrov is the Executive Director of Eretz-Ir, which develops the communal quality of life in Israel’s peripheral cities.

*This is a translation of the Hebrew language article “אל תסמכו על הטכנולוגיה – הקהילות יצילו את העירוניות” published on May 21, 2018

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