Jun 25, 2014
10:07 AM

Yale Architects Design Hope: Middle East Peace Park in Israel, Jordan

Yale Architects Design Hope: Middle East Peace Park in Israel, Jordan

Photo courtesy EcoPeace/FoEME

Jordanian and Israeli flags on the steel Bailey bridge over the Yarmouk River mark the entrance to Peace Island.

The Yale School of Architecture’s Urban Design Workshop (YUDW) engages in local and regional projects that are typically more important than they are attention-grabbing—like current efforts to address coastal resilience in Bridgeport—or too specific to generate broad interest, such as the North Branford Old Town Center project.

Some of the work is compelling in the same measure that it eludes easy explanation: Plans for a Thames River Heritage Park in southeastern Connecticut don’t involve a new “park” at all, or even a re-designation of existing land or resources. (Right, Andrei Harwell, left, and Alan Plattus at the Yale Urban Design Workshop; photo courtesy the Chapel West Special Services District.)

Instead, this action advocacy on behalf of the state’s historic and maritime heritage, and tourism in “Mystic Country,” involves new branding and signage to integrate a quartet of sympathetic resources: Fort Griswold, Fort Trumbull, the Submarine Force Museum and the New London waterfront.

Visitors will experience the Thames River Heritage Park, and connect with vibrant but underappreciated and isolated aspects of Connecticut’s past, via a water taxi that ferries them (Venetian-style) from place to place, with New London being the dining and entertainment counterbalance to the educational weight of the other museum-like experiences.

Nothing the YUDW is currently engaged in, however, has the importance and potential impact of an uncharacteristically distant project—this one to create the first peace park in the Middle East.

(Left, in May the peace park team gathered to develop detailed designs and recommendations. Andrei Harwell (far left) and Alan Plattus (front row, second from right) took the group to nearby Belvoir Castle — a Crusader fortress on a hill six miles south of the project site — which offered unparalleled views of the Jordan River Valley.)

Led by the Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), the initiative has brought together designers, builders, economists, and cultural and natural heritage experts from Israel, Jordan, and Palestine.

The proposed Israeli-Jordanian Jordan River Peace Park (JRPP) would cover approximately 2,000 acres of land about six miles south of the Sea of Galilee that has been contested historically since Roman times.

Alan Plattus, project leader at YUDW and a professor of architecture and urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture (YSOA), and Andrei Harwell, project manager at YUDW and a Critic at the YSOA, recently returned from a three-day charrette, conducted with Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design on part of the peace park site in May.

(Right, a map of the Peace Park; photo courtesy Andrei Harwell.)

We sat down with them on a sunny New Haven morning to talk about their groundbreaking efforts to spur international and Middle East peace by creating a safe sanctuary that would be accessible to visitors from both sides of the river without passports or visas—a project whose broader goals include effecting positive societal and economic outcomes through ecotourism and heritage tourism in a traditional farming area where unemployment is at 40 percent.

“It’s really a very wild place,” says Harwell of the area comprising the park that would cross the border between Israel and Jordan on the lower Jordan River. The area 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.

(Left, an aerial view of the Old Gesher bridge compound; photo courtesy Friends of Earth Middle East.)

When Plattus—who taught at Princeton for seven years and founded the YUDW and Center for Urban Design Research—and Harwell traveled to the Middle East in May, they were specifically looking at developing what would be the entrance in Israel, the Old Gesher bridge compound, which would become the park’s southern gateway.

Plattus and Harwell—who was nominated for the Feldman Prize, Yale's top design honor, for his work in the China Studio—say they are “looking to do something small but specific,” and according to a release from Yale, among the short-term projects planned are a small interpretive and visitor’s center, a Jordan River promenade, and a craft workshop.

(Left, a bridge dating from the Roman Byzantine period in the Old Gesher compound crosses the Jordan River; photo courtesy Pikiwikiisrael/ Wikimedia Commons. Below, the Ottoman Empire railway bridge in the Old Gesher compound; photo courtesy Andrei Harwell.)

The Old Gesher compound is home to three historic bridges over the Jordan River—from the Roman Byzantine, Ottoman, and British Mandate periods. “They make a rather dramatic sight,” says Plattus as he and Harwell describe how all of the bridges have been bombed at some point and none is functional. (There are still landmines on the Israeli side of the land.)

A photo of the Ottoman-era bridge shows an abandoned rail car, a reminder that the Hejaz Railway once ran through the area. Harwell and Plattus say a spur of the railway built by the Turks went to Haifa on the coast, and one of the more intriguing remnants on the park site is an abandoned train station that was built in the International Style (Bauhaus).

In addition, according to Yale, the overall site would comprise Peace Island, the abandoned Palestine Electric Company hydroelectric power plant, a British police station, and an Ottoman customs house. The proposed park also sits amid a major migration corridor along the Great Rift Valley, with some 500 million birds flying over the area twice every year.

(Built in the Bauhaus style in the early 20th century, above left, the remains of this train station, below right, sit on the former Ottoman-built Hejaz Railway. It serviced workers at the power plant and is the lowest train station in the world at more than 800 feet below sea level; below photo courtesy FoEME.)

Plattus says he and Harwell have been involved in the project since 2008 and that the genesis of the effort dates to when environmental activist Gidon Bromberg, a co-founder of FoEME and its Israeli director, was a Yale World Fellow in 2007.

“We got involved when we met Gidon in 2007,” Plattus says. A story on the peace park posted online by Yale further explains:

Bromberg co-founded FoEME in 1994 with the goal of bringing together fellow environmental activists from Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. The idea of a peace park took root in 2006, with Yale getting involved after Bromberg and Plattus met during the former’s tenure as a World Fellow at Yale. Bromberg invited Plattus and Harwell to be part of the 2008 planning team to establish the conceptual framework for the peace park.

(Left, the turbine hall of the former hydroelectric power plant is the site of a proposed interpretive and visitor’s center; photo courtesy Andrei Harwell.)

Bromberg “sees ecotourism and heritage tourism as an important source of economic development in an agricultural area that has 40% unemployment,” the story says, adding, “One goal of the park is to diversify incomes, so the rural communities aren’t dependent on just farming, but have other sources of income that complement farming activities,” [Bromberg] said in [a] 2008 documentary. “Over time these may replace farming as the main source of income.”

“What Gidon saw for the peace park and what we were doing in the Urban Design Workshop was spot-on,” Plattus says in the Yale story. “The idea of doing something like this on the other side of the world seemed challenging, but by applying the same methods that we use locally to get ourselves grounded in a community, we got imbedded there fairly quickly.”

“The extensive area of the proposed Jordan River Peace Park offers a rich landscape to explore our region’s shared cultural and natural heritage,” David Guggenheim, an architecture professor at Bezalel Academy, says in the Yale story. “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.”

Plattus and Harwell tell Connecticut Magazine that Jordan and Israel each must support the peace park plans for progress to be made, and that the Jordanians have agreed at this point to having a Jordanian national park on the site.

(The proposed park sits along the Great Rift Valley, a major migration corridor from Africa to Asia. Some 500 million birds fly over the area twice every year, including Eurasian cranes (left), Lesser Spotted Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawks, and Honey Buzzards. Photo courtesy Dudubot/Wikimedia Commons.)

Generally, the YUDW and its international colleagues are “trying to position support for the park to move ahead when the time is right,” Plattus says, and with Jordan under pressure vis a vis Palestinian and Syrian refugees, there could be a need for a gesture to be made.

That said, Plattus and Harwell note the obvious, that there’s not a lot of cooperation among the peoples and governments in the Middle East, especially when it comes to a border that’s been fought over throughout history.

Still, the charrette in May attracted a lot of positive attention, and Plattus and Harwell have even got a call from “60 Minutes” asking about the peace park. The U.S. State Department is carefully monitoring the project as well.

(Right, a 14th-century inn from the Mamluk period, which served as a place of rest for merchants and travelers crossing the river. The Turks later added a customs house. Photo courtesy Andrei Harwell.)

“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,” Plattus says in the Yale story. “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.”

With both hope and a tone that reflects a deep understanding of how complex a project this is, Plattus put it like this to Connecticut Magazine: “We keep chipping away at it from our end in the midst of our other work."

(Above, the former homes of workers who ran the power plant in the 1920s and 1930s would be renovated into overnight lodging for visitors. A conference center may also be built nearby in the park; photo courtesy FoEME.)

To learn more about the Yale Urban Design Workshop, see its website.


Yale Architects Design Hope: Middle East Peace Park in Israel, Jordan

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