In the early 1900's, a new city was founded in the sand dunes north of the ancient port city of Jaffa. Seeking more aesthetic and hygienic surroundings, the city's founders bought up several parcels of land and built a leafy garden suburb. Times have changed, and today that same city is the center of a metropolis which is home to almost half of the country's population.
With its rapid growth and development, Tel Aviv's transformation has at times been a bumpy road. The city's planners have not always been wise enough to preserve the things that make the city great, and some serious planning mistakes have been made over the years. This week, with an eye toward the city's development over the next 100 years, the city sponsored a conference that brought together some prominent voices in the debate over sustainable cities. The conference dealt with a variety of themes, including economics, community, architecture and culture. Speakers included Richard Register of Ecocity Builders, Charles Landry, author of The Art of City Making and Lodovico Folin Calabi of UNESCO.
The city's strategic plans for the next couple of decades were also presented: new oceanside parks, mixed-use neighborhoods, an airport on an artificial island, massive office park compounds and a new subway system. Tel Aviv, it was emphasized, has never before had a binding, comprehensive master plan, and the city's new plan will be a great step forward.
However, city officials avoided discussion of some of their more controversial plans, including plans for new roads and highways in the city center. The entire event could perhaps be summed up by a single quote from one city official. "These days, we are definitely green," he said, "we just aren't sure exactly what that means yet."
The conference was organized as a series of keynote speeches by foreign experts, followed by discussions by local practitioners and officials. At times, the gap between the local and international discourse became clear, as local and foreign speakers' messages diverged significantly.
Crucially, none of Tel Aviv's prominent green organizations, who could have bridged the gap, were invited to take part in the event. Neither was City for All, a political movement that recently won seats on the city council. Claiming that the conference was a "fig leaf" for the continued business-as-usual policies of Mayor Ron Huldai, City for All sent keynote speakers a letter ahead of the conference, in which it emphasized the inconsistency of the conference's message with the city's actual policies.
Whether a genuine attempt to bring new ideas into the local discourse or merely a thin coat of greenwash, the conference, which kicked off an entire month of events celebrating the city's centennial, will hopefully stimulate greater discussion about sustainability as it relates to city design and development in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities.