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History of the Project

In the spring of 2003, Professor Marwan Awartani, a Palestinian professor at Birzeit University and Dr. Boaz Tamir, an Israeli businessman and MIT graduate, both senior advisors of MIT's International Science and Technology Initiative, attended an event hosted in their honor by MIT's School of Engineering. In the aftermath of this event, and during a subsequent luncheon they attended arranged by Professor Richard Samuels, the Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies (CIS), the idea emerged of developing an international research program at MIT focused on Jerusalem into the future. Also present at these initial discussions were several faculty from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), including Professor Diane Davis, head of the International Development Group and current co-director of the Jerusalem 2050 project. The DUSP faculty brought their extensive experience in city visioning and urban planning to bear on the idea of thinking about the future of Jerusalem.

Inspired by the possibilities, a group of faculty and doctoral students from both CIS and DUSP subsequently met with faculty from Harvard to brainstorm different ideas for an innovative and visionary project focused on Jerusalem. One of the most promising was a "competition" that would encourage participants to imagine a brighter, more just and more peaceful future for the city of Jerusalem by the year 2050. The idea was greeted with enthusiasm by the faculty participants at MIT, and the Center for International Studies then provided financial support to move the project forward. This funding allowed the group to hire researchers to gather information on the role of Jerusalem in the conflict, one of whom was Dr. Leila Farsakh, who would later become a co-director of the Jerusalem 2050 Project.

The Jerusalem 2050 Project has undertaken a number of different initiatives since its formation, including a course entitled "Cities in Conflict," and a related seminar series in the spring of 2004 called "Cities Against Nationalism: Urbanism as Visionary Politics." As Professor Davis noted in course lectures and the seminar, the goal of these activities was to discuss different ways ".to disarticulate the city from the nation-state in order to depoliticize—or at least de-toxify—some of the more disastrous elements of urban life in locales wracked by ethnic, racial, and/or religious conflict and violence."

The goal of the seminar series was not only to discuss issues relating to the situation in Jerusalem, but to consider broader issues concerning ways in which ideas of tolerance, diversity and democracy play out in modern urban environments, and to compare the prospects for peace in urban locales where the nation, or nationalism, imposed itself on the built environment and everyday life of the city.

The graduate course, co-taught by Professor Diane Davis and DUSP Department Head Lawrence Vale, was designed to engage students in a discussion about the history of the evolution of "the city" from both a sociological and an urban planning perspective. Each week students in the course examined a variety of different conceptual and practical issues including the idea of the city as "a social, legal and political concept," "cities and nationalism," and "rebuilding nations by reconstructing cities." The seminar series brought a variety of guest speakers to MIT, starting with Professor Gerald Frug of Harvard Law School, who spoke about the relationship between cities and nation-states, and Naomi Chazan, a Wilhelm Fellow at the Center for International Studies, professor of political science, and former candidate for the mayor of Jerusalem.

During the opening session of the series, Professor Chazan noted that: "Jerusalem is a magnificent city but it seems to be unusually prone to being treated as history or as a vision, but not as reality. And for me, Jerusalem is also very much a real place. It's not in the past. It's not in the future. It's very much in the present. And what we're doing in the present will in many respects shape, mode the way the city looks in the future."

Another DUSP/CIS jointly-sponsored initiative that laid the foundation for the project's evolution was the Visionaries Conference, which brought together academics from a wide variety of academic fields to discuss new ideas about Jerusalem and how it might become a more equitable and sustainable city. Representing a range of disciplines and worldviews, the various academics sought to present new ways of thinking about this highly contested city. Naseer H. Aruri, Chancellor Professor (Emeritus) of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, offered a note of hope despite the present grim conditions, in a paper he presented to the conference, writing:

"...the international character of Jerusalem is perhaps its most valuable asset. Under peace conditions, this character would be expected to generate tourist revenue unhampered by conflict and tensions. Moreover, international agencies and NGOs which have a vested interest in a vibrant, inclusive and prosperous Jerusalem would be most generous with aid to support the building of civil society institutions without discrimination, and to consolidate the city's international character."

Each participant in the two-day Visionaries Conference approached the questions placed before them in a different way, and often took into consideration their own personal life experience in the region. For example, Dr. Uri Ram, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Ben Gurion University, wrote in his conference paper that ".not being an expert on Jerusalem, I choose to reflect in this essay upon the question of how to make Jerusalem a "livable city" through the prism of comparing it with another major Israeli city - Tel Aviv, and through thinking the place of these two cities in Israeli political imagery."

Other participants sought to help frame the conversation to be had, sharing their own ideas about how to make the best use of the time and minds assembled for the conference. Yossi Yonah, a Lecturer at the Department of Education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, wrote in his paper that "...our visionary exercise should feature a delicate interplay between the actual and the possible—not necessarily the predictable and the feasible, Thus the heuristic I recommend is the one that compels is to consider some concrete features of Jerusalem and speculate about how they can be transcended—that is, how can they be reshaped, redefined, refigured and rearticulated on the ground."

Still other participants expanded the dialogue well-beyond their own personal or local experience, taking into consideration the ways in which history, culture and politics have made the status of the city vitally important to different peoples and communities around the world. Dr. Menachem Klein, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, and a Senior Research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, and Daniel Seidemann, the founder and legal counsel for "Ir Amim," in particular noted in their joint paper that: "Jerusalem is an icon not only for its residents or for the two nations struggling to establish hegemony over her, but also for the hundreds of millions of the three monotheistic religion's faithful. Each of them resides symbolically in Jerusalem and is ready to defend the city against the 'other'."

All these activities helped the Jerusalem 2050 Steering Committee work towards and realize its main objective: the mounting of an international "visions" competition called the Just Jerusalem Competition. This competition was open to entrants from around the world who wanted to articulate their own vision for a more peaceful, equitable and stable Jerusalem.

In the buildup to the Competition deadline, 1150 individuals registered on the website, of which 250 participated in the submission of 139 entries. An international panel of jurors chose 4 winners and 7 honorable mentions. The 4 winning proposals were generated by 10 individuals, 9 of which were available to come to MIT during the Fall 2008 semester as Visionary Research Fellows. As fellows, they went to lectures, took classes, and met with professionals, academics, entrepreneurs, and politicians to continue developing their ideas.

The next step for Jerusalem 2050 is the creation of an exhibition of the Just Jerusalem Competition entries on a new more interactive website that will be a platform for individuals from around the world to dialogue and develop more ideas on Jerusalem.