Dr. Jeffrey Featherstone recently went to one of the most politically and culturally complex regions of the world.
In June, Dr. Featherstone, Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University, led an international team of city planners to explore and recommend revitalization efforts in the West Bank of the Jordan River. He also provided technical assistance to a second team in the Gaza Strip. The United Nations-approved project was spearheaded by the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP) in cooperation with UN-Habitat and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
“Due to the volatility of the region, a great deal of the urban infrastructure in many areas of Gaza and the West Bank are in a constant state of disrepair. The water and sewer lines and transportation corridors in Gaza are essentially non-functioning,” Dr. Featherstone said. “The UN turned to ISOCARP for its expertise and global perspective in urban planning and infrastructure. I think part of the reason I was selected for this project is the Center’s years of experience in overseeing projects that cross municipal and political borders.”
Featherstone has been involved with ISOCARP for more than a decade, participating in international conferences in Poland and Russia and chairing the organization’s conference in Brisbane, Australia in 2013.
“One of the major functions of ISOCARP is to put together teams of planners to advise local officials and community groups in locations all over the world about their potential planning opportunities; to work with communities to spur revitalization efforts,” he said. “Urban Planning Advising Teams (UPATS) go to communities requesting planning assistance — the team heading to the Middle East will include planners from India, China, France, the Netherlands, the United States and Australia. It is a highly intense week long process to examine the areas of greatest need and develop action plans.”
Project goals, according to the United Nations, included enabling future urban development; enhancing public transport and transit oriented development; urban corridor development; protecting vulnerable landscape, natural resources and cultural and religious heritage sites; and “enhancing industries, trade, tourism and the economy in the region.”
“Community support is, of course, essential for any of the action plans we develop to become a reality. You have to engage stakeholders throughout the region,” Featherstone said. “We will be holding several community design workshops and meet with national and local leaders and area academic institutions to sketch out infrastructure improvements; and revitalization opportunities to explore what an urban corridor might look like and how that could be an incubator for commercial and industrial activities.”
The urban planning issues facing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are extremely intricate, said Featherstone, who will be one of the only two members of the Middle East teams to visit both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the project. Issues just affecting water, he said, “are off the charts in terms of complexity.”
“The Jordan River Watershed overlaps five countries — Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Syria and Egypt. Many wars in the region have been wars over water. Almost all of the water from the river is being diverted for urban and agricultural uses and its flow is only a trickle when it discharges to the Dead Sea, which continues to drop at an average of one meter per year,” Featherstone said. “In Gaza, more than 90 percent of the water pumped out of the ground is undrinkable as salt water intrusion has significantly degraded the aquifer. Fortunately, recent strides made by the Israelis in desalination and wastewater reuse have greatly increased supplies for urban and agricultural uses, but those additional supplies are the subject of heightened disputes.”
In many respects, Featherstone said, you have to “put blinders on to the volatility of the region and just focus on revitalization.”
“The Gaza Strip is almost the same size and has almost the same population of Philadelphia. This is a large population that, for the most part, is disadvantaged,” he said. “There are many opportunities, many infrastructure changes that could be made, to improve their lives.”
For more information on Dr. Featherstone’s project in the Middle East, contact email@example.com or 267-468-8311.