The Upside of Crowding

Everybody loses when low-density planning prevails.

The article by Elad Haimovich in last Monday's Haaretz, ("A liter of gas for a liter of milk," June 14 ), describing what happens when the state's alacrity to build new neighborhoods meets its failure to build new infrastructure, misses the point. The problem described is real but its origins lie somewhere else.

Indeed, in most of the neighborhoods described in the article, there is a shortage of public institutions. But the deeper problem lies in the manner of urban planning in Israel.

Tel Aviv
Daviv Bachar

The real problem can be summed up in a word: Density. Not persons per room, or residents per square kilometer of urban space. The problem is density of residents per square kilometer of open space - "public density."

"Public density" is the number of residents divided by the open space available to them, including roads, avenues, plazas, public gardens and so on.

In Israel, you may be surprised to learn, the problem is that the public density is too low - there is too much open space.

You might also be surprised to learn that the public density in Paris is five times greater than in Tel Aviv. Just look at photographs of new neighborhoods going up in Tel Aviv and compare them with pictures of Paris, or even to older neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. It is clear that contemporary planning practices are based on providing lots of open space.

How does expansive open space affect the quality of life of residents?

Planners and city officials alike feel that lots of verdant, open space represents "quality of life." It does make for pretty photographs and is easily marketed as being ecologically "green." But the truth is otherwise.

Building at low densities means using up more land to settle the same amount of people, meaning longer roads and attendant infrastructure need to be built, using up that would otherwise be used for agriculture or left natural. It forces people to use their pollution-emitting cars to buy milk. A great deal of public money is squandered on maintaining the open space that nobody uses.

The unfortunates who wasted their good money hoping to buy a better quality of life simply spend more of it stuck in traffic jams, and pay excessive city taxes (arnona ) so the city can irrigate the useless, barren lawns.

The residents of Kfar Ganim Gimel in Petah Tikva say they have to travel by car to do anything at all. But even after public institutions are erected in their neighborhood, they'll still have to travel by car because of the sprawling nature of their neighborhood, and concern for their children's safety in the great, deserted public space.

The best gauge of quality of life is housing prices. Home prices are higher in the heart of Tel Aviv than anywhere else in Israel, and not only because of their central location. Better planning could turn western Rishon Letzion, eastern Netanya, southern Petah Tikva and all of Modi'in into more than bedroom communities.

They could be transformed to provide all their basic needs, from housing to education to culture, not only in terms of cost, but in terms of physical proximity.


The writer is an architect and professor or architecture.