Concentration of power to the point of bureaucratic tyranny and disregard for the environmental repercussions of building plans − that's the direction the government planning system is heading, via steps such as changing national master plans and creating new planning bodies. The goal is to create a system that swiftly approves residential projects, which should push down housing prices. Yet the environmental, social and economic toll may be too heavy.
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Over the past two years, the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of the Interior have been promoting a series of alterations to the Planning and Building Law. The picture is typically Israeli: an attempt to profoundly change the system in one fell swoop, while taking a number of emergency steps that are the outcome of short-term, impatient and intolerant thinking. All in order to cope with the pressure created by the housing crisis.
The latest invention, approved this week by the housing cabinet headed by the Finance Ministry, is the “committee for preferential housing planning.” This will be a committee with extensive powers, able to quickly approve large residential construction plans that can override national and district master plans without the possibility of appeal.
In addition, the Interior Ministry’s Planning Administration seeks to introduce changes to the national development master plan (TAMA 35) to allow construction on open territories at city margins. The aim is to undermine the conception on which the master plan is based, according to which construction in Israel should be distributed among several metropolitan hubs, including Haifa and Be’er Sheva. The Planning Administration would rather use the highly coveted territories in the central district, rezoning agricultural lands for residential construction. It believes it can thereby supply in a short time the land reserves needed for construction.
Will swift approval of construction plans really lower housing prices? The answer isn’t clear. It depends to a large extent on the speed with which the plans are implemented. Implementation is often delayed because government offices fail to complete the installation of infrastructure such as electricity, wastewater treatment and roads.
What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that the proposed changes strengthen destructive urban and environmental trends. The government is again replacing intelligent urban reinforcement ideas with construction in open territories. This weakens city centers and creates new neighborhoods that require a major investment in infrastructure and are usually cut off from high-quality public transportation, which in turn causes increased use of private vehicles and a further escalation of traffic volume and air pollution.
Nevertheless, despite the many destructive decisions made this week by the housing cabinet, one important decision may guide future policy makers in the right direction. The cabinet decided to back a Housing and Construction Ministry proposal to promote construction projects that contribute to urban renewal. In such projects, the apartment building is not evacuated, demolished and then rebuilt, as was done under the older format of building renewal endeavors (“Pinui-Binui”), rather new buildings are constructed on open spaces in existing neighborhoods. Some of the apartments will be designated to residents of the old buildings; after they move to their new homes, the old ones can be torn down and replaced by new buildings.
The initiative to fortify existing neighborhoods instead of building new ones is led by Merhav – the Movement for Israeli Urbanism and the Environmental Protection Ministry, which run a joint project called the Lab for Urban Empowerment. As part of the project, the Lab analyzed existing neighborhoods in urban areas and ways of strengthening them. The analysis revealed that in nine Israeli cities, 24,000 apartments can be constructed within a decade in existing neighborhoods; the estimate is that utilizing open spaces in all the other urban areas in Israel will enable building 400,000 housing units in total. Such construction will fulfill a large part of the demand for housing in the coming years, without urban sprawl into open territories, while restoring neighborhoods that over the years have been abandoned by stronger populations and their infrastructure has deteriorated.
As part of the Lab for Urban Empowerment, two neighborhoods were examined in depth, one in Bat Yam and the other in Tirat Carmel. The analysis revealed some of the chronic problems of neighborhoods built hastily in the 1950s and 1960s, including a lack of green spaces and poor access to city centers. The analysis also found that the two neighborhoods have many unused areas on which residential blocks can be built. The cost of construction will be lower than constructing buildings in new neighborhoods, because the urban infrastructures are already in place. It will be necessary, though, to update public transportation services, develop green areas and improve accessibility to city centers.
Urban empowerment is the main challenge on which government offices should focus. It will improve the chances of constructing housing at lower costs, strengthening cities such as Hadera, Kiryat Gat and Tirat Carmel, and make better use of Israel’s limited land resources.
The new planning committee should be tossed onto the heap of bureaucratic failures. It is better to reinforce the existing planning and building committees, and provide them with the resources and manpower needed for an efficient, in-depth analysis of building plans.
Utilizing open territories in existing neighborhoods will enable the construction of about 400,000 new apartments