Since the start of the so-called "social protest" this summer, the Israel Lands Administration has come in for a lot of flak, mainly over its policy regarding the release of land for development. It appears, however, that the real solution to the housing problem in the cities doesn't lie in releasing new land, but in changing the policy vis-a-vis construction within the cities.

For years, city planners and local authorities heads avoided handling the city centers. Their solutions were to build glittering new neighborhoods. The new housing projects may feature spacious apartments and parks, but they tend to lack character. Kiryat Hasharon in Netanya, Western Rishon Letzion or the New Ramat Dayna in Haifa are practically indistinguishable.

Yehoshua Gutman, co-owner of the Gutman-Assif Architects office and a lecturer at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design's architecture department, argues that the state should stop releasing land for development around the cities. The future, he contends, lies in building up the city centers. "Make use of existing physical infrastructures and stop spreading outward," Gutman urges, adding that building up in the cities isn't the planning horror story that people claim it to be.

Build on the roof

Building up inside the cities does indeed have to factor in the urban texture, but great opportunity lies within. Proper planning for older neighborhoods can fix problems that had plagued them for decades. Adding new building rights can upgrade dilapidated neighborhoods, for instance - take, for example, Tel Aviv, where this is happening already thanks to market forces. Areas that nobody would touch with a barge pole for years, such as Gan Hahashmal, have become attractions, by virtue of their proximity to the city center.

Thus, new construction in an old neighborhood, adding new stories, can be key to the revival of entire areas. During the 1980s, the Tel Aviv city center was unattractive and suffered from negative migration. Realizing the problem, the Tel Aviv Municipality allowed development skyward, adding new stories to existing buildings. Though the process didn't happen overnight, the area today is among the priciest in Israel.

Many cities would love changes like that. It becomes a question of what they're willing to invest. When developing the existing city center, the solutions need to be specific and pinpoint. Urban renewal per se isn't the answer for all neighborhoods; nor are all suited for simply adding new apartments on the roof.

In other words, city hall and its budget need to become involved. While the city fathers may love a plan, paying for it is another matter. The cities tend to heap the burden onto the shoulders of the contractors. This is a shame, going by a U.S. study on the economic facet of urban renewal, which found that business follows government. The study found that each $1 provided by the community or city in renewing the main street in a neighborhood generates $26.70 in investment by contractors.

Einat Kalish-Rotem, chairwoman of the Haifa architects' association and an expert on urban renewal, was involved in an award-winning urban renewal program in Amsterdam. Cities should be perceived as having their own life cycle, and this means that old neighborhoods can be rejuvenated, she says.

Projects of this sort in Europe considered how to attract young people to kick-start a new life cycle, Kalish-Rotem adds.

Rejuvenating an old neighborhood doesn't mean restoring the past. People's needs change, explains Kalish-Rotem.

Crumbling neighborhoods need new content, while respecting the architectural heritage of the area.

Israel should take a page from Europe's book and devote more attention to building up the city centers; it isn't just about the buildings, it's about the people, she says. "In Israel, the focus is on the systems that handle the buildings, National Master Plan 38 [earthquake-proofing], urban renewal," she says. "What's needed is a focus on how to bring in strong residents."

While Israel's mayors generally concur on the need to bring in strong residents, they tend in practice to bring them to the new neighborhoods built on the city outskirts. Moreover, Israel's strongest municipalities have been building new neighborhoods catering to the well-to-do, says architect and urban planner Yodan Rofeh, a lecturer at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and among the founders of Merhav, a nonprofit organization. They approved plans for big apartments or single-family homes. As far as city finances are concerned, a five-room apartment is better than a three-room apartment. While both might house, for the sake of argument, a family with three kids, the five-room apartment will generate higher city tax, while the family will consume the same city services.

One reason for this tendency by the municipalities has been the state's withdrawal from funding, leaving the cities to rely more and more on city tax (arnona ), Rofeh says. Hence, the cities' choices to attract a richer class of residents.

Look the people in the face

Yet, if developing inside the city, the model of four- and five-room apartments won't work. First of all, to offer a true urban experience, the city needs diversity. Secondly, neighborhoods that need renewal generally have a lot of people who can't afford a costlier class of housing, and their needs must be considered too.

The rich can't be catered to at the expense of the rest, insists Kalish-Rotem. The solution is a mix of projects, catering to different groups, with the poorer ones getting to stay. But for that to happen, city hall has to look beyond bald building rights and look at the people, she says. "Unfortunately, I haven't seen projects in Israel where urban renewal was driven by the social aspect," Kalish-Rotem notes.

Experience proves that true revival of a neighborhood is the result of a two-pronged process - the market discovering the potential at the same time that the city starts to invest. If the city pours in money but the market yawns, the project is doomed.

Famous examples of city centers reborn began with an influx of artists, a-la Soho in Manhattan, SoMa in San Francisco and the Kreuzberg quarter in Berlin. The common denominator is the "discovery" of the neighborhood by the creative class, as author Richard Florida puts it in his book, "The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community And Everyday Life" (Basic Books , 2002 ). Building new shopping centers and employment hubs outside the cities isn't the way to attract the creative class - not only artists, but the likes of doctors, high-tech people, lawyers and journalists - to the cities. The way to do this is to invest in the old neighborhoods, and in unique commercial ventures, not more of the same-old chains.

Florida's theories are favorites among students of architecture, as we can see from the proliferation of theses on artists' quarters in cities. But Israel isn't anywhere near adopting his ideas, and in any case the neighborhoods that need renovation in Israel tend to be poor.

Furthermore, Israel's cities tend to prefer to hold onto available land for reserves, or for commerce. Business generates more city tax than residential use, says Rofeh. Menashiyeh, off Neve Tzedek, is a prime example of such priorities, he says.

Israel isn't unique: Adding more dwellings to an existing urban space isn't easy. Under the Labor government, England had an active policy of converting industrial space in the cities to residential, Rofeh notes. But don't think things are easy. To give one example of a barrier, when the lots are small, meeting present standards for provision of parking jacks up costs, and prices to buyers, enormously, he says.

In short, if the government wants the inner cities to be revitalized and redone, it can't sit about waiting for the private sector to do the work. "If the government gets involved, it would be easier for developers and the residents' mistrust would be mitigated," Rofeh says. "Right now, only the strongest companies can get into projects of this kind, and the residents suspect somebody's trying to make a dime off their back."