News Column

Yale's Urban Design Workshop Building Bridges to the First Peace Park in the Middle East

June 9, 2014



NEW HAVEN, Conn., June 9 -- Yale University issued the following news release:

A team of architects from the Yale School of Architecture's Urban Design Workshop (YUDW) and Jerusalem'sBezalel Academy of Arts and Design is set to move forward on part of the proposed Israeli-Jordanian Jordan River Peace Park (JRPP), to be the first peace park in the Middle East.

In particular, the team is looking to develop the Old Gesher bridge compound in Israel, a site dating back to the Roman Byzantine period, which would become the park's southern gateway.

Progress on the project was made following a three-day intensive workshop -- or charrette -- held on site in May to develop detailed designs and recommendations for the park. Among the short-term projects planned are a small interpretive and visitor's center, a Jordan River promenade, and a craft workshop.

The leaders of the May workshop -- Alan Plattus '76, project leader at YUDW and professor of architecture and urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture (YSOA), and Andrei Harwell '06 MArch, project manager at YUDW and critic at the YSOA -- have been involved in the project since 2008.

"We're very excited to be back on the ground in the area of the proposed Jordan River Peace Park to work with our colleagues from Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) and Bezalel," said Plattus. "We hope to be able to build on the good work that has already been done and look forward to seeing some of the exciting new developments come to life in the not-so-distant future."

The proposed park would cross the border between Israel and Jordan on the lower Jordan River. The area sits six miles south of the Sea of Galilee and would stretch from the Old Gesher compound in the south to the Yarmouk River in the north, and from Road 90 in Israel on the west to the cities of North Shounah and Bakoura in Jordan on the east. The goal is to have the nearly 2,000-acre site accessible to visitors from both sides of the river without the need for passports or visas, creating a safe space for people to meet and interact.

The Old Gesher compound, which was the focus of the most recent charrette, contains three historic bridges that span the Jordan River, dating from the Roman Byzantine, Ottoman, and British periods. The park would also comprise the man-made Peace Island -- at the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers -- the abandoned Palestine Electric Company hydroelectric power plant, a British police station, an Ottoman customs house, and an historic train station and railway.

FoEME co-founder and Israeli director Gidon Bromberg, an environmental activist who was a Yale World Fellow in 2007, sees eco-tourism and heritage tourism as an important source of economic development in an agricultural area that has 40% unemployment.

"The development of the Gesher site speaks to the economic opportunities from tourism that the local communities well understand," he said. "At the moment plans are moving forward on both sides of the historic bridges in a parallel fashion."

An area of immense historic significance, the proposed park also sits amid a major migration corridor along the Great Rift Valley, and some 500 million birds fly over the area twice every year. The Jordan River also provides ecotourism opportunities, though in recent history it has been overrun with sewage from the neighboring countries of Israel, Syria, and Jordan. The JRPP initiative will support efforts to rehabilitate the Jordan River, as well as its largest tributary, the Yarmouk River, which at one time supplied up to 40% of the region's water but is now severely limited due to damming.

"The extensive area of the proposed Jordan River Peace Park offers a rich landscape to explore our region's shared cultural and natural heritage," said David Guggenheim, an architecture professor at Bezalel Academy. "At this time when peace negotiations have seemingly been put on hold, it's more important than ever to build spaces and opportunities to meet and interact with our neighbors."

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