Figure 1 >> Cardboard model of the Arc,
courtesy of Suisman Urban Design
Fall >> 2005
A Foam-board Future for Palestine
May Be Realistic Now After Israel's Withdrawal from Gaza
Los Angeles, Calif.
Within a nondescript box made of skillfully cut foam sheets in a small urban design studio in California lies a future Palestinian state. A tiny train line makes its way from a miniature Gaza Strip to a polystyrene West Bank, connecting the region’s historic cities.
The region’s 3.5 million residents, too small for the designer’s hands to depict, will travel along this high-speed railway to visit their newly connected families and to commute to their future jobs. Electricity, broadband connection and water will follow the railway’s graceful arc, creating an infrastructure for a state that is as yet unsustainable.
I stumbled onto this unassuming vision of the future Palestinian state (see Figure 1) while working on a documentary being produced as part of a geospatial awareness program through a partnership between KOL Networks and the U. S. Department of Labor. Little did I know, my pre-production research on urban planners’ use of satellite imagery would lead my crew’s video cameras from a commercial satellite imagery company outside Washington D.C. to an urban designer’s studio in Southern California, and finally to two pieces of disputed land in the Middle East.
What struck me immediately was the potential that this fragile construction of modeling materials and creativity held for the Middle East, where in the midst of the volatile Palestinian/Israeli conflict, most efforts are focusing on the details of politics, not reconstruction. However, thanks to a $2 million study led by the Rand Corporation (www.rand.org/palestine, a non-profit think tank), Doug Suisman of Santa Monica-based Suisman Urban Design (www.suisman.com/palestine) has been given the chance to outline what could happen after the political climate cools and the departure of security forces makes room for construction crews. Due to my documentary mission, I was able to ask him about his creation in person. Suisman’s plan is appropriately called the Arc, referencing the plan’s arc-like transportation and infrastructure backbone, which has given Palestinians and Israelis a tangible goal to visualize as they push toward the peace process.
The Arc is unique in that it looks ahead to the details of a possible future Palestinian state while the current political climate makes the existence of such a state seem tenuous at best. “People don’t often talk about the day after peace; they talk about the establishment of such a state,” Suisman explains to our cameras. He goes on to report the common reaction to his vision as one of surprise and enthusiasm at the Arc’s potential, which ultimately gives way to hope for most Palestinians who have viewed his proposal.
When I discovered that Palestine’s deputy finance minister, Jihad al Wazir, cried tears of joy upon seeing the Arc model, I knew I had found the focus of my documentary — a typically standard land-use study poised to affect the region in dramatically atypical ways.
Imaging Palestine’s Challenges
With the current positive direction of Israeli/Palestinian politics and with Israel’s recent remarkable withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Doug Suisman’s miniature mockup is more of a possibility than he or the Rand Corporation ever imagined. If the Arc or any other redevelopment plan gets the green light, a legion of designers, engineers, and builders will need to understand and visualize the challenges that modern Palestine’s geography presents, requiring numerous and detailed remotely sensed data of the region (see Figure 2).
Palestine’s antiquity is one of the challenges that will confront future designers and construction crews, and Suisman has dealt with this in designing the Arc. The new Palestine will have to be built atop a jumble of ancient cities and historic sites, and even refugee camps while still respecting the inhabitants’ deep connections to the region’s history and tradition (see Figure 3). A world away in his Southern Californian studio, Suisman explains that “efforts to build a new city from scratch generally are not successful.”
By studying commercial satellite imagery, Suisman has been able to observe “a particular tradition of urban form in Arab cities which is very sustainable, compact, based on pedestrians rather than automobiles and is very much adapted to the climate.” Rather than deny Palestine’s roots and its years of development, Suisman stresses that a successful plan for Palestine’s future must incorporate the intrinsic cultural, archeological, economic, human and psychological values of the West Bank and Gaza’s historic cities (see Figure 4).
Suisman was further challenged by his relatively limited knowledge of the region, which was one of the primary reasons Rand chose him. “He saw the potential in a way that maybe only a naïf can,” explained Steven Simon, a principal in the Rand study, in a May 15, 2005, New York Times article. Detailing how he overcame this knowledge gap, Suisman noted that his team was “reliant on maps and images to paint the picture – to construct the landscape in our minds and in our imaginations.” His team’s study of these images included “everything from the built-up urban areas [and] the location of water resources, to power lines and archeological sites.” Through these remotely sensed images, Suisman received a logistical understanding of Palestine without having been discouraged by the realities of a seemingly insurmountable political situation and years of failed peace.
From his studio at the project’s start, continents away from broken promises, treaties and cease-fires, Suisman began analyzing Gaza and the West Bank’s topography, trying to find a way to link the two non-contiguous pieces of urban sprawl. “The Arc began as a recognition that there was a form in the landscape which we call a natural arc formed by a ridgeline,” Suisman tells me as our cameras roll. Images from the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem’s Atlas of Palestine offered a portrait of the topography from a number of perspectives. Suisman matter-of-factly states that “without the sophisticated imagery, we couldn’t have constructed a sufficient 3-dimensional model (see Figure 5) to have produced anything useful.” This high-tech and highly visual imaging technology will undoubtedly play a valuable role in understanding the region’s current condition, helping planners reconcile Palestine’s past with its future.
In similar reconstruction scenarios, 1-meter resolution images from commercial satellites, such as IKONOS, OrbView-3 and QuickBird, would support the construction efforts, giving planners the highest quality data available. Unfortunately, due to the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment to the U.S. National Defense Authority Act of 1997, this high-resolution imaging capability is prohibited from capturing data of Israel, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Mark Brender, Vice President of Corporate Communications and Washington D.C. Operations for IKONOS-operator Space Imaging, explains that “anytime we have imagery over Israel, we have to resample it — some say ‘fuzz it up’ — to 2-meter ground resolution” before delivery to the client. As a result, the future developers of Palestine will be forced to use the equivalent of less-than-ideal 2-meter resolution technology which contains one-fourth the information, thus hindering design and construction efforts.
This “fuzzing” is required only when imaging Israel, leaving imaging of any other sensitive areas of the Earth’s surface unrestricted. This was illustrated for my production crew in the Space Imaging office, as we were shown images of Bush’s Crawford Ranch, Area 51, and Iraq’s green zone at 1-meter resolution. According to Brender, “There are no imaging restrictions anywhere else in the world, other than Israel.”
This inconsistency piqued my interest and further spurred my research with the question: why was the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment put into legislation? Brender explains, “Before we launched the IKONOS satellite in September of 1999, Israel saw this age of transparency coming from commercial satellites and they wanted to limit in some capacity the ability of these satellites to see Israel in 1-meter ground resolution.” The amendment states that no commercial imaging company can image Israel at any resolution that is better than that of any other country’s remote sensing satellites. The Commerce Department has determined that resolution to be 2-meters.
Repealing this amendment would help in furthering the growth and development that benefits all countries in the region. With estimated costs of redevelopment of Palestine hovering at $33 billion, having the best data available will help in keeping the financial burdens on the international community to a minimum and in allowing the project to move forward as quickly as possible. “I think it would be wise to have 1-meter resolution available for GIS [analysts], city planners and infrastructure development in Gaza,” says Brender, adding, “There are currently no plans to repeal this amendment. Perhaps government officials should re-evaluate the merits of this old amendment so that the Palestinian Authority can use the best U.S. product to support redevelopment efforts.” Perhaps by the time bulldozers are ready to break ground, arrangements will be made to allow planners to use unadulterated data.
Inspiring the Greater Region
Assuming that the political and legal hurdles are overcome, the international community secures the Arc’s estimated $6 billion price tag and Palestine becomes athriving and peaceful metropolis, the success could inspire redevelopment throughout the Middle East. “It’s hard to believe that it would not serve as a model for others in the region seeking to improve the lives of their own people,” predicts Suisman.
There’s reason to believe the Middle East may already be at the start of a redevelopment trend. In fact, my research for the documentary led me beyond Palestine to the proposed Pan Arab Research and Education Network (PAN) and to the rapid development of Dubai with its World and Palm Island constructions, not to mention the impending reconstruction of Iraq. The PAN initiative intends to link the major educational institutions in the Middle East and North Africa region (see Figure 6). Douglas Hull, an author of the PAN feasibility study and featured expert in the documentary, stated that the planning and implementation of the PAN will require the best use of modern geospatial tools.
Were the current infrastructure improvements to expand into a grand redevelopment phase of the greater surrounding region, GIS and remote sensing usage would increase, and in-region geospatial workforce demands would subsequently grow likewise. Before this widespread redevelopment, political cooperation, and collaboration become feasible, however, there is a great need for training a new generation in the areas of remote sensing and its uses in urban planning. Programs like the KOL Network’s Geospatial21 and Career Voyages (www.careervoyages.gov) are aimed specifically at stimulating awareness and excitement in students to acquire training in these fields. Without adequate numbers of properly trained technicians and specialists, development time will slow, increasing security and terrorism risks. Outdated cartoon-like maps of the 20th century are not the tools to use in this massive undertaking.
Most of the people in the Middle East are under the age of 24. All these young people are going to need jobs and places to live. Projects like the Arc are possibilities for providing both the jobs and the residential, commercial, and industrial infrastructure to support this rapidly growing region. It is my hope that someday soon, this story, told through my production crew’s cameras, will educate Palestinian students on how geospatial tools are being used to better their lives and how a geospatial career can empower them to change their world for the better.
Back in the Suisman Urban Design office where the crew is packing up camera equipment and lights, I sit down with Mazen Zoabi, a visiting Palestinian GIS researcher on a temporary assignment at the studio. Soft-spoken but confident, he tells me how satellite imagery helps him document the water shortage situation in Palestine for the Rand Corporation’s study. Here is a young man who has learned the skills to effect change in his homeland. “Living there is not easy, but every time I leave the region, I miss it,” he states. For him, a future Palestine is not an urban planning challenge to be solved, but an emergency — one to be met with the powerful tools of remote sensing.