Taking Refuge on the Boulevards of Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's many boulevards are among the city's most prized spaces, providing oases of green among the asphalt, dotted with 24-hour kiosks and room for no less than the very incubation of democracy itself.

Just under two weeks ago, the metal fences were removed from around the last unrenovated site on Chen Boulevard, adjacent to Rabin Square, and a few days later it was already filled with cyclers, pensioners resting on benches and a few curious pedestrians who went to check out the new space. So it goes with Tel Aviv's boulevards, among the city's most treasured public assets.

The renovation of Chen is part of the ongoing renaissance of Tel Aviv boulevards that started when Ron Huldai became mayor in 1998. During his tenure, the city began investing considerable resources in refurbishing the city's boulevards and upgrading infrastructure: grass lawns were planted in some areas, bike paths were paved down their middles and kiosks and food joints at major intersections were reopened and turned into the hottest spots in the city, something between a social forum and a 24-hour pickup bar.

Chen Boulevard - Baruch Ben Yitzhak - 03012012
Tel Aviv municipality

Huldai has taken many important and far reaching steps to put his stamp on the city, but the boulevard upgrades seem to be the only initiative that has received unstinting support from adherents and opponents alike.

The northernmost section of Chen Boulevard was always different from the city's other median-accoutred avenues, somewhere between a large traffic circle and a garden. When landscape architect Haim Kahanovich was asked to propose a redesign, he relied on the experienced gained over 10 years ago when he designed the renovation of nearby Ben-Gurion Boulevard (and later on also the renovation of Yehudit Boulevard in the Montefiore neighborhood, and Yad Labanim and Hahayil Boulevards in Yad Eliahu ).

Sderot Chen - Baruch Ben Yitzhak-January 18,2012
Baruch Ben Yitzhak

Kahanovich says there are two leading concepts for the renovation of Tel Aviv's boulevards: inward planning that tries to create a barrier between the road and the activity inside the boulevard itself, and more extroverted planning that relates to the space on the street from end to end as a single unit and turns the landscaped area into an inseparable part of it.

"When we planned the renovation of Ben-Gurion Boulevard we thought there was no need to create a quiet place away from the roads and that's why we decided to put hedges on both sides," Kahanovich says. "We put playgrounds and picnic tables at the intersections to provide other possible activities, and in the middle of the boulevard we left sections with the limestone as a reminder of what it once looked like."

When the work was finished, poet Eli Mohar, who lived on a nearby street, wrote an article in the Kol Ha'ir newspaper praising the renovation, a popular sentiment.

Unlike Ben-Gurion Boulevard, the renovated section of Chen Boulevard does not have the option of remaining introverted because it is located between a city square and the side of a heavily trafficked road. Hence, Kahanovich chose to get rid of the obstacles along the way and enable pedestrians to cross it at any point. Alongside the old palm trees, jacarandas were planted that will turn purple when they blossom in the spring.

The central part of the boulevard was paved in two shades of concrete, one for pedestrians and one for cyclists, and along its length there are little patches of grass and two-person benches.

It's only too bad local residents and business owners who may have had something to add were not involved in the planning process.

The second part of the project, which is now reaching the end of the permitting process, will turn the easternmost end of Ben-Gurion Boulevard into a real boulevard and connect it to Chen Boulevard.

This section was never a real boulevard, despite its strategic location. In the past, it was also considerably narrower because the fence of the Tel Aviv Zoo - located on the grounds of city hall - butted into it.

The planning of this section, which is experiencing delays due to transportation issues, will complete a continuous stretch from Rothschild Boulevard to Neveh Tzedek and Atarim Square on the sea shore. The boulevards are an essential part of Tel Aviv's urban layout and individually and together function as the city center's most important public spaces.

City of boulevards

The credit for their creation should go Scottish town planner Sir Patrick Geddes, who sketched the master plan for Tel Aviv in the late 1920s.

Rothschild Boulevard developed around the time of the establishment of the Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood in 1909, but Geddes, who was a biologist and deemed it important to insert nature in the cities, is responsible for the necessary links to major roads and the planning of other boulevards.

Geddes designed the boulevards with an east-west orientation and created meeting points with the perpendicular commercial streets. Jabotinsky and Frishman streets were also designed as boulevards but in the end were paved as regular road with a row of trees along the sidewalk, instead of a green area in the center.

The trees planted along the boulevards - ficus, Poinciana and jacaranda - have an important ecological function, as shade providers and as shelter for birds and small animals. Geddes' boulevard-based concept was later adapted to other areas of the city and today there are also boulevards in the Florentin neighborhood (Washington Boulevard ) and in the old north Tel Aviv (Hatzionut Boulevard and Smuts Boulevard ). There is also Yerushalayim Boulevard in Jaffa, which was built in 1915 by the town's chieftain Hassan Bek as a response to Rothschild Boulevard.

The Bitzaron neighborhood in eastern Tel Aviv recently acquired a boulevard of its own, Hahaskala, which around two years ago upgraded a neglected grove into a green, urban thoroughfare.

Several of the boulevards changed their names over the years: Kakal Boulevard became Ben-Gurion (and a road in the northern part of the city was in turn named Kakal ), Jamal Pasha Boulevard became King George Boulevard, and eventually Yerushalayim Boulevard.

One way or another, their urban role increased over the years. "The boulevards are the spine of Tel Aviv," says Orly Erel, the deputy director of the municipal planning department and the head of the central planning department of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. "Take Rothschild Boulevard, for example; it is not just a green garden, but a place that serves the city throughout the day. Early in the morning, you see people cycling to work or the Tai Chi groups working out on the lawns, in the late morning the nannies come with the carriages, in the afternoon the business people who want to get something to eat, in the evening residents and visitors come to the restaurants and cafes and at night the revelers are out. This is an urban refuge that enables a meeting of the entire diverse population that uses this part of Tel Aviv."

According to Erel, the necessary elements of a good boulevard are "compact and intimate dimensions" and "some mix of uses." Kahanovich agrees and adds that trees with a large canopy are very important for the climate and ecology.

With greenery in place, the people will come, and with them the public activity that leads to random encounters with friends or broad social protests.

Erel says that recently the planning department received a letter from a lawyer representing a resident who recently was on Rothschild Boulevard and asked to close the kiosk on the corner of Mazeh Street because it is creating noise pollution.

"We deliberated over how to answer and eventually wrote that your client was there because of the activities there and now she and you want to halt the activities in public," she says, adding that the letter was a rare exception. "People love the boulevard."

It seems that the boulevards have never been in better shape. The Rothschild-Chen-Ben-Gurion strip is soon to be completed and the Tel Aviv municipality is planning new boulevards as part of Plan 3700 ("the large bloc" ) in the northwest of the city, which will mimic the urban and ecological principles of Geddes.

Tel Aviv boulevards do have some faults, though. Their neutral designs don't take into account localized spaces, making the corner of Ben-Gurion and Reines Street identical to the corner of Ben-Gurion and Hadassah Street.

In addition, it seems that a few more original uses could have been incorporated, like bird-feeding stations and special playground facilities.

Today, the municipality is deliberating whether it is possible to enhance the activities on the boulevards by promoting commerce in the fronts of the buildings along them.

"This is a question with no clear answer; on Rothschild Boulevard it's a natural process, on Ben-Gurion Boulevard we would like to maintain it as a residential street," says Erel. "We think there is room to build additional kiosks on the boulevards but certainly not to turn into a critical mass of commercial enterprises."

Her favorite boulevard is Chen Boulevard, which she says is "the best from an urban perspective."

"It's a residential boulevard and I wouldn't change anything there, maybe just move the electricity cable underground."