Every Israeli Wants a House With a Garden, but Where's the Land Going to Come From?

Low-rise living is all the rage. but the Environmental Protection Ministry prefers higher-density urban construction, particularly buildings of eight to 12 stories.

Highrises surrounded by single-family construction in the central town of Rishon Lezion.
Ofer Vaknin

Twenty-three percent of the population in the high-demand Tel Aviv and central districts live on 61 percent of the residential land due to the proliferation of one- and two-family homes in those areas, according to new research published yesterday by the Environmental Protection Ministry. The study was based on data collected by the Central Bureau of Statistics and Survey of Israel.

Of the 796,000 residential structures in Israel proper (not including the settlements) 47 percent are low-rise, defined by the ministry as any structure up to seven meters high and whose roof space is 200 square meters. Generally, such structures house only one or two families.

Moreover, during the past 20 years, low-rise homes have constituted 70 percent of the total construction.

In terms of housing units, a third of the housing units built during the past two decades have been in low-rise structures. In urban areas, one of every four homes was in a low-rise building. Only in the past three years has the trend begun to slow.

Conversely, there has also been a clear increase in the construction of huge residential towers; in 2011-2014 around a fifth of new housing units were in buildings of 50 or more apartments.

Low-rise construction uses more land per person and is thus considered wasteful in countries with limited land reserves. The Environment Ministry’s analysis shows that over the past 20 years, new buildings with one or two housing units were built on 172,000 dunams of land, while buildings with three to 49 units occupy a total of 77,000 dunams.

Measuring land use per housing unit, a home in a low-rise building takes up five times as much land as denser construction. From a population perspective, a third of Israel’s population occupies 70 percent of the country’s built-up areas.

Planning experts say that the low-rise construction trend reflects Israelis’ preference for a house with a garden over an apartment. However, it should be noted that the ministry’s statistics include Arab communities, where there has always been a preference for low-rise construction due to the tradition of living with extended family. Moreover, much of the land in those communities is privately owned, which prevents the construction of neighborhoods of apartment buildings.

Over the past year, there has been a marked increase in the construction of low-rise homes in outlying areas. The special committees for the approval of building plans set up by the government have approved the construction of thousands of such homes in cities like Ofakim and Be’er Sheva. City engineers in outlying cities support such plans, arguing that they are the only way to draw stronger populations away from the center of the country.

The Environment Ministry refrained from interpreting the trend of low-rise construction in yesterday’s report. However, its consistent position in the planning committees is that such construction should be reduced in favor of higher-density urban construction, particularly of buildings eight to 12 stories high, whose maintenance costs will not pose a burden for residents and which can be erected close to buildings of similar density. In contrast, buildings of more than 50 units require large plots of land set apart from other structures.

The ministry warns, however, that even high-density construction must be planned carefully, taking local conditions into account. As an example of bad planning, the ministry cited a neighborhood in Modiin in which a high-rise building was built that blocks the sun from the solar collectors of the adjacent low-rise buildings.