Legacy of the British Mandate: Jerusalem's Ugly Walls

As the housing crisis worsens and real-estate prices soar, pressure mounts to develop areas with steep inclines - despite the monstrous supporting walls this necessitates.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A supporting wall surrounding Jerusalem's Ramat Massua neighborhood, October 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In the 1930s, when British Mandate officials looked for suitable areas to develop in Jerusalem, they ruled out a large wadi south of the Old City. The depth made it a tricky place for construction.

Forty years later, after the Six-Day War, the Israeli government wanted to build new neighborhoods in the north and south of the city. It was part of the excitement after the annexation of East Jerusalem, and the planners didn't forget the wadi. In 1973 it became the neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv.

But in the opinion of many architects, the residents are paying the price of construction on steep slopes. Dozens of enormous supporting walls mar the landscape and cast a shadow on the streets. But they’re needed to keep the neighborhoods together; systems of stairs get people from one place to another.

Armon Hanatziv’s planners aren’t the first Jerusalem planners to take on the city’s hills. Supporting walls are part of the city’s architectural history; after all, the Western Wall was built to let the Temple Mount area expand. But the new walls, often of chiseled, light-colored stone, are sometimes more than 20 meters high.

Of course, Jerusalem still has key lowlands unafflicted by construction such as Sacher Park, the Valley of the Cross and Gazelle Valley. But after the annulling of the Safdie Plan to expand Jerusalem westward seven years ago, pressure mounted to develop land in the city — including in areas hitherto considered unsuitable for development.

Jerusalem's supporting walls are usually made of the chiseled stone that characterizes the rest of the city.Credit: Emil Salman

Now another neighborhood with supporting walls is being built — on the slopes of Ein Karem, an area that hosts branches of both Hadassah University Hospital and Hebrew University. Another neighborhood with supporting walls was recently approved — for the slopes of Gilo. Large walls have also gone up in Kiryat Menachem, Ramot and Kiryat Yovel as part of a housing project.

Since the days of the British Mandate, the idea has been to build on the hilltops, not in the valleys, which would remain open areas between neighborhoods.

“Historically, the first ones to build this way were the Arab villages, because they wanted to keep the valleys as farmland, and also because it was easier to protect homes on high ground,” says David Kroyanker, an Israeli architect and architectural historian. “But when you want to build dense, modern housing on slopes, the problem is how to deal with the inclines.”

Still, as the housing crisis has worsened and real-estate prices have soared, the pressure to develop areas with steep inclines has intensified.

This has led to the construction of the Nof Ein Karem neighborhood at the expense of a broad, green wadi with ancient agricultural terraces and buildings. Someone has scrawled “destruction” on signs that welcome visitors — a remnant of a protest two years ago against the building of the neighborhood.

In addition to the enormous supporting walls, the construction includes a wide street, itself a dramatic change in the area. Planners and activists say that here, too, the roads dictate the landscape.

“The roads must be built within a certain radius, and there’s an incline, so instead of adapting the road to the terrain, they adapt the terrain to the road,” says Ron Havilio, a head of the Ein Karem residents’ committee, which fought against the creation of the new neighborhood.

Don't forget the Green Line

Gilo’s slopes will also get supporting walls. A new neighborhood, with more than 800 housing units, is planned for the steep slopes over the Green Line to Gilo’s south. The construction plan was approved recently over protests by the Obama administration. Purchasing groups from the ultra-Orthodox community won most of the tenders.

The two new neighborhoods will join Armon Hanatziv and several other Jerusalem neighborhoods like Ramat Massua, Har Homa and Gilo that live in the shadow of supporting walls.

In some neighborhoods, the buildings are below street level and the entrances are on the other side of a suspension bridge. In other places, it’s impossible to leave a building without going up or down an outside staircase.

“The problem is that they don’t take into account the most important urban value — the street,” says architect Carlos Prus, the chairman of the Jerusalem branch of the country’s architects’ association. “The walls define the road, and the homes are on the other side. This makes the road into a conduit for cars, not a place where people live.”

The supporting walls also damage the view; in most cases, they’re the main thing that can be seen from afar. As Kroyanker puts it, “From a distance, Ramat Massua’s residential buildings look like small buildings above a fortress wall.”

Other supporting walls have expanded the Har Hamenuchot cemetery and changed the landscape at the entrance to the city. Other supporting walls are designed to camouflage the problem; for example, unchiseled stones or large boulders with vegetation planted all around.

Another problem is that the cost of developing slopes for construction is very high, raising the price of housing units to the point where some neighborhoods become reserves for the rich. Another problem is dust that plagues the area during construction.

“The supply of land in the city is running out,” says Israel Kimchi, an urban planner and a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. “We can build tens of thousands more housing units ... within the neighborhoods, but if we want to build massively — hundreds of housing units as the Housing Ministry wants — there isn’t enough land, so they use these slopes.”

Other solutions create other problems, such as fewer housing units in a lot and even worse accessibility to some units. Havilio says the main problems are lazy thinking and greed.

“Instead of finding a unique way for Jerusalem that would turn a disadvantage into an advantage, they flatten the lot and put up a building that could be in Holon or Petah Tikva,” Kimchi says, referring to two unspectacular Tel Aviv suburbs.

Kimchi expresses thoughts that border on heresy, especially in Jerusalem.

“The big question is whether Jerusalem needs to grow more, and how much it needs to grow,” he says. “We need to ask how much we want the city to grow, and whether everyone who was born in Jerusalem needs to live there. I think it’s already a big enough city with enough problems.”