The Quality Revolution of Open Space

Study shows the open spaces in cities go unused because they're unpleasant. Solution: Allocate less land and invest more in it.

Next week the Israeli Association of Landscape Architects will be holding its annual convention in Herzliya. One of the issues on the agenda is planning and designing communal space in cities. The issue is especially important in Israel, given the high proportion of populace living in urban surroundings.

Planners and architects generally agree that in the cities, the allocation of open public land should be maximized, in per capita terms. The Housing and Construction Ministry even laid down a figure of 5 square meters of open space to be allocated per person in the cities. Yet at next week's conference, a paper will be presented arguing that what matters isn't how many meters of open space are allocated per person in the urban sphere, rather the quality of the open space.

Urban open space - Inbal Zarchin - October 2011
Inbal Zarchin

Dr. Yodan Rofe, an architect and urban planner, and an expert on desert research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, studied the quantity and quality of open land in various areas, and the use that residents make of this space, in collaboration with Inbal Zarchin and Gabriela Feirstein. The research was carried out between 2007 and 2010, covering six cities and towns and dozens of neighborhoods, including Be'er Sheva, Ashdod, Bat Yam and the towns Lehavim and Shoham.

They found that most residential neighborhoods have no lack of open space. What they lack is quality open space. Rofe also found that the quality of the open space in Israel's desert towns is inferior to that of towns along the coast. They also found that people prefer to stroll along the city streets rather than hang out in public gardens, which can seem detached from the bustle of urban life.

The planning guidelines in place today for allocation of public space create a uniformity that ignores the great diversity in the urban environment, Rofe argues. "It's impossible to distinguish central places in the city from its suburbs, hilly areas from flat ones. There is no distinction between different climatic regions" as far as open-space planning is concerned, Rofe claims.

While the Environmental Protection Ministry and green organizations demand even more allocation of open space in the cities, the fact that so much is allocated already leads to high-rise development, towers distant from one another, says Rofe.

The greens aren't impressed

The upshot is exactly the opposite of what the greens would theoretically like to achieve: Urban density gets reduced and therefore, urban sprawl spreads outward, eating up more and more land - mainly agriculture land and pockets of nature.

He believes the solution lies in limiting the allocation of open space, never passing 40% of the area undergoing planning. Moreover, as open space in the cities will be rarer, more re0sources can be devoted to the quality of the open spaces. "As a rule, public spaces should be developed as an entirety of streets, squares and gardens," says Rofe.

That works with the concept of streets as a social sphere, not merely a means for traffic to move. He feels much of the cities' budgets for gardening and "forestation" should be reallocated to planting trees along the streets, which should have two or even three times as many trees as they do now. "We call on landscape architects to lead this move and change the familiar thinking pattern regarding open public space, from quantity to quality," he says.

It must be said that environmental organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V'Din ) do not agree with Rofe. Today's urban environment suffers from a lack of open space, they say, even when compared with the guidelines handed down by the Housing Ministry. The concept of planning public space in the cities should be based on diversity of such spaces, and should include spaces set aside for the natural flora and fauna of the region, they say.

Rofe's views aren't the norm in the profession, claims landscape architect Leor Lovinger, who will also be speaking at the conference. The whole world is speaking about increasing open land in urban environments, and there are studies showing its economic advantages, Lovinger says.

"The approach of urban ecology in city planning, which has been gaining momentum everywhere, focuses on elements of landscape, their dynamism and continuity," Lovinger says. "The key elements are nature in the city and the importance of biodiversity, while remaining aware of technological processes. The landscape element in urbanism aspires to deflect the center of gravity of urban design from the building to the space and to the person, with the pedestrian at the center."

Possibly the dispute over how best to develop open space in the cities could be solved by a meeting of minds in the middle. That is what the city of Tel Aviv is trying to achieve. Deputy mayor Meital Lehavi has been working for months to promote a comprehensive urban plan of "green axes" that would connect various areas of the city. A green axis would consist, among other things, of the existing street infrastructure which would be expanded to include a bicycle lane, natural greenery and trees. The green axes would connect between existing parks and neighborhood gardens, creating a green network throughout the city.