One chilly morning of a Thursday in January in downtown Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, our group of Development Partners and Gaza-based staff of our counterpart agency, was met by neighborhood leaders, municipal staff, contractor and children – all very excited to show us the newly completed stretch of a road. Designated as a one-way, 2-lane urban road, the 800 meters street looks like one busy corridor common in many cities. It is undoubtedly a road having or meeting ideal elements of urban design: wide sidewalk of interlocking tiles (sustainable technology – allows run off water to be easily absorbed into the ground) lined up with fast growing trees (protected with steel tree guards), carriageway painted with directional signs and separator lines, new streetlighting, drains upgrade, etc.
But how the neighborhood sees the road and the road project, a small investment of only about $140,000, gives one a different perspective of urban roads especially in an area that has suffered fragility, conflict and violence. From the community’s perspective, not only is this project serving its mobility purpose – smoother traffic flow of both vehicles and pedestrians - but it is also significantly improving their quality of life. On the side, it has helped improve drainage (and eliminated the flash flooding during the rainy season). More importantly, the residents feel the road has brought them closer together. A cohesive community as a result of the numerous consultations on design, resolving minor right of way issues (e.g., moving temporary or semi-permanent obstructions along the sidewalks), management of the street during construction, community contribution to complete the street lighting , among other issues. The community is now proud of what they see as a tremendously improved street where sidewalks also serve as impromptu playground for children during and a “living room extension” for residents who take advantage of the wide sidewalk space and bring out chairs to engage in friendly debate on local affairs. The children gleefully report to us that they help keep the street clean. Business also is flourishing, the shop owners report, as more customers are encouraged to visit with the improved access to the area.
The Khan Younis story is almost a repeat of the observations from the visit earlier in the day to another “micro road” project in Gaza City. The expressions of gratitude and appreciation for the proposed street improvement project, still in final stages of funding approval, is overwhelming. Our group was ushered by more than 20 neighborhood leaders and residents to a small hall where our hosts expressed how important the project is to the community. They consider themselves to be living in a “marginalized” area. And the multi-donor supported Municipal Development Project paved the way for city resources to reach their area.
Why is this subproject particularly interesting? It is going to be the culmination of a long process of dialogue among homeowners in the community, between the community and the municipal government on the impacts of the road on houses affected by the right-of-way (usage to pass along a specific route through property belonging to another). It is to be noted that Gaza City is one of the densest cities in the world (10,475 people/km2), making land extremely expensive. The city is also struggling to provide services with the ongoing financial difficulties facing Gaza in general. Outright compensation for land and assets in municipal infrastructure is a huge challenge.
But the affected residents see the greater benefits of the construction of the road improvement project – children will be spared from going to school through muddy and unsafe street, flash flooding that impacts many households during the winter months (average of 3 months per year) will be reduced, if
not eliminated, and the land values are expected to increase. Thus, residents are quite happy to move, with material support from the local government unit (LGU), fences encroaching on the sidewalk or even carriageway. For a particular house whose façade is impacted by about 2 meters, the owner agreed to remove the encroaching part of the house with a compensation package to defray the costs of building an additional room in the house. For removing walls and fences, the compensation arrangement for the affected households involves the LGU “offsetting” of arrears on utility bills (electricity and water) owed by the homeowner to the LGU, as well as covering future payments of these bills until the agreed compensation is fully settled. The implementing agency in charge of road construction diligently documented the process and the Bank is carefully reviewing the implementation of the resettlement action plan for this subproject. Meantime, our visiting group was urged to facilitate the early approval of this road project that the community sees as a transformative investment for them.
Supporting the municipalities in Gaza continues to be a critical task given the overall security and socio-economic situation in the Strip. Investments in local infrastructure, however small they may be, can bring about immense impacts and help alleviate the deteriorating economic conditions in the neighborhoods. As we witnessed from the brief visit to a number of Gaza municipalities, improving roads can have tremendous impacts on the local communities.