Eco-logic / Urban Living in Israel Is on the Up, but the Picture Is Bleak

The urban lifestyle is on the upswing in Israel after years of neglect, but the picture is still bleak: The government is continuing to encourage low-rise construction in the suburbs.

Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat

For many years government ministries and national planning institutions neglected the cities in Israel. They allowed the building of shopping malls that weakened the cities' commercial centers, and supported the establishment of suburban communities that would encourage migration out of urban centers. They neglected veteran neighborhoods and preferred to build new neighborhoods with diffuse construction. They reduced investment in public transportation and left us with an abundance of new roads and the same old traffic jams.

The time has come to fight for strengthening urban life in Israel, because only cities that function well will enable a good quality of life and reduce the pressures to build in open areas.

This week the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel published its report “Land, City, Nature, Community – Toward a Sustainable Urbanism,” which is defined as a vision of the urban community. The report will be presented next week at a symposium organized by Life and Environment, the umbrella organization of Israeli environmental groups, for activists in advance of the municipal elections.

Sustainable urbanism is based mainly on high-density, quality housing mixed with commercial land use, public transportation, green spaces, energy savings and waste recycling. According to the figures quoted in the report, and examples brought from other sources, local urbanism is on the upswing after years of neglect.

Today there are more than 100 public parks in cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Tel Aviv has a network of bicycle paths in which NIS 100 million will be invested over the next five years, and bicycle renting stations to which the municipality is planning to add a car-rental scheme. In some cities there are plans to preserve urban nature sites and in Jerusalem, which suffered prolonged environmental neglect, a number of large parks are being built and the first light rail system is Israel is operational.

Despite these achievements, there is still backwardness in most areas and especially in the development of urban construction and public transportation. The first light rail line in the Greater Tel Aviv area will not be operational until 2020 at best, and attempts to set up traffic lanes exclusively for high-capacity buses have so far remained on paper.

Modi’in continues to be based on private vehicles and the city still encourages low-density construction, which means inefficient land use. In Jerusalem the municipality is facing a crucial test with regard to preserving the landscape and character of the Ein Kerem neighborhood, but the new report is too cautious in its criticism of the municipality’s plans.

In Be’er Sheva the bus system is inefficient and not accessible, and construction there continues to be diffuse and low-rise. The city center is becoming weaker. Only high-quality and high-density construction around it will make it possible to strengthen the city center.

In Haifa the reality is particularly complex in light of the fact that the state is acting to develop national infrastructure in the port area. The municipality is showing plans to develop the lower city and the port, but its level of commitment to these plans is not yet clear. It has, however, partially succeeded in advancing a number of plans for additional construction in established neighborhoods.

Some problems the municipalities cannot deal with on their own. It is hard to develop a variety of residential possibilities in Be’er Sheva in the absence of an economic incentive for construction companies to invest there. It is hard for a city like Tel Aviv to design a transportation policy if all the authority is in the hands of the Transportation Ministry.

In recent years the government has evinced willingness to invest in important projects like building parks in Nahal Be’er Sheva and Nahal Kishon, and rehabilitating the Yarkon River. It has also changed its waste management policy and for the first time is helping to establish systems for sorting and recycling waste.

But these measures are not enough for strengthening the cities. Without more rapid development of public transportation and the advancement of plans for public housing, it will be difficult to improve the quality of urban life in Israel and to suit residential conditions to the needs of a variety of social and economic strata.

In the wake of the population growth and the crisis in the housing market, strengthening the cities will become an even more complex planning problem. In the center of the country there are plans to build “mini-cities” on large tracts of land that the army and the military industries are slated to evacuate in Ramat Hasharon and the Sirkin and Tzrifin bases. These urban areas are liable to increase even further the burden on transportation and weaken the city centers.

The current trend in the national planning system is not encouraging. The Planning Administration at the Interior Ministry is working on developing new ways to expand the cities instead of making the construction denser, and is encouraging construction plans in suburban communities. It declares its desire to strengthen the urban centers, but under government pressure to increase the supply of housing units, which is supposed to bring down prices, prefers developing more agricultural areas outside the cities instead of utilizing the land reserves within the urban areas themselves.

Perhaps an effective coalition of environmental organizations and mayors will be able to block this trend. The result should be that in urban areas where the construction is dense but of high quality, it will be convenient to walk or ride bikes to reach vibrant, active commercial and cultural centers quickly and easily. Anyone who tires of all that will be able to rest in a modest park on the banks of the Yarkon or Kishon rivers, or take a leisurely stroll along the beach.

Building up: High-density construction, rather than expanding into adjacent rural spaces, can help rejuvenate cities like Tel AvivCredit: Tal Cohen

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