Why the Gaza Strip May Be the City of the Future
Why the Gaza Strip May Be the City of the Future
Author: Zach Mortice
Date: September 27, 2021
Urban life amid the Israel-Palestine conflict is defined by violence, surveillance and resource scarcity — conditions that, a new book warns, may soon be more widespread.
When Americans turned on the TV or glanced at their smartphones for news of the deadly clashes that engulfed the Gaza Strip in May — or if they followed the more recent spasm of violence in August that threatened to break the region’s fragile truce — many saw scenes that looked familiar: streets flooded with protesters, engaged in a struggle against highly armed security forces on the streets of a battered-looking city.
In many ways, the political and physical conditions of the Gaza Strip are unique: Nearly 2 million people are packed into a 25-mile-long rectangle of land along the Mediterranean roughly the size of Philadelphia. The territory has been home to Palestinians displaced by the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and was occupied for nearly four decades by Israel after the 1967 Middle East War. The political wing of Hamas, which opposes Israel's right to exist, was elected to power in 2006; it took control of the enclave after a bloody schism with a rival Palestinian faction the following year. Israel — alongside Egypt — then placed Gaza under blockade as Hamas militants have continued to attack Israel. The two sides have settled into a gruesome rhythm of low levels of violence punctuated by intense conflagrations. In May’s fighting, as many as 260 Palestinians were killed; in Israel, 13 people were killed.
Gaza is a landscape of extreme economic deprivation born of the region’s complicated political dynamics — but one whose contours may soon become more common.
That’s the premise behind the recently released book Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope, published by Terreform’s imprint Urban Research. Edited by Deen Sharp, an urban geographer who focuses on the Middle East, and essayist, theorist, activist, and provocateur Michael Sorkin, the book presents a vision of Gaza as a glimpse of an imminent future, where violence, surveillance, resource scarcity and provisional use of an extremely compromised built environment are visited on all.
Sharp sees connections, for example, between the unrest in Gaza and the racial justice demonstrations in U.S. cities after the murder of George Floyd in 2020: In both, the key issue is who has a right to the city — the right to claim contested urban space. "The Black Lives Matter protests and that broader movement and recognition of the types of oppression that are going on [in Gaza] is something that’s been made visible,” he says.
The Gaza Strip, the book’s promotional copy declares, is “one of the most beleaguered environments on earth.” But the territory and its urban center, Gaza City, is appallingly understudied in terms of architecture and urbanism. That makes it a fitting swan song for Sorkin, who died last year of Covid-19. “Michael wanted to go where others wouldn’t dare,” says Sharp.
Featuring contributions from scholars, urbanists and architects from the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel, India, the U.S. and the U.K., the book’s essays explore the extant condition of Gaza and its wider socio-political context, and offer speculative designs aimed at wresting back sovereignty and dignity for its residents. It posits that the ad-hoc, low-carbon design techniques that Gazans have developed look ahead to a planet failing to meet the challenges of a climate cataclysm, a global pandemic, and growing inequality. As brittle regimes are wracked by crises, mass migrations harden borders, and infrastructure buckles, Open Gaza suggest that the rest of the world may start to look more and more like Gaza.
Or has already. Anyone who’s searched for clean water in Flint or has seen their home destroyed in wildfires or floods might understand what Yara Sharif, a Palestinian architect who contributed to the book, means when she says, “The Palestinianization of cities is happening worldwide. It’s happening by destruction and erasure, but also with dramatic climate change.”
Eco-Adaptation by Necessity
Open Gaza isn’t content to just praise the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Gazan and allied urbanists and architects; nor is the book interested in depicting Gaza purely as a dystopian prison. “You could call [these visions] utopian, but I think these are alternative possibilities,” says Sharp. “They’re not fantasies.” Instead, the collection serves as a “demand that [Gazans] be able to live and shape their urban context and infrastructure, and social lives in ways that are dignified and respectful of their humanity,” he says.
The book presents Gaza’s architectural condition — extant and speculative — as defined by its power imbalance with Israel. This asymmetry means Open Gaza is free of the antiseptic techno-solutionism that often populates architecture tomes. Such documents often claim that low-carbon buildings, made from nothing more than the trees and dirt on their plot of earth, will exist in an atmosphere of generous technological enlightenment, happy consumers sipping lattes poured by robots, munching on locally sourced avocado BLTs. Open Gaza tells us this scenario might be a fairy tale. The book’s prescriptions operate with found conditions and severe local constraints on materials; it suggests that your first shower warmed by solar power might happen in between air-raid sirens.
This reality is why buzzwords like “sustainability” or “resilience” don’t mean anything to the average Gazan, says Palestinian architect Salem Al Qudwa, who writes about the territory’s quotidian, everyday buildings. For Western architects, recycling brick may be a way to save carbon and bestow new buildings with the patina of age. But in Gaza, there is no choice.