Regardless of location and circumstances, cities everywhere face similar challenges. Traffic congestion is insoluble. Never “just right,” growth is either “too dense” or non-existent. Meanwhile, nothing trumps public safety. Yet, great communities constantly seek to do it faster, cheaper, better.
That’s why a six-person Sandy Springs delegation just returned from Israel, after establishing a sister city relationship with 11 communities forming the Western Galilee Cluster. The sister city initiative lets communities experience and learn from each other, exploring new ideas, approaches and opportunities.
West Galilee is an emerging technology, medical innovation and tourism area with similar aspirations as Sandy Springs. It also features a rich ethnic heritage where Jewish, Arab, Druze and Christian neighborhoods live peacefully side-by-side; a real contrast with global perceptions.
Over five days, our delegation absorbed how this area addresses our similar challenges. For example, the recent I-285/Ga. 400 collision among a fuel tanker, grocery truck and automobile highlighted our vulnerability to mass casualty events. Our seasonal precarious weather can produce widespread damage and injuries, too. So, we were eager to visit the West Galilee Medical Center, a world-renowned trauma facility. Headed by an Arab-Israeli physician, it features state-of-the-art operations, including an underground ER, so it can safely treat mass casualties even when under direct attack.
Likewise, West Galilee is an evolving medical technology center. Recent news reports have touted the high-tech exo-skeleton system that allows wheelchair- bound patients to walk and lead more normal lives. The system, currently fabricated in a West Galilee facility near the Lebanese border, offers life-changing hope for individuals everywhere.
Sandy Springs is a leader in using traffic management technology to make our roads more efficient. Occasionally, however, we stumble across older technologies that still work. Count me among the skeptics about whether roundabouts would work here. Yet, even in dense areas like the city of Akko, West Galilee communities are using roundabouts almost exclusively to move traffic smoothly. They do, in the right applications, improve mobility.
Sister cities also promote tourism and cultural exchanges to cultivate greater international understanding. While somewhat off the typical Israel tourist’s itinerary, the West Galilee area shares both ancient sites and modern marvels.
We visited a cave that was accidentally discovered when an excavator fell through the ceiling. Not yet publicly accessible, the cavern lay undiscovered for 10,000 years due to the collapse of its original opening. As a result, archaeologists are finding evidence of human and animal activity dating back 25,000 years.
There were moments of serendipity during our trip. During a survey of agricultural tourism and farm-to-table locations, our hosts took us to a bee farm, unaware of my beekeeper status. Beekeepers worldwide form an instant bond. When local residents visit Israel, the West Galilee is definitely worth a couple of vacation days.
Finally – what about the general situation there, especially in terms of safety? While the international media underscored the drama occurring in Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank, we felt safe in every location we visited. We walked the streets at night in Nahariyya, Tel Aviv and other communities, feeling as secure as if strolling through a Sandy Springs neighborhood. We knew of the problems, but as in any major city, the news media can report on several incidents dramatizing in such a way that the community appears more dangerous than it is.
Throughout the week, our travels repeatedly bumped the Lebanese border. At one stop, we looked down a high mountain peak at Lebanese villages in the valley floor. The danger is real, but as the Lt. Colonel charged with northern border security told us, “We stand guard, so normal life can go on.” It does.
Our sister city program was launched by Mayor Eva Galambos when she fostered our continuing relationship with Taicang, an inland city near Shanghai, China. In fact, we, with North Springs Chaater High School, hosted a Chinese student delegation in Sandy Springs in early October.
Going forward, we will hold monthly videoconferences with West Galilee officials to work on common objectives, and we plan to host an Israeli delegation in Sandy Springs next year. We want to nurture cultural and student exchanges over the five-year duration of the sister city agreement, and hope the ties grow so strong, the communities extend the relationship beyond its initial phase.
Rusty Paul is the mayor of Sandy Springs.