Gaza, a Surprising Model for Urban Living
Gaza has been forced to rely on high-efficiency solutions for political reasons. Soon, the rest of the world will have to do so for climate-related reasons.
In 2013, I left a small cafe in Bologna, Italy, and decided to take a long walk around the ancient city. This would be a dusky dérive, a situationist drifting through this and that street with no direction or plan in mind. After about 15 minutes, I stumbled into a section of the city whose streets and buildings seemed more compressed than the rest. I stopped and looked around to make sense of this dramatic spatial change.
I had clearly entered a distinct section of Bologna, but what was it? An investigation revealed, by way of a sign for tourists such as myself, the answer. This was what remained of a medieval ghetto.
In the middle of the 16th century, Pope Paul IV forced, by papal power, all the Jews of Bologna to live in this small section of the city because they were… Jews. The ghetto became a miniature of the rest of Bologna. Space became of the essence here. As I walked the streets of what was one of the world’s oldest ghettos, I kept trying to imagine how small the capital of this region of Northern Italy would be if it, too, were scaled down to this size. This line of thought led me to this conclusion: The density imposed on Jews by the Pope matched in appearance the ideal for urban life in the present age of rapid global warming.
In March 2021, the American University in Cairo Press and Terreform published Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope, edited by the noted American urban scholar Michael Sorkin and the British urban geographer Deen Sharp. Sorkin, who is recognized in the architectural, urban planning, and critical theory community as one of the major voices of 20th century leftist urbanism, lost his life at age 71 to COVID-19, a year before the book was published. His co-editor, Sharp, is a geographer noted for his focus on urbanization in the Middle East. Their book is exceptional because it has no illusions about the everyday social and political conditions of the Gaza Strip, a small area on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea that’s packed with 2 million Palestinian souls.
Over the past two decades, this area has become what many describe as an open-air prison. When not being bombed to bits, its contact with the outside world is increasingly restricted. Indeed, while I was reading Open Gaza in May 2021, Israel Defense Forces were bombing the city for the third time in a little under a decade. Hamas, one of the armed organizations within Gaza, initiated the war by firing rockets at Israel over an explosive policing-related crisis that the government, under the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu, decided to downplay. At the end of the conflict, the dead on one side (the Gaza Strip) numbered 256; and those on the other (Israel), numbered 13.
Open Gaza remains relevant after the most recent Israel-Palestine war because the situation in that territory has not changed, with the exception of Netanyahu’s fall from power on June 13, 2021. Another explosive crisis could emerge and erupt, and Hamas and its allies could once again fire rockets at Israel, and Israel could once again drop bombs on Gaza City’s already crumbling buildings. Also, a blockade is still in effect, and there is no sign of an end to the city’s isolation enforced by the wall, surveillance, and economic restrictions.
The aim of the contributors to Open Gaza is the extension of a social justice program that the 20th century French urban theorist Henri Lefebvre called “the right to the city.” This means, in essence, ending the “sick circular economy of destruction and reconstruction” and suggesting “directions in which a reimagined Gaza might grow and prosper,” as Sorkin and Sharp write in their introduction. The book is so dense (geographical facts, graphs, images of everyday life, untold stories, recommendations, plans, speculations, outrage, calls to action) that it’s best read in the manner of a dérive: Begin with the introduction, then read the chapters in any order (for me it was: “Timeless Gaza” by Mahdi Sabbagh and Meghan McAllister, “Four Tunnels” by Bint al-Sirhid, “Solar Dome” by Chris Mackey and Rafi Segal, and “Architecture of the Everyday” by Salem Al-Qudwa, and so on).
A weird thought entered my mind while in the book’s pages, a thought confirmed by this passage from one of the best essays in the collection, Absurd-City, Subver-City by Yara Sharif and Nasser Golzari:
“Subver-City … explores spatial means of reinhabiting the city. While looking at the many challenges and constraints that exist, we try to rethink reconstruction and the domestic space of the everyday, insisting on the importance of offering propositions that build on what is already there. While doing so, we use design to question the notion of ‘home,’ especially in a fractured city with exposed skin and fabric, where the relationship between the internal and external, the street and the room is now blurred. This reading of the city could create new typologies for inhabiting it.”
The thought of “new typologies for [habitation]” is similar to what I was thinking when I left the Bologna ghetto. It’s the idea that resource stress imposed by political and cultural means has forced a response that is in fact ideal for life during the age of global warming.
Terreform, an urban research studio founded by Sorkin, offers this statistic in a city plan for Gaza presented in the book: Gaza has one-tenth of Israel’s ecological footprint, which is a stunning “6.2 global hectares (gha) per capita.” Meaning, “the average Israeli uses 6.2 hectares to produce their resources, the largest number among nations in the OECD.” (The average for the world as a whole is 2.7 hectares.) The inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are actually living by energy standards that, though imposed unfairly by military and economic constraints, should be considered realistic in a world whose urban population must consume far less energy, recycle more materials, and use renewable sources of power. Gaza has been forced to rely on these high-efficiency solutions for political reasons. Soon, the rest of the world will have to do so for climate-related reasons.
From Gaza we learn about what Helga Tawil-Souri, in her vivid essay “The Internet Pigeon Network (IPN),” calls “low-technologization.” I call this “progress without waste” or “horizontal advancement,” as opposed to the “vertical advancement” programs that developing countries adopted mid-century to catch up with the West. The most viable future for Gaza is not the freedom to consume as much as Israel (all of its blood-earned lessons would be lost if such were the case). Instead, it’s developing ways from its present situation to consume in a manner that can mitigate the ever-mounting dangers of global warming.
This is what I call “learning from Gaza.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 2.07 p.m. on 08/27/2021 to clarify that Gazans are forced to rely on high-efficiency solutions because of political reasons. Read our corrections policy here.