Ashkelon - Eliyahu Hershkovit
Ashkelon. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovit
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From the very first conference of the Movement for Israeli Urbanism in Be'er Sheva in 2005, which dealt with the renewal of urban public spaces, to the fourth conference last week in Ashkelon on "The City as an Engine of Economic Growth," the importance of the association's principles - to "strive to improve the quality of urban life in Israel and actively promote the development of a sustainable and humane urban environment in Israel" - has only increased.

This summer's social protest movement, in which the MIU (known in Hebrew as Merhav ) took an active role in lectures and tent meetings around the country, provided it with a boost. During the protests it became clear that there was a necessary link between planning, society and politics - that social justice cannot be separated from urban justice.

The MIU was founded in 2004 in an atmosphere critical of modern urban planning that had not lived up to its name. A return to traditional urbanism - compact, multiuse, pedestrian-friendly, urban areas whose public streets and plazas form a stage for public events - must be the cornerstone of society and the environment in Israel, according to the association. The MIU, not the only such voice today, calls for an end to suburbanization, for the rehabilitation of city centers, the development of public transportation, the inclusion of the public in planning and the renewal of existing neighborhoods. Its research shows that half a million housing units could be added to existing neighborhoods and apartment projects in Israeli city centers over the next decade alone.

While the MIU's concepts may seem familiar, most of them are still in their early stages, as the group's founders and directors, architects Irit Solzi and Dror Gershon, admitted after the successful and well-attended conference in Ashkelon. The MIU's wide-ranging activities - including the Lab for Urban Empowerment (a project to help improve neglected neighborhoods ) and the Mayors Institute (which brings city leaders together for workshops on how to make good planning decisions ) - have yet to percolate into the planning and decision-making process.

In practice, the opposite has occurred: from the National Housing Committees Law (which speeds up the building-permit process ) and other planning reforms, through the establishment of new neighborhoods and communities; from the neglect and demolition of existing buildings, through new programs that threaten the small pockets of urbanism that remain, such as the new master plan for Tel Aviv.

Whose fault is it?

Ashkelon is a living laboratory embodying the MIU's arguments, as could be seen during a guided tour that took place during the conference, led by Alan Marcus, the municipality's director of strategic planning. The city was built with a wasteful low density, meaning that a space larger than Tel Aviv contains one-third fewer residents. Its streets are not pedestrian-friendly, but frightening, and boast a record 80 suburban traffic circles. The many open spaces maintained by the city only make things worse. These urban areas are divided by separate usage, are far from each other and require travel by car. The percentage of spread-out, low-level buildings is among the highest of any Israeli city, and there is no urban city center or urban feeling of any kind (except what remains of the abandoned Palestinian city of Majdal that was not included in the tour ).

The chance that Ashkelon will change is faint. In the future, too, more new commercial and industrial areas are to be built on open spaces on the outskirts of the city, and city planners have plenty of space left for even more. And the future will see more low-level and build-your-own-home neighborhoods, continuing the domestic suburbanizing trend that requires more highways and infrastructure, traffic circles and stores, not to mention the environmental impact it has. That's it in a nutshell. Marcus is a graduate of the MIU's Mayors Institute, a promising project that in this case did not manage to change old, bad planning habits.

In his lecture at the conference, architect Hillel Schocken, a member of the MIU's founding board of directors, pointed an accusing finger at planners and said, point blank, that they had "abandoned their Hippocratic oath to make planning serve humanity." The suggestions for a solution to the housing crisis that incited the tent protests "reflect the great ease with which it is possible to criticize the 'system,' instead of looking ourselves in the eye and courageously saying where we have been mistaken."

Israel, Schocken said, built accessible housing in the 1950s and 1960s "in quantities that would not shame Scandinavia," but that "we sold bad theories to the public," and produced cities that are not cities, from Mitzpeh Ramon to Kiryat Shmona, "and young people abandon them for the only source of human opportunity in Israel - Tel Aviv. True participation in social protest demands that we undertake a deep and painful self-examination."

'Learn from Tel Aviv'

If there are pretty good examples of what a good city is, the question about how to create one remains unanswered, despite innumerable attempts. Another effort to solve the riddle was made by geographer Dr. Zeev Posner at the conference. The title of his talk, "The rise and fall of the well-planned city, or how the Israeli city can use knowledge as a basis to plan space in Israel," says it all.

Posner suggested that urban planners adopt "evolutionary" planning, based on dynamic and shifting partial knowledge and on uncertainty, without losing sight of the bigger picture. He warned the new generation of planners against the importation of a foreign world of concepts to what he calls "the map of Israeli mentality," and instructed them to "learn from Tel Aviv." Israeli urbanism's ability to adapt to new situations is its greatest resource and is key in future planning, Posner argued. Complex, evolutionary planning doesn't promise to be error-free, "but it at least prevents us from making large mistakes," he said.

The classic question, which also arose at the conference - do cities behave uncontrollably or can they be planned? - "is a question that belongs to the past," Posner said. "Planning and a lack of planning are in effect two sides of the same coin." For example, no planning commission ever decided to enclose a balcony on an apartment, but this process has influenced the image of the Israeli city more than any high-level planning decision. There will always be contradictory elements in city systems and there is no way to reduce them and achieve a uniform result. City planners believe they know what is wrong in the built environment in Israel and what needs to be done to correct it. The evolutionary approach, on the other hand, demands a thorough study of variables, the ability to imagine the results and, mainly, modesty - "and so perhaps few planners are likely to adopt it," Posner said.

Winning proof of the Israeli urban environment's ability to survive is its convoluted system of repairs and accommodations, for which this country has no competition. The public always knows how to accommodate new needs, to close off, add on, mix and patch up. "It isn't always beautiful but it is economical and helps save the city from decay," Posner said. Attempts to deny the local mentality and bring in foreign ideas will only "reduce the amount of possibilities and complicate lifestyles that make the city what it is, or, alternately, cause much larger problems," he said.

These are not threats but reality.