A One City Kind of State

What gives Tel Aviv an urban vibe that Jerusalem and Petah Tikva can only dream of?

The students and youth camping out in central Tel Aviv for the right to live there affordably certainly aren't drawn to the city by its sultry summer weather, but by a different kind of atmosphere. So what is the urban feel that has become so important to these demonstrators that leaving the city is viewed as heresy?

"That's the million-dollar question for planners. Urbanism is illusory. There are definitions from geographers that are based on identification of economic power and concentration of population, but they don't really define the substance of a city," said Rachel Kallus of the architecture and town planning department at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. "Creating urban character requires a heterogeneous and anonymous intensity and also an approach that promotes initiative - not only economic but also cultural and social."

South Tel Aviv - Tali Mayer - July 2011
Tali Mayer

The intensity that Kallus speaks of is the product of random interaction between people, said Hillel Schocken, owner of Schocken Architects and the brother of this newspaper's publisher. "A successful urban character enables as much unplanned interaction as possible. The condition for a lot of interaction is the size of the population compared to the area available to it. A minimum density is required below which significant urban life doesn't exist."

That provides a chance for success, but not a guarantee of it. Cities like Jerusalem, Be'er Sheva and Haifa would appear to provide the necessary conditions. They are large enough, but they don't have the same urban character Tel Aviv does.

Schocken believes the root of the problem lies in modern urban planning theories.

"Cities in Israel were planned in accordance with Le Corbusier's theories, which among other things were designed to serve the modernist mode of transportation, the automobile," he said. "In these cities, they proposed replacing the streets with continuous parks with towers in them, an approach that doesn't create a city."

The young people camping out on Rothschild Blvd. in Tel Aviv could live in Rishon Letzion or Binyamina and come to the center every day, but to live and enjoy a city and a genuine urban experience, it would seem they have no option other than Tel Aviv.

Too small for two cities

Even from when it began, Tel Aviv was compared to New York, according to Prof. Zeev Druckman, the head of the master's program in urban design at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. "Tel Aviv was free of historical or ideological questions and its proponents were mainly preoccupied with creating a city that would belong to the civilian sector."

Igal Charney, of the Geography and Environmental Studies department at the University of Haifa, notes that Israel is a small country, making it difficult for an alternative to Tel Aviv to develop.

"Tel Aviv has positioned itself as the primary city, with cultural and financial institutions. Distances in Israel don't justify the existence of several central cities."

According to the head of the Contemporary Urban Design Laboratory at Tel Aviv University, Tali Hatuka, the problem lies in the non-urban design of new neighborhoods in Israel's cities, which are planned as high density and are designed for families. The plans create static urban space rather than dynamic surroundings, she said. Northern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, she noted, are planned in that problematic manner.

She cited the Neot Ashalim neighborhood of Rishon Letzion as another example: "There are almost no people on the street and the whole neighborhood is built around the park. The whole city is comprised of various bubbles within Rishon Letzion."

Her insights are based on a survey her laboratory is conducting around the country aimed at building a neighborhood planning model that creates urban character. Hatuka thinks the young people's demonstrations on Rothschild Blvd. are ridiculous because they are in protest at the cost of housing in the center of Tel Aviv, while they can simply move to south Tel Aviv, which has much cheaper housing.

"All the young people seeking urban character are invited to Chlenov and Neveh Sha'anan [near the Tel Aviv central bus station], which are super-urban areas," she said. "I would be happy to see all these young people also living in other areas. Bat Yam, for example, is an urban area where initiatives are being made to create urban character and [the city] is an excellent alternative. You don't need to lower prices in the center of the city. Instead you need to create alternatives on the outskirts of the city."

Putting urbs in the burbs

Not everybody agrees the suburbs are a solution.

"Bat Yam is on the upswing not only with respect to prices," Kallus said. "It's also starting to happen in Givatayim, but you have to remember that there is a major problem with access. ... If you have to transfer three buses, it's a problem."

Druckman has a hard time seeing Petah Tikva or Givatayim as alternatives to Tel Aviv. "In Tel Aviv, there is a mix of uses everywhere. By contrast, Petah Tikva is one-dimensional, like Givatayim, Ramat Gan and Herzliya. They are places where people just live. In Tel Aviv, the combination of residential buildings, shops and places of entertainment provides options and create a multi-faceted place that is alive and attractive."

Thinking outside the center

Haifa is another city that should have bustling urbanism on paper. City leaders have for years lamented that Haifa was being ignored, accusing the media of focusing on the State of Tel Aviv. One cannot ignore the fact, however, that despite its size, Haifa is not an urban substitute for Tel Aviv.

In recent years, Haifa has been investing in plans in the port area, in Bat-Galim and in the Hadar neighborhoods, but this hasn't reversed the trend. "You ask what the problem is with Haifa? The answer is Tel Aviv," Charney says with a smile. "Haifa is less than 100 kilometers from Tel Aviv and it's hard to transform it into an alternative inasmuch as it's possible to go to a good show in an hour's journey [to Tel Aviv]."

Kallus believes Haifa's hilly topography plays a major part in its failure to become an urban setting. "It's very difficult to create urban character in an extreme environment from a geographic standpoint. Wandering around is part of the urban experience, and Haifa is a complicated place to wander. Wandering around can lead to discovery, getting to know a place and chance encounters."

Nonetheless, Kallus believes the initial signs of urban development are visible in Haifa, particularly in the lower town, in Bat-Galim and Hadar, which may soon sprout interesting urban spaces.

"You have to remember that the process of revitalizing a neighborhood takes years," she said. "There is a successful urban fabric in these areas. They are close to the sea and the train - and the trickle effect of Tel Aviv can also reach them."

For years Jerusalem's downtown was a bustling urban space, but as of late it began to die. Unlike Haifa and Be'er Sheva, Jerusalem can't complain about neglect when it comes to getting attention.

In the last two years, it has begun to come alive, but that has centered on the Mahane Yehuda market, and anyone who wanders around the old downtown area will find a setting that is not particularly attractive. "Jerusalem is a city of conflict, that is divided by the seam line [the 1967 border], which does make it interesting, but constantly interrupts the urban continuity," said Druckman. "For a young person who wants to go about life freely in the city, Jerusalem creates visible and hidden borders. Jerusalem is not a place that belongs to its residents, and every planning question becomes an almost existential question."

Schocken says Jerusalem's Mandate-era past lend its central city character, but it is beset by other problems. "One of them is the political-diplomatic ill and the second is the result of injustices in planning since the Six-Day War. To conquer the territory, neighborhoods that were distant from the central city were built, and therefore the downtown was emptied out of its residential buildings," he said.

Be'er Sheva, as the capital of the Negev, is an urban center for a wide swath of land. Be'er Sheva has always been fertile ground for architectural experiments, and leading Israeli architects, such as Avraham Yaski, Amnon Alexandroni, Zeev Rechter, Ram Carmi and others planned and built there.

But in Druckman's opinion, senior Israeli architects' use of Be'er Sheva as a playground damaged the city.

"Be'er Sheva was planned by the establishment. It didn't develop naturally. Other than the Turkish area in the old center of the city, there isn't even one street that you can wander around, just main roads with buildings next to them. Even the university is self-contained, and doesn't contribute to urban life."