Catching Up to Tel Aviv

Israel must adopt a new planning approach because the current one will soon lead the country into a tangled knot of cross purposes

Tel Aviv is a fun town with cheerful streets, crowded cafes, bustling beaches, a vibrant nightlife, and performances playing to sold-out audiences. Within decades, the city that started as a small enclave called Ahuzat Bayit morphed into a robust, cosmopolitan city, connected and vibrant, with a multitude of foreign languages to be heard when wandering down its sidewalks - English, French, Russian, Amharic, Arabic and more, spoken by tourists, transients, refugees and new immigrants.

The first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv wanted to create a new cultural and urban language reflecting Zionism and Israeliness, the start of the new Jewish story in the Land of Israel. Today, Tel Aviv is an international city linked to economic markets, cultural events and the centers of academic and technological innovation - a dynamic showcase for the so-called "start-up nation."

Tel Aviv
Tal Cohen

Tel Aviv developed at lightning speed, joining the leading urban centers of the world, but left in its wake a stagnating and confused country lacking direction and initiative. Through its power and centrality, Tel Aviv turned the rest of Israel into one huge periphery.

The working communities and provincial towns, which set out the country's borders, along with once-important cities like Haifa and Jerusalem, were left in its wake and without influence, diluted of economic and human resources. Young people from around the country pour into Tel Aviv; they crowd into expensive alcoves carved from subdivided apartments and work at odd jobs just to live the dream of their youth and participate in the exuberant and contemporary happening.

It is said that Tel Aviv created an "urban bubble," but the irony is that the opposite occurred: Tel Aviv wrapped the periphery in formaldehyde and froze it in a bubble of time, place, and relevance. The State of Tel Aviv overpowered the State of Israel; it emptied its cities, took over its economic strength, diluted its cultural resources, atrophied its communities and suburbanized it. The boundaries of metropolitan Tel Aviv mark the border between the center and the periphery.

Four metropolises instead of just one

The designers of National Master Plan 35 (Tama 35 ) understood the national implications of strengthening metropolitan Tel Aviv at the expense of the rest of the country, along with the problem of transforming Tel Aviv into a city-state. Therefore, the main thrust of the plan was for Israel to have four metropolises - Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Be'er Sheva - and to spread national resources throughout the country.

Israel's leading cities were meant to attain accelerated economic, employment, educational and cultural development, and connect to an efficient and advanced national transportation grid. The plan would reverse the continuous pattern of migration from Israel's other cities to Tel Aviv. It would also allow for a more equitable and balanced distribution of resources between Israel's various populations - social and distributive justice, as called for these days.

A common counter-argument is that Israel's geography isn't conducive to developing several independent metropolises within 100 to 150 kilometers of Tel Aviv; and instead, an efficient public transportation network should provide convenient access to the center of Tel Aviv. This premise is wrong.


Having a single metropolis doesn't just generate a waste of energy and land resources - limited as these are in Israel; it also strikes at the quality of life, exacerbates social inequality, and leads to inherent tension between the country's center and peripheral regions.

Decentralization of population between several close-by metropolises exists in several European countries. In Holland, for example, a country with similar characteristics to Israel, Rotterdam and The Hague are both situated about 100 kilometers from Amsterdam, and each serves as a major urban, economic and cultural center for its surroundings.

Another example is Switzerland, where Zurich, Geneva and Basel act as major cities, each with a unique local identity and strong influence over its respective surrounding regions.

"Le Grand Paris," an ambitious plan being formulated for the regional development of greater Paris, is another example of contemporary urban thinking abandoning the traditional approach of radial development. Rather than building further rings around the city, it proposes a string of independent cities, based on existing cities, creating a linear urban axis laid out along the Seine, from Paris to Le Havre, where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Divert resources to balance infrastructure

Israel of the future needs to adopt a new planning approach because the way it's being done now will soon lead the country into a tangled knot of cross purposes. There is an urgent need to end the madness of uncontroled development due to commercial or political pressure, or for the sake of expediency. It's time to replace the fossilized concepts that have ushered us along for decades.

The dual-network program presented here proposes a relevant and updated approach for physical planning at the national and municipal level. It will ensure sustainable development while maintaining a measured balance between the various market forces on both a national economic level and cultural-community level. The principle of the dual-network program is based on a combination of two hierarchically arranged planning networks - a network of metropolitan cities, and a network of regional-community cities.

The metropolitan network incorporating Israel's four main cities - Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Be'er Sheva - will be the country's backbone on an economic, employment and cultural level. The immediate diversion of resources for the accelerated development of three of the cities - Jerusalem, Haifa and Be'er Sheva - is vital for balancing the national infrastructure.

Strengthening the new metropolitan cities should include building an additional international airport, moving Israel Defense Forces command centers south instead of maintaining them at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, establishing a substantial tourism infrastructure in Haifa, returning large corporate headquarters to the city on the Carmel, setting up an advanced employment infrastructure in Jerusalem, moving all government offices from Tel Aviv to the capital, and many other ideas collecting dust in the file cabinets of the high and mighty.

The economic and demographic robustness of Israel's metropolitan cities will later produce substantial secondary rings of development and help establish a network of regional cities.

A different pace of life

The network of regional cities will be organized based on the existing fabric of cities, developed with an eye toward sustainability, and grow to about 100,000 each in population. Cities like Kiryat Shmona, Nazareth, Carmiel, Afula, Migdal Ha'emek, Acre, Nahariya, Umm al-Fahm, Kafr Kara and Shfaram in the north, and Ofakim, Netivot, Rahat, Sderot, Dimona and Arad in the south, scattered within the metropolitan expanses, will become independent centers of economic, employment, educational and cultural influence.

The regional cities will offer a different urban experience, more community-oriented and intimate. Their municipal organization will be based on their regional characteristics - climate, landscape and social aspects of the community or communities making up the population. The focus will be on quality of life and a different pace of life. The core idea behind the urban development of the regional cities will be connecting with the natural and human environment. Each will develop its own physical and cultural identity, in keeping with the vision of its inhabitants.

The public transportation network developing in Israel - including rail transportation, alongside the Trans Israel Highway stretching out the length of the country - creates a suitable infrastructure for linear development between north and south. In this way, all localities, at any hierarchal level, will have access to advanced, equal and high-quality municipal, regional and national services, while strictly preserving the natural environment for sustainability.

The dual-network program will promote equitable spatial planning and fair distribution of the country's resources among all segments of the population. It will produce a rich array of urban specialization and enable implementation of the existing planning program. The process will help conserve precious energy and natural resources, reduce environmental and air pollution, and perhaps even serve as a green "light unto the nations."

The writer is an independent architect and lecturer at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.