A man examines plans for the boardwalk's renovation last week at a public hearing in Tel Aviv. (photo by the author)
If there is anything approaching a holy place in this devoutly secular city, it's the beach. People here are serious beach-goers, and fanatically protective of their city's 14km coastline. So much so that when city hall tried to stealthily redesign a portion of the promenade a couple of years ago, it had to backtrack in the face of public opposition.
Now, the city has decided to give it another try. But this time, it is making an effort to involve the people of the city in the process. Approximately a hundred people showed up last week for a public hearing on the city's new promenade renovation scheme.
After a presentation by the plan's architects and questions from the audience, residents were split up into small discussion groups, in which everyone was encouraged to contribute their thoughts on the plan. Resident's comments were recorded, and city officials promised that they would be taken into account in the final planning.
Such public input sessions are rare in Tel Aviv, where the structure of the planning process generally allows for public participation only once a plan has attained initial approval. In this case, however, a higher planning committee required the city to conduct a public participation process after municipal planners initially tried to push through a vague and unclear proposal, buried inside another plan.
The new plan fixes many of the elements that drew objections two years ago. The city's central boardwalk, built in the early 1980's, will be modernized. Stairs will lead down to the beach, in place of a low wall that currently exists. A bike lane will be added, an adjacent road narrowed, and sidewalks across the street from the boardwalk will be widened to make way for cafes and restaurants.
(These last two moves, however, were not part of the discussion - for some reason, it was decided to separate the boardwalk's planning from the plan for the road. The second plan, said officials, was still being drawn up, and therefore could not be presented.)
Although he has been criticized for a number of things, Tel Aviv's mayor has actually been very active in renovating the city's beaches. Almost the entire coastline is now accessible - a huge improvement from the situation just a few years ago - and much of the beach is now lined with parks and bike lanes.
The city has also created more space for public participation in planning recently, notably in the formulation of a new citywide master plan. However, it has also been criticized for simply going through the motions, and not making a sincere effort to involve the public in decision-making.