Haifa, periphery
Haifa: The younger generation is leaving the city and its surrounding towns. Photo by Moran Ma’ayan
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If the best way to evaluate a master plan is to compare its objectives with the situation on the ground, then National Master Plan 35 clearly hasn't been a great success. Toting up its miserable results since going into force six years ago, it's easy to see that the plan has missed its population-dispersal goals by a huge margin. This raises grave questions on the plan's relevance and explains why housing prices have continued to climb.

"Making the desert bloom," a central ethos of the state's founding, is more than just an ideal: The country's planners remain determined to scatter the population throughout the country - at least on paper - but the government doesn't actually invest the effort or money to make it happen. After all the time and funds going into putting NMP 35 together, it's a wonder that no effort is being made to realize its goals.

NMP 35 represents Israel's up-to-date spatial planning policy. Among its objectives is reinforcing the periphery; and one way of doing this is by increasing the population of outlying cities. As a first step, the plan set population growth targets for the northern, Haifa and southern districts, and reduced population growth rates for the Tel Aviv and central districts.

The logic behind this maintains that population growth contributes to urban or district development, so population dispersal to peripheral areas should bring them in line with the center. Therefore, NMT 35 set lofty population targets for some districts and low population targets for others, to prevent unwanted migration.

It's a nice idea, but setting targets can only outline a goal, it can't get you there. The periphery needs to be a great deal more attractive to entice people to move there - or at least not to leave it.

Updating targets retroactively

With a planning policy but no execution policy, it's no wonder that NMP 35 hasn't had any effect whatsoever on dispersing the population and is far from achieving its goals. A follow-up report published in 2010 on its implementation shed some light on the gulf between the vision and reality. The report, having little choice, also updated the population targets to a more rational level.

Data from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics measuring the country's internal migration includes a surprising item about the Haifa district - a reversal in trend. While previous years saw negative migration, the district gained 1,200 inhabitants in 2010. But even though the exodus from the city has been stemmed, this is still a far cry from the mass migration anticipated by NMP 35, and might even reflect nothing more than a statistical aberration.

Here's the disparity: In 2007, the district, stretching from Acre to Hadera, numbered 871,000 inhabitants, 12% of the country's population. NMP 35 targeted 1.1 million inhabitants by 2020, a 12.6% share of the country's populace, but the report following the plan's implementation found that if current migration patterns continue, the district will have just 956,000 residents by then - 144,000 short of the goal. Even worse, only 10.7% of the country's population will live there - 1.3% less than in 2007.

The report consequently proposed revising the target to 1.02 million - 80,000 less than the original target, but still 64,000 more than projected from current trends. The change, however, constitutes a step towards acknowledging the harsh reality that the younger generation is abandoning Haifa and its satellite cities.

And another disparity: NMP 35 called for the northern district adding 570,000, by 2020, to its population of 1.22 million in 2007. The district, which currently plays homes to 17% of Israel's population, was meant to increase its share to 20%. But according to the existing trend, the district will only include 16.5% of the population by 2020 - just 1.48 million residents.

"There is a process of negative migration in the northern district, while the plan aimed at bringing about unreasonably high rates of positive migration," the report stated. "Attempts to achieve the original plan's targets appear unrealistic."

There are also disparities in the opposite direction, like the "unwanted" growth of the central district. If the goal was to disperse the population to the periphery, the implication is that it must be reduced in the center. But migration trends show that the central district is actually expected to hold almost 26% of the population in 2020 - a 2% increase from 2007, and in complete contradiction to NMP 35, which intended it to drop to about 20%. In pure numbers, the plan's aim doesn't seem to make sense: Just 50,000 more residents in 2020 than the 1.73 million housed in the district in 2007.

It would seem the government is counting on Israelis to read the plan and submit themselves to its objectives - because by its actions, or lack thereof, it is perpetuating existing trends.

A document written by Prof. Eran Feitelson and Orly Ein-Dar Naim and summarizing the positions of the Union of Local Authorities in Israel and the Forum 15 (15 cities independent from government funding ) reveals the government's impotence in implementing the plan.

The document shows that between the end of 1998 and mid-2009, price trends indicate a growing divergence between the center and the periphery. In the north, prices hardly changed - a mere 7% increase over a decade representing, in essence, a decrease in real terms. At the same time, they rose 55% in Tel Aviv, 43% in Jerusalem and 42% in suburban Tel Aviv. This occurred even though almost half of residential building starts between 1998 and 2008 - 47% to be precise - were in the central and Tel Aviv districts, which should have had the effect of increasing supply and reining in rising prices.

This isn't an economic real-estate analysis but simply an answer to the question of where people want to build their lives. There is a clear preference for living in metropolitan Tel Aviv over the periphery, and real estate prices are nothing more than a reflection of this preference. Through all the state's history, the governments of Israel have tried to scatter the population throughout the country - whether by housing new immigrants in the periphery or by stopping housing starts in the central region, as opposed to developing construction and extending benefits in the form of forgivable loans to homebuyers. Through the years, the government failed in its mission, putting into question the relevance of master plans and setting demographic targets.

Problem is crystal clear

Feitelson and Ein-Dar Naim reveal the main and amazingly simple factor causing migration from the outskirts to the center - employment. Every newly discharged soldier understands the need to make a living, but the state is either oblivious to this insight or simply ignores this basic necessity.

"In the past decade, heavy emphasis has been placed on the rail network, but the system centers around Tel Aviv," write Feitelson and Ein-Dar Naim. "So while improving relative access of Tel Aviv, the train system's significance in strengthening the periphery is debatable."

The solution, in their opinion, is reinforcing the periphery's employment structure. It was found, however, that some 54% of all construction for commerce and employment purposes between 1998 and 2008 was in Tel Aviv and the central district - 7 million square meters out of a total of 13.5 million. The investment was made by private developers but elucidates where investors see the country's future.

The "rebellious" Israelis refuse to cooperate with the national plan. The central region had the top positive internal migration balance in 2010, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics (2011 statistical yearbook for Israel ), a position it has maintained for the past 20 years.

Policy and vision pay no heed to market forces. Education, sources of employment and the ability to accumulate wealth, economic power and political influence aren't found in the periphery. The appeal of metro Tel Aviv and the center grows while the attractiveness of the periphery declines: The more the population - particularly its more established elements - migrates from the remote regions, the lower the power of the periphery sinks.

In her article, "Explanatory Factors for Disparities and Incompatibilities Concerning Population Objectives," Dr. Maya Choshen points to a figure that provides a plain and simple explanation for the difficulties of NMP 35 objectives: In 2007, the Tel Aviv and central districts, and the city of Ashdod, had already achieved 60% of their population targets, with some sub-districts even achieving 100% of their targets; but the north, south and Haifa districts reached less than a third of their targets.

"The migration process expresses the desires and aspirations of individuals and families," explains Choshen. "Metropolitan Tel Aviv is clearly Israel's economic engine. In addition to the economic opportunities it offers, it also bestows a certain status. Peripheral communities, in contrast, suffer from economic problems, a dearth of occupational opportunities, a low level of public services, a poor image and, to a large and varying extent over the past few years, rocket attacks and the like. For all these reasons, the periphery suffers from low drawing power and a high level of rejection by the population.

"Calling metropolitan Be'er Sheva a 'metropolis' isn't enough for it to amass power and become a population magnet," writes Choshen, adding that the gaps between the center and the periphery won't be closed by setting targets that, while reflecting national aspirations, are disconnected from the aspirations of individuals.

Recent years have seen northward and southward migration by residents of the center due to housing prices. But they are choosing the closest locations to the Tel Aviv core they can afford. This migration doesn't reflect any part of the NMP 35 goals.

The periphery isn't defined as constituting new neighborhoods in Rehovot, Petah Tikva or Netanya; the plan talks of population dispersal to much further reaches. But to truly promote the periphery, setting population targets isn't enough. Its development requires good quality jobs, excellent education and access to the center. In the meantime, we'll continue to see migration from the fringes inward.