The Urban Bomb

The blanket is too short: Pulling it toward the head is the need to stop the suburban sprawl that is ruining every bit of open space.

The blanket is too short: Pulling it toward the head is the need to stop the suburban sprawl that is ruining every bit of open space. On the other end, the cold feet of urban overcrowding are being exposed, as refugees from the suburbs return to the cities. In an effort to square the circle, a task force of experts from the fields of architecture, urban planning and environmental planning recently met at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

The members of the task force attempted to answer the question, "How can the population density of Israeli cities be increased while preserving, and even improving, the quality of inner city life?" The results of their comprehensive and detailed work are presented in a book now being published. The book focuses mainly on the physical aspects of urban life such as transportation, noise, overcrowding and the city's appearance.

The authors want to increase awareness of the importance of quality of life in the city and propose practical ways to improve it. This is preliminary research, explains the book's editor, Yisrael Kimche, an experienced urban planner and a senior researcher at the institute. Environmental, social and economic issues are not covered in the study and will be discussed in future studies.

In the chapter dealing with transportation in the urban setting, the researchers address, among other issues, the dilemma posed by the centrality of the private vehicle in the lives of residents versus the importance of public transportation for the environment. They recommend encouraging the use of public transportation and integrating it in urban planning.

The chapter on the city's appearance includes a historical review of the culture of modern and post-modern planning in Israel. The recommendations in this area include the formulation of a series of "indicators and policy guidelines" to assess and improve "the everyday visual and spatial experience," nurturing the public space, preserving architectural diversity without surrendering harmony and so on.

The chapter on noise pollution includes recommendations for its reduction, including moderating traffic and restrictions on loud activities during night hours.

In the chapter on overcrowding, the experts place responsibility for change on the local authorities and project developers. The local authorities should provide infrastructure and accessibility, while developers should ensure added value for densely packed residents and "make sure not to harm their quality of life."

Another chapter proposes an objective, comparative index to evaluate the quality of the built-up environment. Several countries have been using this type of index for more than two decades.

The study's central thesis is that in order to improve the quality of life in cities and increase their ability to compete with suburbs, some "suburban" qualities must be inserted into the heart of urban life. A "pause" must also be created in the city. The "quiet space" must be expanded, clean air must be guaranteed, open spaces must be provided and an atmosphere of community and cooperation should be promoted.

It is a shame that these principles are expressed in such weighty terms. Urban life should be marketed using urban jargon - quick, sharp, slogan-like and catchy - and not with tables, graphs and parameters.

To win new advocates for urban life, as the team of experts sought, it would have helped to demonstrate a bit more excitement about the urban option. But the city, with all its hubbub and temptations, is portrayed as a ticking bomb that needs to be neutralized, or at most as a default option. It is not presented as an enchanting possibility in its own right.

"The processes of crowding are liable to worsen the nuisances within the cities." "As a result of the crowdedness of cities, the noise and pollution problems are liable to grow." "The attractiveness of the cities will decrease." Thus, the experts threaten, already in the initial lines of the book, to ruin the urban mood. Is it possible that the authors themselves reside a safe distance from the urban setting?

The outstanding British television series from 1994, "Heaven, Hell and the Suburbs," teaches a witty and brilliant lesson in love for urban life. The creator of the series, Jonathan Glancey, architecture and design editor at The Guardian newspaper and a fierce urban advocate, presents a completely different perspective when comparing cities and suburbs.

In this view, the nuisances that others would neutralize actually constitute the very soul of the city. The suburb's quiet, orderliness and safety are good reasons to despise it. For Glancey, the city is not just a necessity, but rather "the peak of civilization" for which one should readily abandon even the most beautiful suburb, whose "flatness" he compares to grass that has been mowed too short. That's how you build urban life.