Which City Will Be the Next Tel Aviv?

With Israel’s population density set to surge, Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva might divert demand from the center, or smaller towns from Nahariya to Dimona could fill the gap

Yael Darel
Yael Darel
War planes fly over Israel's coast as the country celebrates Independence Day, in 2019.
War planes fly over Israel's coast as the country celebrates Independence Day, in 2019.Credit: Sivan Farag
Yael Darel
Yael Darel

In 1927, when construction began on the 1,400-meter-long George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River, connecting Manhattan and New Jersey, traffic on American streets was still very sparse and the automotive industry was still in its infancy. All the same, the plans included six lanes and a lower deck – completed in 1962 – doubling the number of the bridge’s lanes.

We can probably assume that when the first deck was opened to traffic in 1931, not one of the builders or planners could imagine that in 2016, eight and a half decades later, 103 million vehicles would cross that great span over the Hudson.

“The George Washington Bridge is a typical example of a project where the planning included a vision of vehicular traffic that was nonexistent at the time. It’s an example of thoughtfulness and looking decades ahead, which is the most significant element in planning,” says Haim Feiglin, the owner and CEO of the construction company Zemach Hammerman.

“The problem is that we don’t have that here. People view Israel as a temporary project, with planning done on a tactical basis, not a strategic one. Politicians don’t understand that planning is our most burning strategic issue, more than the Iranian nuclear project, more than natural gas,” says Feiglin, also the head of the Haifa district of the Israel Builders Association.

Haim Feiglin.Credit: David Bachar

“In the country’s centennial year, 18 million people will be living here, and in terms of the real estate market, we’re already there. In other words, the people who will be living here in 2048 have already been born; they’re today’s schoolchildren. That’s the current situation, but there’s no planning ahead.”

In recent years, Feiglin has become a Cassandra decrying the neglect of strategic planning; he’s a key critic of Israel’s urban planning and preparations for the challenges of increased population density.

“You have to understand that we real estate developers are currently building projects we initiated 25 years ago,” he says. “In the greater Tel Aviv area and elsewhere there are projects that were planned in the 1990s. In Israel, it takes decades to execute such projects.”

Feiglin was speaking days after cabinet members presented measures to increase Israel’s home supply while trimming bureaucracy and removing real estate investors from the market.

“I look at the steps ministers Avigdor Lieberman, Zeev Elkin and Ayelet Shaked are planning and say, ‘Okay, these are good steps,’ except for the purchase tax on investors, which we oppose. But the bottom line is that these are only tactical moves; the planning and the politics are shortsighted,” Feiglin says.

“Over 120 years of Zionism, only 5 percent of state land has been developed, and we see the results. We have one ‘state’ in the greater Tel Aviv area, a rich one but with many transportation and economic problems because of overcrowding. Then we have the outlying ‘states’ in the north and south that are much weaker – appendages that provide no urban alternative to the center, where young people stream to.”

Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It gets worse

The overcrowding Feiglin is talking about isn’t some vague forecast. In recent years the Israel Planning Administration and the National Economic Council have been drawing up a strategic plan to prepare the country’s housing, employment and infrastructure for the year 2040. The planners assume that by then Israel will need another 1.5 million homes as the population grows. According to the Planning Administration, Israel ranks 33rd in the world in population density, with 392 people per square kilometer (0.4 square miles), compared with 119 for France, 367 for the Philippines and 382 for Belgium.

Israel has high immigration rates and birthrates; since the establishment of the state, population density has risen nine-fold, with forecasts verging on the apocalyptic. At a conference two years ago, Israeli futurist David Passig predicted that by the centennial in 2048, Israel’s population density will have doubled, reaching 1,200 people per square kilometer by the end of the century.

More than 90 percent of Israelis live in urban areas, with 48 percent of Jewish Israelis living in the center of the country. The issue is whether the government is preparing alternatives. Will three other metropolitan areas – Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva – undergo the necessary development to divert demand from Tel Aviv, or will it need to happen somewhere else?

Be’er Sheva, in the south of Israel.

These questions were echoed in a strategic housing plan where officials admitted that the envisioned population dispersal, as set down in a plan called Tama 35, was baseless – more than half a million people had chosen to live in the center of the country, contrary to the plan’s goals.

Tama 35 called to shift the population toward peripheral areas, a goal that turned out to be unrealistic, say Ofer Raz-Dror and Noam Kost, the authors of the plan. To divert masses of people from the current demand trend, you need a huge investment in areas such as transportation, health, education and culture. The government is unlikely to be able to achieve population dispersal by greatly increasing job opportunities, they noted.

Prof. Shamay Assif, who once headed the Planning Administration, admits that plans haven’t met their goals but says there’s no need to create new metropolitan areas.

Prof. Shamay Assif.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“All the plans, from Tama 35 to the strategic housing plan, have earmarked the north and the Negev as metropolitan areas, but what’s a metropolis? Looking only at Haifa and Be’er Sheva is a mistake. A metropolis is an entire space, so when I refer to Haifa I mean the entire area including its suburbs. Are these areas, which all governments have declared to be in need of development, being developed at the right pace? They aren’t, but I think we’re at a point where a revolution is possible,” he says.

“The reason is that Israel’s space is about to undergo great changes due to the country’s great economic growth, climate change and population growth. Such massive development won’t be possible only by developing the north and the Negev, which will have to grow more than the center. There’s no chance that Tel Aviv will double its population; the aim is to limit its growth to 50 percent. If we have to double built-up areas in the country, the Negev and the north will have to become 250 percent denser.”

Gaps not decreed by fate

The difficulties in diverting people from the center, with its abundance of job opportunities and services, can be seen in housing prices. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, two years ago the gap between the price of an average apartment in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was 46 percent; now it’s 76 percent. With Haifa, this disparity has grown from 140 percent to 200 percent. It’s even worse in Be’er Sheva, where an average apartment costs 1.08 million shekels ($347,000), compared with 4.28 million shekels in Tel Aviv.

Then there are job opportunities; the utilization of areas designated for employment is smaller the further you go from Tel Aviv. While crafting the strategic plan for employment, the Planning Administration found that in Tel Aviv, 70 percent of such areas were being utilized. In Haifa and the south the numbers were 50 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

Assif, the former head of the Planning Administration, is a key player in the Israel 100 initiative spearheaded by academic institutions and local governments.

“The claim that Israel has only one magnet, Tel Aviv, is unsupported by history. Before the state was born, Haifa was the capital of the British Empire, and in the first few years it was stronger than Tel Aviv-Jaffa. This isn’t something that can’t be changed or a decree of fate. Things could still change, with crises or changes taking place,” says Assif, who was also Tel Aviv’s city engineer from 1984 to 1994.

Be’er Sheva, in the south of Israel.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“From a national perspective, it’s wrong to rely exclusively on Tel Aviv. If Israel wants to remain here for many years, or forever, it needs alternatives. In terms of housing prices there’s currently a bell curve, with Tel Aviv and its prestigious high-rise towers at the top and a huge gap in land prices compared to the Negev or the Galilee. But this curve can be flattened by investing the right resources in the northern and southern metropolitan areas.”

People at the Planning Administration largely agree with Assif; they don’t think there’s a need for new centers, just bolstering existing centers and creating secondary ones.

“A metropolis is a center of gravity with a critical mass of population that drives the economy, growth, culture, leisure activities, science and health services. So before asking where you need another center like this, you should ask whether a country of 9 million people can sustain another metropolis. Apparently it can’t,” says Hagit Zehavi, a senior adviser to the Planning Administration on urban affairs and population density.

“I assume that the metropolitan centers of Be’er Sheva, Haifa and Jerusalem will grow when it gets denser here, since economic power stems from the number of people living in each square kilometer. Planning is important, but a mall or commercial space in a residential area will remain empty if there aren’t enough people around.”

As Zehavi puts it, without a thriving urban life, no wonder Be’er Sheva and Haifa are limping along and sufferring from population loss, particularly young people moving out.

“It’s true that Be’er Sheva isn’t there yet, it’s in a transition period, and it’s true that in Israel, maybe influenced by American culture, the peak of many people’s ambitions is to live in a private house. Be’er Sheva still offers this. It has ambitions to expand outward, but obviously there’s a dissonance here. Ultimately, more than 90 percent of Israel’s population is urban and only people on the margins lead a rural, agriculture-based lifestyle,” she says.

A drone shot of Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“But in Haifa, the situation is different. It has all the options, but it’s advancing slowly. Its suburbs are undergoing immense development, and it seems these towns will push Haifa forward as the area undergoes massive urban renewal and attracts huge numbers of people in the coming years.”

Vital open spaces

Meanwhile, the Tel Aviv light rail – whose construction is well underway – and the planned subway system will mainly serve people in central Israel. Zehavi notes that the national plan relies mainly on smaller urban centers that will double or triple their populations in the coming years. These include Kiryat Gat, Ashdod, Hadera, Netanya, Nahariya, Dimona, Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth. But this planning is often guided by political considerations, serving local goals in the absence of a cogent national plan.

Kiryat Gat, for example, signed an agreement with the state but has been fiercely battling to obtain funds for development. The city was classified as a new metropolitan area that would serve the ultra-Orthodox community, tripling its population by 2035. But this plan was suspended with the changeover in interior ministers. The final agreement may be signed soon, but the whole process reflects the lack of a national vision.

Then there are the needs of the Arab community, where significant resources have been devoted to planning, including addressing ownership issues and building new multistory buildings. But these are small-scale efforts. A new city that could be an alternative for younger Arabs hasn’t been on the books since the state was established.

Political considerations also dictate the allocation of land to small and often isolated communities, contrary to the Planning Administration’s vision and environmental planning principles. The current interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, is spearheading these efforts.

“From a planning or environmental perspective, there is no need for new communities,” Zehavi says. “We also need open spaces. Our ecological diversity is at risk and we have to protect it. The Planning Administration’s guiding principle is to increase population density, but if politicians want new communities, these political considerations aren’t our business.”

Assif says that smaller new communities aren’t a problem and that a northern or southern metropolis could benefit from such satellite communities. But towns near Be’er Sheva like Omer and Lehavim have significantly weakened the urban center, attracting wealthier people away from the city. Feiglin says politicians are still clinging to an outdated Zionist concept in which seizing land is the key element. “That’s an outdated concept that no longer suits Zionism or strengthens the country,” he says.

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