The Master Plan for Building in Jerusalem? Preserve a Jewish Majority

The westward expansion, tall towers, addiction to cars and damage to open spaces are additional ways the capital is being marred, the city’s former urban planning chief tells Haaretz

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Ofer Greidinger, the former head of the Jerusalem municipality's Urban Planning Department, at Mount Herzl.
Ofer Greidinger, the former head of the Jerusalem municipality's Urban Planning Department, at Mount Herzl.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Arnon Gafni is an unknown figure in the history of Jerusalem. No street or square is named after him, not even a viaduct. But Gafni has influenced the lives of many a Jerusalemite, and not necessarily because he was the governor of the Bank of Israel in the late ‘70s.

To a great extent, Gafni was responsible for laying down a principle that helped shape the capital. In 1972, as chief of the Finance Ministry’s Budgets Department, Gafni headed an interministerial committee on Jerusalem’s desired growth rate. The main issue: a “Jewish majority.”

In other words, how could the city’s Jewish majority, then at 73.5 percent, be preserved and enlarged? The committee made one main recommendation to the government – accelerate construction for Jews – which Golda Meir’s cabinet adopted as the planning policy for the capital.

Many years later, the echoes of this decision are still reverberating. They were also felt by Ofer Greidinger, who recently stepped down as director of the municipality’s Urban Planning Department after a decade-long stint.

“I think an element that influenced Jerusalem’s planning process more than anything is the numerical ratio between Jews and Arabs,” he told Haaretz. “This consideration influences planning decisions even without being on the table publicly.”

A simulation of a high-rise construction plan for Jerusalem's Jaffa Road. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Greidinger talks about a “formula.” “There’s a relationship between the size of the populations, which creates heavy pressure that enters into considerations for approving many of the housing units in the west of the city,” he says.

The first part of the equation lies on the other side, in largely Arab East Jerusalem. It has clear characteristics: a non-migrating population with a natural growth rate that requires housing solutions in an area the government refuses to let expand. The result is crowded and chaotic neighborhoods, but pressure is also mounting to continue to expand the city’s boundaries, along with a rapid, major addition of housing in the west.

A recent example is the plan to build on Lavan Ridge, the subject of a constant struggle by environmentalists.

“The Safdie plan was born in this context,” Greidinger says about a plan to greatly expand Jerusalem to the west that was canceled in 2007. “Until we solve East Jerusalem’s problems, we won’t solve West Jerusalem’s problems. That’s not on the table publicly, but it can be gleaned from the internal discussions.”

Not like Paris

Greidinger, 59, held senior positions at the Israel Planning Administration before taking over at Jerusalem's Urban Planning Department. In his first interview he points to the hidden forces, failures and broad contexts of planning one of the world’s most complicated cities. Though the most urgent battleground is  expansion, and not just concerning the ratio between Jews and non-Jews.

The Holyland building complex in Jerusalem.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

There’s also the question: Why does Jerusalem’s footprint need to grow all the time? In other parts of the world many large cities get by without constantly enlarging their boundaries. Take Paris – its population is more than twice that of Jerusalem, but its area is smaller.

“Our [population] growth is much faster but we’ve never built with the density common in Europe. Paris has a far higher construction density than Jerusalem,” Greidinger says.

“The eastern part of the city is built non-densely because of inefficient planning. The ultra-Orthodox refuse to live on high floors and demand that their uniqueness be recognized. The neighborhoods built by the Housing Ministry over the years are also low-density. Even Har Homa, the last neighborhood built by the Housing Ministry, is low-density.”

The need for higher density was understood in the last decade. “We created a city that’s very hard to correct, and we need new housing, so pressure was created to expand the city outwards,” Greidinger says.

Jerusalem's Isawiyah neighborhood, where most dwellings have been built without construction permits and planning. Credit: Emil Salman

Meanwhile, environmental groups and various planners warn that expanding construction – for example to Lavan Ridge and the slopes of Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem – will accelerate the creation of a city of suburbs without a contiguous urban space. You won’t be able to get around without a car – and all this at the expense of rare green spaces.

Opponents of the current expansion trend propose something else: Increase population density through urban renewal. But this tearing down and rebuilding of neighborhoods is very complicated, Greidinger says, seeking to dampen enthusiasm for it. Even though Jerusalem is proud of its many urban renewal projects, they’re long-term affairs that can’t keep up with the city’s natural growth.

“Renewal takes many years because it’s always more complicated to plan inside the city than in an open space; considerable regulation is involved, as well as community and social work in evicting the occupants,” he says.

The difficulty lies not only in moving residents, albeit temporarily. A key obstacle to greater densification is transportation, particularly the dependence on cars. To turn Jerusalem into a city with smarter planning, Jerusalemites have to be induced to forgo their cars.

But that’s far tougher than destroying another green hill, certainly in a sprawling city where public transportation is inadequate. “We have to put on the table the city’s need to switch to efficient public transportation and forgo private cars in some places,” Greidinger says. “Not because we’re against families or people’s freedom to move from place to place, but to let the city function. If it relies on private vehicles it will grind to a halt.”

New construction in Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhood.Credit: Emil Salman

But there’s another obstacle here. “Public transportation can be built only in dense and efficient urban areas. Only in that environment is it possible to establish a rail line and an efficient bus network,” Greidinger says. It’s the old chicken-and-egg conundrum; in this case, density-and-train.

Getting high

In the ‘80s and ‘90s the construction of high-rises in Jerusalem was a burning issue; on one side, people argued that the landscape and skyline had to be preserved to save a major part of the city’s character.

“The argument over yes or no to tall buildings in Jerusalem was decided long ago, and Jerusalem is going up. There's no alternative to building towers,” Greidinger says.

So in recent years more tall buildings have indeed been built, not just the infamous Holyland project. Architects are designing dozens of towers of between 18 and 30 stories, some even higher.

Low-rise construction in Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, as desired by the ultra-Orthodox community.Credit: Emil Salman

The towers are presented as a solution to the need for expansion. But it’s far from a perfect solution, because these tall apartment buildings are usually cut off from the street, creating closed communities. Also, because of the need to maintain a sufficient distance between the buildings, the number of residential units per lot is similar to that in lower-rise construction.

“From the social aspect, the question is whether we’re fragmenting existing communities by building towers. A certain percentage of the population can’t afford the expenses of living in towers. What are the solutions for this group?” Greidinger asks, almost rhetorically.

“A tower also expresses preference for a certain population group, it differentiates between the affluent and non-affluent, between the general population and the ultra-Orthodox. The latter don’t move to towers. So anyone who approves high-rise construction integrates population preferences into that choice.”

Still, Greidinger believes that despite the victory of the high-rise advocates, caution is needed. “For example, a tower is planned near Mount Herzl, 40 to 50 stories,” he says. “It will overshadow both Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem.”

Another sensitive landscape includes three towers familiar to anyone who visits Jerusalem from the east. They’re the towers of the A-Tur church, Augusta Victoria Hospital and Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, which are visible dozens of kilometers away.

But they adorned the cityscape long before anyone thought about building high-rises, certainly not for housing. These icons might find themselves hidden by high-rise construction.

“We mustn’t forget the love we feel for the city and its tradition, or forget that tourists come to see Jerusalem and visit its symbolic sites,” Greidinger says. “We’re liable to saw off the branch we’re sitting on.”

Rigid ridgeline

Greidinger would rather saw off a sacred branch of Israeli planning: the division of territory between cities, regional councils and the agricultural sector: the kibbutzim and moshavim. This division seriously hinders many urban locales.

In the case of Jerusalem it takes a number of forms. Around and even inside the city there are four moshavim and one kibbutz. Different laws apply to them than to the rest of Jerusalem, giving rise to planning anomalies.

Moshav Ora at the top of Lavan Ridge in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

For example, two moshavim, Ora and Aminadav, are perched atop the ridge on the slopes where the Lavan Ridge neighborhood is to be built. Planning free of restrictions by the Israeli land regime would opt for a dense neighborhood atop the ridge, creating natural contiguity with the neighborhoods of Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menachem. But the two moshavim, with their very low construction density, are in the way.

Accordingly, a dense-neighborhood solution isn’t even under consideration. The moshavim and regional councils won’t let the moshavim be annexed to the city and subjected to dense urban construction.

“The land regime is creating extreme anomalies here,” Greidinger says. “In terms of pure planning, the Ora-Aminadav ridge could be used for urban construction, continuing Kiryat Menachem, but we need to build in a weird way, on the incline below Lavan Ridge. It’s called a ridge, but the ridge itself is taken, and the construction will take place on the slopes.”

Two problems arise from this state of affairs, Greidinger says. First, obviously, the land won’t be exploited efficiently. Second, families are  effectively encouraged to leave the city and the construction of private houses is bolstered. In the long run, that will aggravate the problem.

“Maybe in the Negev it’s still possible to consider other options, of small, low-density communities, but in the metropolitan areas a way needs to be found to exploit the land efficiently as possible,” he says. “I’m not, heaven forbid, against the kibbutzim and moshavim – I myself am from a kibbutz, but we have to be aware of the country’s needs in the coming decades …. We need a new kind of agreement between the burgeoning cities and their neighboring rural communities for efficient, joint planning.”

East Jerusalem's Isawiyah neighborhood.Credit: Emil Salman

To some, “efficient planning” and “Jerusalem” might sound like contradictory terms. The city lacks an updated master plan. The reason: Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai refused to sign off on a master plan because right-wingers persuaded him that it went too far in granting building options for the Arab community.

“The proximity of national politics to local politics is affecting planning procedures in Jerusalem. The Israeli government and the politicians can’t maintain Israeli sovereignty over all Jerusalem’s territories while not allocating all the resources,” Greidinger says.

“The result is a dissonance that’s very hard to accept. Either the eastern city is part of Jerusalem or it isn’t. If it’s an area under Israeli sovereignty, we have to let it subsist, expand and maintain an economy. You can’t say ‘it’s ours but we’re not allowing this.’”

Jerusalem's "three towers" seen when approaching from the east: the A-Tur church, Augusta Victoria Hospital and Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. Credit: Emil Salman

Against this backdrop, a flagship project that Greidinger takes pride in is the new master plan for Isawiyah, one of the grimmest East Jerusalem neighborhoods, where most dwellings were built without construction permits and planning. The new master plan, drawn up by architect Ari Cohen, provides an innovative model for addressing East Jerusalem’s planning and construction problems.

“The question is how to implement a statutory plan in such a chaotic locale,” he asks and immediately answers: “We realized that it’s impossible to create one plan for the whole neighborhood; what’s needed are plans that address every lot and building. We divided the neighborhood into dozens of small sectors, each with three or four buildings.

“The residents have to organize to submit a building plan and then be issued a construction permit in a rapid process. We’ve found nothing like this plan anywhere else in the country. If it works in Isawiyah, it will work in other neighborhoods.”