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Arabs vs. Parks

Via Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty, I came across an interesting example of the all too common use of environmental policy to create or perpetuate social injustice. One common form is disposessing people of their land by creating conservation areas where human settlement is off-limits. Political ecologists have written extensively about this phenomenon in the third world (especially Africa), but CBTP found an example of environmental law being used against Arabs in Jerusalem:

One method of preventing further construction by Arabs in the east of the city has been to declare many open areas to be "green zones" protected from building. Bollens says about 40% of East Jerusalem is designated as a green zone, but that this is really a mechanism for land transfer. "The government calls it a green zone to stop Palestinians building homes there, and then when the government wants to develop an area [as Jewish] it lifts that green zoning miraculously and it becomes a development place."

Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupolianski - who chaired the city's planning and zoning committee in the 1990s - declined to be interviewed in person on these issues, but responded to written questions. "We have to keep a reasonable balance between residential areas and open green zones. We've designated green zones in all parts of Jerusalem, not just the eastern one," he wrote. "We're keeping the green zones in the entire city free from construction, and we plan to keep it this way. We believe that the development of parks and green zones in eastern Jerusalem will improve the quality of life of the people living there."

What makes this situation tricky is that Lupolianski has a point. Cities do need zoning laws that preserve green space. Because that green space is a public good, it will be under-provided if private development is allowed free rein in dense urban areas. So planning is necessary to overcome the collective action problems.

What is not necessary, however, is for that planning to be done by a centralized bureaucracy -- particularly when there is a group of people (in this case, the Arabs) who hold a disproportionately small share of the power. Even taking him at his word that there was no malicious intent, the paternalism in Lupolianski's perspective is clear, and is the root of the problem. Decisions about green space (and other city planning questions) need to be made with the broad, genuine, and effective participation of the affected people. The Arabs of East Jerusalem are the one who will have to live with the effects of zoning policy in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, so it is the Arabs of East Jerusalem who should be making the decisions (with the facilitation of the municipal planners) about how to balance the values of green space and new housing.


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