The area designated as a Jordanian national parkland, situated about six miles south of the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, is a slice of no-man’s-land on the Israel-Jordan border. Some biblical scholars believe the site is the entrance to the Garden of Eden, but at the moment it is home only to ruins, scraggly weeds and a crack squadron of Jordan’s Royal Guard.
One day, this polluted wasteland could be a flowering peace park, attracting visitors from overseas. For some, such as the Director of Friends of the Earth Middle East Israel, an environmental organization that advocates peacemaking in the region, and 2007 World Fellow Gidon Bromberg, that dream is not so far away.
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A group of architects from the Yale School of Architecture ventured to this plot of land last May to work with Israeli students from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and Jordanian and Palestinian architects, as they set out to draw up design proposals for the first peace park in the Middle East. Sofia Solomon ’09 and Reid Wittman ’09 traveled with them to document the four-day charrette, or design workshop, held under the auspices of FoEME.
The film “Bridging Waters: Creating a Peace Park on the River Jordan,” which was produced by Solomon and directed by Wittman, premiered in front of a packed room at the Joseph K. Slifka Memorial Center for Jewish Life earlier this month. Soloman and Wittman said they will screen their film twice before the end of the semester.
Despite the sweltering heat, flies and Jordanian military, the pair came back with a film that chronicles the aspirations and the progress of the team.
CHARTING THE CHARRETTE
The 31-minute film was “cut down from 27 hours” and shot on one handheld camera, Wittman said. When Wittman and Soloman made their journey of more than 5,600 miles, they had little idea of what they would find.
“The thing that was really interesting about the project was that we knew that they were trying to establish a peace park, and we knew that the architects were coming, but what we didn’t know was why,” Wittman said. “We didn’t know what we were going to find, that’s why we had to film everything … the cameras were rolling whenever they allowed me to.”
He added that some of the tape was shot in areas where he technically wasn’t supposed to film, such as Jordanian military posts.
With its artistic shots of the destroyed Roman, Ottoman and British bridges and the ruined Pinchas Rotenberg Power Plant, an international-style hydroelectric plant built in 1932 to harness the waters of the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers at their point of convergence, the film depicts a barren site, which nevertheless is replete with architectural and historical potential.
Solomon decided to produce the film because she admired Bromberg’s pragmatic approach and optimism when she met him when he was a World Fellow. She said the interest in producing the project for her was that it “tied together so many aspects of Yale.”
“I guess its strength is how big and small it is at the same time,” she said.
Ever since the days of the Roman Empire, the area was an important crossroads for trade and growth, but subsequent wars destroyed the bridges and left the area empty.
The 1994 peace accords allowed for both Israeli and Jordanian citizens to visit the island for one day without visas, a fact that makes the project even more viable, although the memories of a group of seven Israeli school girls gunned down by Jordanian regulars in 1997 still remain.
Architecture professor Alan Plattus ’76, who spearheaded the charrette and spoke after the screening, said the site was one of the main attractions of the project.
“As an architect, as somebody who I think responds very strongly to sites, natural and man-made, there’s nothing like this site,” he said. “It’s magical; you walk onto it and just feel like you’re in this unique spot.”
The preliminary plans for the first peace park in the region would have it implemented in three phases: the first phase would include the conversion of the ruined power-plant workers’ homes into “eco-lodges,” the strengthening of the bridges and the flooding of the lake to create a wetland area for migratory birds. The second phase would consist of the conversion of the power station into a visitor’s center and the third phase would expand the park into Israeli territory as well as create cultural and historical panoramas and a convention center.
The unemployment rate on the Jordanian side is currently around 40 percent, and those who are employed, working mainly in agriculture, do not earn much. FoEME’s coordinators said they believe the opportunities for employment in such a poor area would trump the long history of animosity between Jordanians and Israelis.
FoEME Director Bromberg said in an e-mail message to the News he thought the economic benefit to locals as a result of increased tourism would also vindicate the environmentally friendly use of water in a region where water is a precious commodity.
“[The peace park] provides direct benefits to the local community through tourism revenue and helps justifying water resources being allocated back to nature,” he said.
He added that the project was “a concrete example of how cooperative projects can contribute directly to peace” and “a first step towards the rehabilitation of the River Jordan.”
THE SITUATION TODAY
Bromberg said the charrette was “highly successful” and the 80-page study on the park that was produced over the course of the charrette “helped us to convince decision makers to support the concept.”
Plattus said they succeeded in producing preliminary designs.
“Those images are being used by Friends of the Earth to support the project … so they can go to a funder and say: ‘Here’s what we’re trying to do and what we’ve done so far, can you help us make the next step?’ ” Plattus said.
And developers have already warmed to the proposal; the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the U.N. Development Programme and the U.N. Environment Programme awarded the project a 2009 Supporting Entrepreneurs for Environment and Development award that has allowed the project to be propelled into the next stage of planning, despite the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, Bromberg said.
The Jordanian FoEME director, Munqeth Mehyar, confirmed this.
“[The] Gaza events did not leave any impact on the project, the Prime Minister’s office in Jordan is about to issue a supporting letter in this respect,” he said in an e-mail message to the News.
Mehyar added that he was enthusiastic about the project, saying the Jordanians and Israelis had “worked together for the wellbeing of the people” in that area before and could be brought together again.
Mehyar was referring to the special mandate issued by Jordanian King Abdullah I to Pinchas Rotenberg, who was a Jewish electricity entrepreneur in the 1930s, to build a power plant to provide power for both Arabs and Jews. He said the peace park would help to reunite the two factions after decades of war and would better the environment; nearby, at the site of Jesus Christ’s baptism, the River Jordan is so polluted that humans are not allowed to swim in its waters.
One of the most innovative parts of the project, according to architects, would seek to solve this problem: the large area of marshland would become a sort of “living machine” that, in theory, would purify polluted water in an area which has few sewage decontamination plants.
In addition to furthering environmental sustainability, Yale architects involved in the program said they relished the opportunity to take part in the project because of its local and even global political significance.
“It’s really the right kind of project for right now,” said Andrei Harwell ARC ’06, a critic at the architecture school and project manager at Yale’s Urban Design Workshop. “I think it has the possibility of capturing a lot of people’s imaginations in the region and around the world.”