Global Goal 11, and What Co-existence Can Look Like on the Ground

Staring at the urban sky, blue cotton clouds slowly tumbling into the far edged orange, the Big City’s skyline filled me with thoughts of Peace. Thoughts, of buildings occupying space, people occupying buildings, thoughts occupying people. When will occupation ever end?

As I watched the sun descend on the landscape of my home in Manhattan, I was almost depressed by its passing. Then I saw the moon. And remembered that while it had replaced the view from where I stand, someone else in some other part of the world had the sun. Tonight, the moon is mine.

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They were designed to co-exist.

No city on Earth can bring believers together, and apart, like Jerusalem.

Through the privileged lenses of a Jewish, Christian and Muslim heritage, I have been searching for glimpses of light in between its walls of separation, occupying spaces I never imagined could exist miles apart. With the ultra-Orthodox towns of Beit Shemesh or Tzfat, or the similarly religious Muslim cities of Hebron and Bethlehem, to more secular arts and cultural scenes in Tel Aviv and Ramallah – all converge into the Old City – the single holy ground for the Jewish people, and the third for Muslims.

When land is a driver of conflict, it is often interlinked with other root causes. In holy wars like Israel and Palestine, space is reimagined over eternal time, transforming territorial dilemma into a sacrilegious war of identities – what is built, how it looks like, who goes in and out, what they wear, speak, and even eat. 

How then should we be designing around the sacred, while preserving its very values?

Both Israelis and Palestinians want to enjoy the cultural, spiritual, and even economic aspects of Jerusalem. Both Israelis and Palestinians need to live in their own self-determined eco-systems. Coming from a family of urban developers and community leaders, I can‘t help but ponder: There must be more innovative ways to plan peace at the local.

Through my Master‘s research for Brandeis University, I had an enlightening chat with Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat, a city council member in the Yerushalmim party and founder of resolution planning and architectural firm Studio Aya – SAYA, functional structures can strengthen rather than further fragment a city in conflict. By producing more visually appealing and integrating barriers along the seam of Jerusalem’s divisions, SAYA sought to challenge the Berlin Wall paradigm of national security. Karen Lee Bar-Sinai, co-founder of SAYA, adds that urban design illuminates connections that are embedded in divisions: “We already know the Berlin Wall. It’s time to think outside the box, build on our real connections, while respecting our personal boundaries.”

If concrete and barbed wires no longer can sustain occupation as it is, maybe border-crossing facilities can be turned into community centers. What about highway interchanges as road networks between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods? Setting emotional distress and provocation outside, even modern security checkpoints can be useful, when placed in more strategic spots i.e. right outside the site itself, can still preserve the architectural integrity of sacred sites. Improved mobility of people will definitely improve tourism as well as access to shared public spaces for community building.

The design firm’s Jerusalem project was launched as a response to the Geneva initiative in 2003, has gained multi-stakeholder interest, but continues to await political momentum. Its renderings of Jerusalem elevated the role of local authorities and city planners in the negotiation table. What happens after a deal, can also be what is needed for it to move forward. Visual designs of what co-existence looks like on the ground i.e. public infrastructures, transportation, etc. – that’s a vision of peace at the street level.

Zooming-out from a global lens, nations worldwide committed to Global Goal 11 to Make Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable. To quote one of its indicators: "By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities."

One noteworthy architectural achievement is the City of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Heralded as another World Heritage Site, it was a Hindu complex later transformed into Buddhist temples. The entire site is open to everybody of any religion, or race. To date, none of the devout Hindus or Buddhists have significantly fought over the heritage site, as it is commemorated for the glory of an entire “Khmer civilization.” Similarly, in the second Islamic conference at Lahore in 1974, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation acknowledged “AI-Quds is a unique symbol of the confluence of Islam with the sacred divine religions." But how do we plan around such inclusive narratives, almost in the periphery, to serve as local pathways for co-existence?

Perhaps the only way to venerate the House of the Holy is not by forcing illusory borders upon it. If the separation wall, the green line, the red line, all these physical, instrumental, mental barriers continue to divide peoples, generation after generation, it‘s about time to rethink how we have designed the city itself.

I turn my attention back to the concrete jungle before me, building after building, seemingly on top of each other from a distance. Somewhere in the middle are really tall skyscrapers, intertwined between the old, rusty color of maroon, and the rising modern, others simply fading into the now dark sea of nothing but yellow.

Windows of translucent glass, those tiny boxes of Light, from which I could say – I see you.

Maybe we could meet eye to eye. If only I know you. A pilot in that helicopter that had passed, at least a hundred drivers stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, thousands of matches in the boxes, ready to be lit. The death of an Israeli or a Palestinian? Of an oppressor or terrorist or civilian? In urban space, anything is possible.

From big cities, to old, somehow, to someone, somewhere in the world, this moonlight always looks the same. If we can share that above, we can design it right here.

Regine is a peace activist and a UN-Habitat fellow for the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. She graduated with an MA in Conflict Resolution from Brandeis University, and the Program on Negotiation of Harvard Law School. Having been raised in the Philippines, a Sufi, with Jewish marrano ancestry, Regine embraces her multi-cultural heritage as she travels the world, learn religions and cultures, cook global cuisines, and catwalk fashion trends.

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