Monday, January 11, 2016

Creative Placemaking in Israel

I recently spent several days in Israel engaged in an initiative to elevate the conversation around creative placemaking in the Negev region of Israel. For context, here is a map of the region:

The Negev region is about a 60-90 minute drive south of Tel Aviv. It has historically had a somewhat negative reputation, as a place you would not want to live in unless you had to. Back in the 50's many Russian immigrants were settled there after World War II. Later, it became the home of the Ethiopian Jewish population when they emigrated to Israel, and it is also home to many Bedouins. Coincidentally, the New York Times recently ran a story on the Bedouin population in the Negev and its economic challenges.

LtoR - me, Jane Golden, Mayor of Netivot Yechiel Zohar
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has a "sister city" relationship with the Negev city of Netivot. About three years ago, the Federation helped support a Creative Economy conference in Netivot to raise awareness of the role the arts and artists could play in the economic vitality of the city, and I was asked to be the keynote speaker. Jane Golden of the Mural Arts program also participated as a speaker, and Mural Arts later worked with the community on the creation of a mural on an iconic water tower at the entrance to the city.

Two factors have since focused even more heightened attention on the Negev region. First, the population explosion through the country and the skyrocketing cost of both residential and commercial space in Tel Aviv have driven individuals and businesses to look to the relatively undeveloped and more affordable Negev region. In addition, the Ministry of Defense has  started a process of moving all their centralized military operations (intelligence, training, technology, etc.) to the Negev region. They have had to face the fact that the senior military officers and their families who will need to relocate do not have a high opinion of the region and this is something that must be changed (both the actual livability of these communities and the perception). Here is an interesting article on the importance of how a community is perceived.

So a coalition has formed - something they are calling the "Smart Partnership" between a group of seven local Jewish Federations from the Jewish Federations of North America (each of which has a relationship with a Negev community), the Negev Development Authority, and the Ministry of Defense. This coalition has embarked on a multi-faceted creative placemaking effort targeting the Negev region. A masters degree program in creative placemaking has been launched at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in their urban planning school. And a similar undergraduate training program has been created at Sapir College, a Negev college with very strong arts training programs. Guiding this work has been Boaz Israeli of the planning and strategy firm, Praxis. A good overview of this entire effort is available here.

Another key component of this effort has been something they called the Creative Placemaking Master Class, which I was asked to lead. This was actually a series of talks to different audiences, as well as site visits and meetings designed to stimulate thinking around creative placemaking. My work began on December 26th, with a preparation meeting with many of the organizers of the program, followed by a personal meeting with Yossi Sharabi - who I had met on my last trip when he was Director, Culture, Society and Leisure Administration, Jerusalem Municipality (where he was doing really innovative work!) - who is now Director-General of the Ministry of Culture and Sport; also at the meeting was the new Director of Culture for the agency. The key goal of the meeting was to persuade the national cultural agency to join this partnership, and embrace the role of creative placemaking in the Negev, which they agreed to do.

On December 27th I met with a group of civic leaders in Netivot and toured the City, looking at an array of potential sites for creative placemaking. For example, the main "downtown" of the City is anchored by several municipal buildings with large plazas - all typical 70's era awful concrete dead space. How could these places be transformed both physically and through programming to become the beating heart of Netivot, bringing all the different communities together and presenting a different impression to those entering the city? The water tower with the mural is also located here. In addition, there is a staggering amount of new construction underway -  in effect a literal doubling of the city, with new residential construction as well as schools, parks, roads and other infrastructure and a new rail connection of Tel Aviv and the north. How to make this brand new - frankly sterile - area vibrant and exciting? How to connect it to the rest of the city so Netivot does not become a "tale of two cities."

I also met with a class of middle school Orthodox Jewish girls who were working on a project to help creates some context for the mural. The mural, which engaged many in the community in the process - their faces were painted and then photographed - had inadvertently created some negative backlash. To satisfy Orthodox concerns about including recognizable faces/people in the mural, all the images were distorted and rearranged to create an abstract pattern. The citizens, however, were disappointed to not see their faces in the mural. The students are learning stop motion animation skills and making films that describe different aspects of the process in fun, engaging ways, Lively signage will then be installed in the plaza below the mural that will connect to an augmented reality app that will allow visitors to view the animated films projected onto the water tower. It was exciting to see these young girls who had never been exposed to the arts getting deeply engaged in both art making and connecting that art to a civic objective. They were inspiring...

Chatting with Ben Gurion University President,
Rivka Carmi
The day ended with what they called the "main event" - a "top level" talk on creative placemaking at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva. The audience consisted largely of Mayors and other municipal staff and planning types, and the talk was preceded by a reception. The President of Ben Gurion made welcoming remarks. And prior to the reception I was able to meet with some staff from the Merage Foundation in Israel, which is affiliated with the Merage Foundation in Denver. Merage Israel is also focused on the Negev region but had not previously been engaged in this collaborative effort, so a fortuitous outcome of my involvement was being able to make this introduction. It was also announced at this event that the Jewish Federations of North America would be launching a Negev Creative Vitality Initiative Challenge, modeled on the Bloomberg Challenge, to fund some specific creative placemaking initiatives.

Carrying the flag for ArtPlace America!
The goal was to give a succinct overview of what this thing "creative placemaking" is, how it evolved, as well as an overview of how it has been implemented as a concept in America. So of course, I covered the work of the National Endowment for the Arts program Our Town as well as ArtPlace America. Then a good half or more of the presentation was dedicated to providing a wide array of examples of creative planning in action - urban and rural, facility driven and programming driven, etc.

I also covered the challenges of creative placemaking - issues of measurement and outcomes, the danger of being an agent of gentrification, needing to respect and value the local culture and community. The hostility shown by some artists and arts organization towards the role they might play in community transformation, feeling that it somehow diminishes their artistic purity.

Later in my trip I was able to visit the Fringe Theatre
The next day began with a much longer version of the same presentation at a different Ben Gurion University site, this time to an audience largely of students and professors (from both Ben Gurion and Sapir College), as well as artists, creative entrepreneurs and arts organization leaders. In addition to my talk, three local case studies were presented, including the Fringe Theatre of Be'er Sheva, the Red South Festival - a festival built around the local Anemone blossoms, and Muslala, a really interesting Jerusalem organization that has used the arts to bring together the Jewish and Muslim populations in Jerusalem. I was asked to respond to and critique each of the case studies.

Speaking to funders in Tel Aviv
Later that day we returned to Tel Aviv, where I spoke to a group of the heads of several of Israel's leading foundations. This was another variation of the basic creative placemaking talk, this time tailored to the interests of funders. What is their role? What are their questions? An interesting side note: One of the participants heads the Pratt Foundation in Israel, created by the late Richard Pratt and his wife Jeanne. Richard was the Chairman and CEO of Visy Industries in Australia. Years ago, when I was President of the Arts & Business Council, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Australia and meet Richard Pratt and his wife, and have dinner in his home - he was the Chairman of the Australian Business Council on the Arts. Pratt, who was Jewish, had also established a foundation in Israel. He was truly a wonderful man and great lover of the arts and it was nice to reconnect with his legacy.

The next stay consisted of doing site visits to Ofaqim and Be'er Sheva, to tour the cities with their civic leadership and look at both creative placemaking successes, as well as challenges and opportunities. In Ofaqim I visited an arts center that had been created in an unusual concrete dome structure. The dome had been recently transformed into a mural generated and painted by young people from the community under the supervision of a local artist. We also visited an interesting overgrown stream and pathway that had previously been a sewage ditch (sewage since redirected into underground pipes). This "artery" connects two important areas of the city and plans are afoot to make it their "High Line"
using landscaping, art and design to turn it from an eyesore into a major spine of the City. At one end of this path is a HUGE abandoned textile factory that used to employ many in the community. We also discussed the potential of this building becoming their MassMoca - a great model because they would like to integrate arts activity as well as commercial creative businesses.

Talking creative placemaking to the tech folks...
We finished the day at Be-er Sheva where I made yet another formal presentation to a group of technology and creative entrepreneurs located in a newly opened tech center, and visited the Abraham's Well  visitor center (yes, that Abraham from the Bible, and this is - presumably - his actual well) for a presentation on the arts, tourism and creative placemaking efforts underway in the City. We visited the Old City, which they are working to cultivate as a vibrant community for residents and visitors, and as part of that tour also visited the Fringe Theatre, which had presented a case study the day before.

And that completed my Creative Placemaking Master Class work in the Negev - an exhausting - but very rewarding - few days. Got to meet so many dedicated, passionate and interesting people.  I was particularly struck by the uniqueness and exciting opportunities of having a nation's defense department embracing the value of creative placemaking. I was also struck by the potential of creative placemaking to play an important role in bringing together different communities that can be more fractious and divided by race and religion than even we are in America. The pace of development and change taking place in the Negev region is unlike anything I have ever seen before and I look forward to following what flows from this work I was a part of.

Yes, that is Abraham's Well in the foreground!
I did have my family with me for the trip and we were able to spend some time beforehand and afterwards enjoying our time together without work (of course, Sophie and Esme had all the time while I was working to explore Tel Aviv). We visited Jerusalem, Old Jaffa and Caesarea (a site with incredible history on the coast of Israel north of Tel Aviv), and we connected with some long-lost Israeli relatives I discovered on my last trip - long story, the telling of which would make this already lengthy blog post ridiculously long!

A copy of my full "Creative Placemaking: What Is It" Why Does It Matter " presentation can be found here.

Esme "performing" at the Caesarea Roman Coliseum 

1 comment:

  1. Must have been a fascinating experience and enriching for everyone. It will be interesting to see if and how the ideas generated take hold. Thanks for sharing this.