Plan Would Cut Green Spaces Around Israeli Cities

Change to National Master Plan would allow for approval of more than a million new housing units in next 15 years. Critics say it is unnecessary, won’t help outlying areas.

Nimrod Glickman

Cities built more densely to save open spaces, based on public transportation and surrounded by agricultural areas acting as green lungs – that was the vision of the National Master Plan (Tama 35), which determines where construction can take place in Israel. That’s also the reason why, about a decade ago, areas were marked as “urban fabric,” whose boundaries limited the spread of construction and ensured protection of open spaces.

This vision could be shelved forever, though, when the National Planning and Building Council holds its monthly meeting tomorrow and the Interior Ministry’s Planning Administration presents its proposal to rezone for construction open spaces outside urban areas.

According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, in addition to harming a great deal of open space, the proposal will lead to uncertainty in the construction market and increase building in the center of the country instead of outlying areas.

The Planning Administration’s proposal was formulated after discussions with government ministries, planning groups and environmental groups, to calculate housing needs until 2030. Based on the results of these calculations, expansion of construction into open spaces would be allowed on between 4 and 10 percent of the urban space.

This would mean construction on another 150,000 dunams (37,000 acres), and allow for approval of more than a million housing units in the coming 15 years.

The Housing and Construction Ministry, the Israel Land Authority and the Planning Administration have based their calculation on, among other things, the claim that various exigencies in the cities made it impossible to build as densely as planned – including protecting natural sites, infrastructure facilities next to which housing is not permitted, and space held by the military. As an example the Housing Ministry cited the northern city of Harish, where many units can theoretically be built, but not in actuality because of an adjacent quarry and forest.

The Environmental Protection Ministry counters that the Planning Administration’s proposal does not take various factors into account – for example, processes that could take place over the next 15 years, such as urban renewal – that will augment the reservoir of available housing within cities.

According to experts in the environment ministry, approving the Planning Administration’s proposal will lead to construction mainly in the center of the country, where demand is high. This will come at the expense of investment in the development of outlying areas.

The environment ministry believes there should be some flexibility in terms of expansion of the urban fabric, but only in specific places as per need.

A position paper prepared by the Union of Local Authorities in Israel, ahead of tomorrow’s discussion, highlights what it sees as the negative implications for the real estate market of the further expansion of cities into open spaces.

“Allowing the possibility for expansion, without specifying the precise location or determining a system for monitoring the expansion, will lead to competition among developers – and sometimes between local authorities – to take possession of land on which they can easily expand. The purpose of taking possession of this land would be to keep options open, and not necessarily reflect an actual intention to develop,” the paper states.

The Housing Ministry claims that the National Master Plan did not allow sufficient flexibility in construction within the urban fabrics, and that at least 2.5 times the housing units must be planned and approved than are to actually be built, because of the low percentage of units that are actually being built.

'Absurd' proposal

But according to Prof. Eran Feitelson of the Hebrew University’s Geography Department, the Planning Administration’s proposal is “absurd and based on a manipulation of numbers.” This is particularly prominent, he says, when “they want to plan a million housing units for a population of 8.5 million people.

“On the one hand, they say there is an immediate crisis. And on the other, they set a goal like this for a period of 15 years and play with numbers, like the housing that can actually be built. If they want to find solutions now, it has to be done on a point by point basis, where needed,” Feitelson said.

The Housing Ministry’s position is also based on a report prepared by the former head of the ministry’s urban planning branch, Sophia Eldor. “The proof of the failure of their position on urban fabric as providers of land for urban development is that, during the past decade since approval of the plan, no project in their city limits was approved,” Eldor stated in her report.

According to Eldor, the assumption that lands in cities can be utilized by 2030 is “fundamentally wrong.” She gives the example of the Housing Ministry’s plan from two decades ago, which included a list of lands slated for construction in the center of the country. Since that time, only 20 percent of this land has been built on.

The Housing Ministry also argues that not building in the center of the country is not the way to strengthen the outlying areas. In presenting its position to the council a few months ago, it claimed that the lack of housing in the center of the country is a leading cause of rising housing prices and did not encourage people to move to outlying areas.

Eli Ben-Ari, from the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, says it is unclear why the Planning Administration is promoting the proposal, “especially after the district planners have checked and found enough reserves for the coming years. We think everything possible must be done to stop this initiative.”

Feitelson believes the proposal is connected to another goal of government ministries in planning and construction. “It is not at all to find a current solution to the housing crisis, but to give the planning committees free rein to plan housing,” Feitelson said. “The Knesset recently approved the establishment of a committee to expedite planning. The only obstacle was the National Master Plan, whose rules outweigh those of the council. If the master plan is made more flexible, so will the committee’s ability to find land for construction.”