One of the main claims government bodies and planning authorities make against the Arab towns is that they are prone to uncontrolled spread. In the absence of proper planning, this spread is a waste of land, they claim. Now a recent study completed at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa shows that over the last decade, the trend in Arab towns has actually been changing: In most, construction has become more dense, and on smaller plots of land.

Find out what the future holds. Get Haaretz English Edition delivered to your door every morning. Click here to subscribe.

Amnon Frenkel, a professor in the architecture and town planning department at the Technion, and Amin Sahly, city architect in the Galilee town of Tamra, worked together on a paper entitled "Urban Sprawl in Israeli Arab Towns and its Causes." Their research analyzes creeping construction that spills over onto previously unused lands. Such uncontrolled building is considered a waste and is also the chief culprit behind the disappearance of natural areas in Israel.

What do you think of the Israel 2021initiative? Visit Haaretz.com on Facebook and share your thoughts!

Arab towns don't have suburbs in the Western sense of the word - or as Jewish towns do. The Arab locales have "historical built-up area patterns" but as time has gone on, they expanded beyond their traditional core, making use of available open space.

The has trend accelerated as the populations grew and the people abandoned farming as a way of life. Space once used for agricultural purposes was converted to serve other, commercial uses.

Frenkel and Sahly studied construction trends in 57 Arab and Druze cities and towns from 1995 to 2006 - about half the number of such locales in the country, encompassing 70% of the Israeli Arab population. Their study included Nazareth, Tamra, Umm al-Fahm and Baka al-Garbiyeh. The two prepared an "urban sprawl" index based on a number of construction parameters, including the number of new buildings added, and the manner and physical area of the spread.

"The employment of different indices (density, leapfrog, shape, and fractal ) enabled the intensity sprawl in each of the settlements to be measured and ranked along a comparative scale, from very compact to the highly sprawled," the two explain in their abstract.

During the period they studied, the number of towns defined as compactly constructed increased significantly. "Among other important findings ... a significant rise in the number of Arab settlements that became compact during the period investigated: from 9 settlements in 1995 up to 31 settlements in 2006," they wrote.

In short, at the start of the period they examined, the crowding in 22 towns increased. In some of them, the spreading continued, but all in all the "sprawl intensity" index diminished by practically half during that decade.

The number of people living in relatively "compact" towns increase from 15.8% of the Arab population at the start of the period, to 57%, said the researchers. Among the towns where sprawl continues are Isfiya and Bosmat Tivon, outside Haifa and Yanuh Jat in the Galilee.

Unique features

This new trend of more dense construction or compactness features prominently in the bigger Arab and Druze cities and towns, where the supply of privately owned land for development has pretty much run out, forcing the residents to build in the spaces in between existing structures. Furthermore, instead of building family homes outward, people are moving into multiple-story apartment buildings.

Part of the phenomenon can be credited to social change. As Israeli Arab society modernizes, children want to leave the parental home. They want space of their own. Theoretically that could lead to greater sprawl in the villages. But these newly independent young seem happy to build on privately owned land, or property owned by the state where compact construction and efficient planning are the order of the day.

In contrast to claims by certain government officials, Frenkel and Sahly say the Arab and Druze towns generally do not encroach on state-owned land beyond their boundaries: Their spread has been legal, on land within the municipal jurisdiction. They also suggest that government policy relating to land slated for development in Arab towns apparently contributed to the trend of greater density.

The findings attest to the fact that, over time, Arab towns have come to be characterized by compact development, Frenkel and Sahly conclude. Yet policy makers and the planning authorities still perceive the Arab towns as encroaching on state land; they are perceived as spreading uncontrollably.

In light of their conclusions, the two urge that the government more accurately assess the number of dwelling units per area in these locales. They also suggest that the government assess the supply of private land that hasn't been developed yet, to enable better planning for these towns in the future.