Israeli New Urbanists: Density Will Make Our Cities Better Places to Live
A model of a revitalized city as envisioned by architecture students from an Israeli university.
No matter how you measure it, Israel is already one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and is expected to become much more crowded in the future. So it took a fair bit of chutzpah to host a conference whose title, translated literally, was "In Praise of Density" and whose message was: high urban density is good for our cities. But that is exactly what the Movement for Israeli Urbanism did last month, in an attempt to initiate a discourse about better urban planning in Israel's cities.
The questions raised by the speakers at the conference were universal in an age of intensifying urbanization around the globe: If our cities are already so crowded, why the heck should we make them even more so? Doesn't density so often create feelings of claustrophobia, crowding, chaos, noise and other unwanted stimuli for city residents? And, bottom line, if people want a detached house with a garage and a yard, why shouldn't we planners just provide them with one?
For much of the previous century, the accepted equation in urban planning in Israel, as in most of the world, was that decreased housing density equals higher quality of life — the less crowded a place is, the better it is to live in. The policy here was one of population dispersal and car dependency, and many of Israel's cities were built with a spread out and almost suburban character.
Today, however, the old model is no longer viable, as tiny Israel is not large enough to contain many more new towns and villages without destroying what is left of its open spaces. Instead, high population growth and new growth management policies are beginning to channel new development back into cities.
What is urbanism? What elements make up the city? What is the best way to put them together? Above: school, apartment building, road, parking lot and sidewalk in Bat Yam.
According to Irit Solzi, Chairwoman of the Movement for Israeli Urbanism, densifying Israel's cities is a great opportunity, and not a curse, as some have portrayed it:
Every city can become a pearl! The idea that density is bad is a leftover from the Industrial Revolution era. Today, Israel is building cities with very low densities, which destroys their functioning. Transit, culture, creativity — none of these can survive in low density cities, and this means lower quality of life. Population growth is an opportunity. Mixed uses, varied buildings, small blocks, public transport — all of these will make our cities succeed. Otherwise, our cities will decline, and our open spaces will disappear.
Hovering over the two-day conference, held in the seaside town on Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv (and the second densest city in the country), was the spirit of the late urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs. Jacobs' works on the functioning of cities are today considered classics, and her inspiration was clearly evident in all of the discussions. This was no coincidence, as her master work The Death and Life of Great American Cities has just been translated into Hebrew for the first time, and was on sale at the conference at a significant discount.
While they may be colored green on the maps, "green spaces" under the scorching Israeli sun run the gamut from green to beige to brown. Above: conference participants on a walking tour of a Bat Yam neighborhood. Overflowing with green on the map, in reality this park consists of bare, sandy earth and an old bomb shelter.
Left: Bat Yam's historic water tower, a city landmark.
The conference participants, which included a significant percentage of the country's architectural and urban planning heavyweights, also discussed issues such as transportation infrastructure in dense urban fabrics, population diversity in neighborhoods, open spaces and public buildings in cities, and the connection between high densities and tall buildings. Regarding this last point, a study by the Tel Aviv Municipality found that tall buildings do not necessarily give a place a higher density. In fact, some of Tel Aviv's most densely populated (and most in-demand) neighborhoods contain buildings no higher than 4-6 stories.
At the end of the day, as Professor Arza Churchman noted, there is no single magic bullet for revitalizing cities. Every city is unique, and all cities are made up of numerous population groups that all have their own definitions of terms like "quality of life." Said Churchman:
What we do as planners is not determinism, but possiblism and probablism. We can build an environment that allows or encourages certain behavior, but we cannot determine it. Nothing guarantees that people will use the street, but our job is to provide them with the options and the freedom to choose.
For more on urban design in Israel and Middle East:
Israeli Town Plans Radiation-Free Neighborhood
Israel Invests in Mass Transit
Israel Says Shalom to Electric Cars
Pentagon Plans Urban Renewal in Baghdad's Green Zone