What Overcrowded Cities Around the World Can Learn From Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox

Men opposed sidewalk benches as gateways to forbidden relationships, while women them so they could sit down while watching the kids. In the end, a compromise was found

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood.
Daniel Bar On / Gini

In the history of planning public space in cities, the bench deserves a place of honor. What is a bench but a piece of furniture that everyone wants to have on hand when they’re walking around, but nobody wants under their window, because of homeless people or just loud conversations. In the ultra-Orthodox areas of Jerusalem, the conflict took a bizarre gender twist: The women asked the city to add more benches, while the men insisted that the existing ones be removed.

Kuti Gilad, who planned the neighborhoods of Bukhara and Geula in Jerusalem, explains: “A street bench increases the chances of a relationship being created between strangers sitting side by side or, heaven forbid, if a woman and man sit together. That isn’t done in ultra-Orthodox circles, Gilad explains, and hence the men’s opposition. But the women watching their children outside need a place to sit.

The solution was narrow benches with space for only one adult, satisfying modesty requirements. Such benches were abundantly dispersed and now the women can relax on them, if necessary crowding with two small children.

“City planning lessons say that random encounters should be encouraged, that this is the purpose of the city,” he says. A shared space is a success if it creates social and economic opportunities. But in ultra-Orthodox circles, random meetings are a challenge and some would prefer to prevent them entirely. There are no tables on sidewalks around which people could gather because the only meeting point should be the synagogue. There aren’t even sidewalk tables in the front of restaurants, though that has the advantage of lessening competition over the sidewalk space, Gilad smiles.

Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood.
Meirav Moran

Usually, the non-observant perceives the ultra-Orthodox as a threat to Israeli society, he says, but adds: “I want to see what we can learn from them, and I think that urban living is one of those things.”

In the absence of other means of communication, the streets in ultra-Orthodox cities serve a role going back generations: the dissemination of information. Instead of internet, Facebook and email, residents post their inquiries and requests on bulletin boards.

Gilad isn’t ultra-Orthodox, he’s a kibbutznik but he studied at a hesder yeshiva as part of his army service. He got a master’s degree in urban planning from Hebrew University, and is the municipality’s Neighborhoods Administration head of planning for the ultra-Orthodox “main business center,” as defined by the city of Jerusalem. This “main business center“ under his responsibility is just part of Jerusalem, but as of 2016 it has 55,000 residents. Space is tight. The eight ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem (Geula, Bukhara, Kerem Avraham, Zichron Moshe, Beit Yisrael, Mekor Baruch, Schneller and Mea She’arim) – occupy just 1.4 square kilometers. That translates to more than 39,000 people per square kilometer – 13 times more than the density in Netivot, Nes Tziona or Dimona (around 3,000 people per square kilometer), five times more than Tel Aviv (8,200) and 1.5 times the most crowded city of Israel, Bnei Brak (25,000).

This ultra-Orthodox center in Jerusalem is even more crowded than Manhattan, which has 28,000 people per square kilometer. It’s not far from the most crowded city in the world, Manila, which has 41,000 per square kilometer. If one considers that the head count in the Haredi areas counts only residents, but doesn’t factor in visitors, thousands a day to the shopping streets and yeshivas, the crowding is even greater.

These conditions create an intensity that many cities try to emulate when renewing their old centers.

The others tend to renovate dilapidated buildings and create pedestrian streets, hire experts for branding, invest in launch events and bend over backwards with offers to attract visitors to come and spend their money in the malls and food courts that pop up out of nowhere, in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, all this happens by itself. The streets are thronged almost all day long, thanks in part to family parties that happen almost every weekday and last into the night. The shops and eateries are also swamped, and small locally-owned businesses flourish.

Craftsmen of old still operate: watchmakers, tailors, framers, carpenters and bookbinders, shops specializing in goods such as ties, wigs and hats, shops selling books, household utensils and religious items. The dilapidated, often neglected appearance of the shops is misleading. Revenues per square meter are higher along the main street of Mea She’arim than on Jerusalem’s central Jaffa Road.

The yeshivas boost the area’s purchasing power, Gilad says. Business in the streets around the Mir Yeshiva, where around 8,000 pupils study, is booming. Israeli colleges tend to be in isolated areas, but the ultra-Orthodox school is in the heart of the city, so it boosts the local economy.

“The overcrowding and the congestion here are a fact – we understand their benefits and take advantage of them,” he says. The constant presence of people on the street from the early morning until past midnight makes the streets safer, and there’s good reason little children are allowed to go to school by themselves: When there are so many people around, there’s no fear. “It’s safe here, just like a kibbutz, without security cameras,” he says.

Like elsewhere, though, building skywards on the main streets has opponents. The main fear here is not of competition over resources and infrastructure, but of mass residential construction that will bring non-religious people to the neighborhoods, affecting local commerce and the way of life.

“There are comfortable historic conditions here: narrow roads, short intervals between intersections and a very dense network of streets. The planning of Bukhara drew inspiration from the street network in Paris, where walking from place to place is a norm. Congestion is handled by clearing the road for pedestrian mobility and public transportation. Use of family cars is restricted,” Gilad notes.

For which public?

In the last 10 years, permits to build about 1,300 new apartments were granted in the area. The new families don’t necessarily mean more cars, a huge worry when a dense area is built up even more; mainly, they mean more children. About 50% of the population in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem are minors. This does, however, mean more pressure on the schools, and an aching shortage of space for public buildings of all types.

The nature of ultra-Orthodox society adds another constraint: It is riven into sects with clear identities, and when space is allocated for a public building, the question arises: For which public?

The first question, says Gilad, is over where to build schools, synagogues and mikvehs. “Location is the easy part,” he says, since in contrast to the non-observant community, the ultra-Orthodox aren’t perturbed by noise. “We hardly ever get complaints of “not in my back yard,’” he says. “The ultra-Orthodox community doesn’t feel particularly able to wield influence and in any case, evinces tolerance for the greater good and needs of society, even if that means changing the living conditions in their immediate environment. Here they won’t complain about commerce underneath their apartments.

“But, and this is a big but, everybody here belongs to a Hasidic sect, to a synagogue, to some yeshiva, and from that aspect there is less tolerance,” Gilad says. “So when rumors are circulating about a public building going up somewhere, everybody wants to annex the new building for their community, which is a source of friction.”

What then? Politics, he sighs. “The conflicts reach the city council and the planning authorities, where elected representatives sit who represent the stronger communities. As planner of all the neighborhoods, I have to represent the greater good against groups wanting their share, knowingly deflecting the interests of other groups.”

One way to deal with this issue is through sharing institutions such as mikvehs and well-baby clinics, so they are not associated with a particular community. In this general spirit, there is thought to be potential in shtiblech – synagogues not affiliated with a particular community and that operate around the clock. Action around the shtiblech is lively. Gilad says the shtieblech have been associated with the municipality’s “Place Making” project, which allocates budgets for cultivating public spaces, and which is in contact with the synagogue officials to clarify needs: shading, faucets, folding chairs and, of course, bulletin boards – “the neighborhood Whatsapp,” Gilad suggests.

The entire area has just 11 public parks, which are small and located between buildings and are far from meeting the demand, especially as parks are the main place ultra-Orthodox children spend their leisure time. Big families in small apartments with screens (from smartphones to TVs) being off-limits, all that remains is to play outside. Usually public gardens are planned for toddlers but the ones in the ultra-Orthodox area also accommodate older kids, up to eight or nine, so they have climbing walls and ropes, which in other cities only the biggest parks have, he says.

It’s comparatively rare for the residents of this Jerusalem district to call city hall, and it’s not because they don’t have problems, but because they figure problems come from on high and they have no influence over it, Gilad says. “One of my biggest challenges,” he adds, “is to change that attitude.”