Mier Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, famously once said that the
city’s beachfront need not be designed for public use, because Jews had
no interest in bathing. Today, the new renovation of Tel Aviv’s beach
promenade is encountering resistance and harsh criticism even before its
first phase has opened. It isn’t the first, or most dramatic alteration
to the city’s most valued public space, but it is happening at a time
when the public is finding ways to exert greater influence.
relationships between city and nature are characterized by their level
of permeability. Ancient city walls represented that separation as a
dichotomy of self and other. The structures that had previously
demarcated cultures became irrelevant, as nations formed and cities
opened to the outside world. What was once considered external to the
city became public land, as republics and democracies eventually
introduced the notion of collective property.
The relationship of
Tel Aviv to its beach began when the city, originally founded inland,
reached the Mediterranean shores. At that point, the debate of how to
, or city and nature, began to take its
course. Dizengoff, in his conviction of the public’s disinterest in
beach activity believed that industry should benefit from the shore. In
the proposed gesture of extending the city’s urban fabric up to the
water, he determined to perpetuate a binary state of city and nature.
Dizengoff’s idea never came to fruition. The beach in its early years
left in its natural state (pre-promenade) became the fertile ground that
arguably contributed to forming Tel Aviv’s pluralistic and liberal
identity. As the city’s only significant refuge, the stretch of sand, in
the 1920s, was the common ground for locals from all walks of life
regardless of social status.
Significantly, it transformed into
the unwitting symbol of the normalization of Jewish existence, a Zionist
ideal. The city on the beach, by contrast to the East European ghetto,
helped expand the realm of the people beyond that of an impermeable
community. In absorbing the multiplicity of the city, a city of
immigrants, the beach represented the democratization of an emerging
the same years that the beach became the gate to city, its popularity
began to decline. During the 1920s the municipality neglected the
beachfront, even as residents littered without inhibition. The White
City’s sands quickly transformed from a source of city pride to a
disgrace. In the late 1930s, one of a few different plans was put into
motion and the first Tel Aviv beach promenade emerged. In its essence,
the action of building a promenade embodied the official regulation of
beach activities. One could walk and sit on the elevated platform –
surveying the beach, or one could bathe and sit on the sand.
perpetuated by the dismal state of the beach, such a statement of
separation was conceived. The line between city and nature was drawn out
as a permanent boundary. Almost overnight, a walk along the beach
transformed from traversing between the built and the natural to a
patrol of the city walls. Later reincarnations of the promenade
perpetuated the binary option of concrete or sand as the overarching
the 1940s, the city municipality began pumping sewage into the sea,
rendering it unfit for bathing. The stretch of land that started out as
the catalyst for democratization, was later subjected to threats by
political partisanship, and eventually paralyzed by an undemocratic
exploitation of public property. In turn, the city’s residents abandoned
the promenade for new recreational centers inland.
continued to suffer from mismanagement and the city turned its back to
the sea. Only in the 1980s, when the Dan region installed a sewage
treatment facility did the beach begin to recover. Tombolo breakwaters
were placed which expanded the area of sand out into the sea. These two
acts constituted a statement of reclamation, the expansion of the public
realm beyond the city walls. The beaches were cleansed and the waters
eventually became fit for bathing. Residents flocked beyond the
promenade once again to nature, as a refuge from the intense urban
experience that the city had become.
once again, the beach is subject to a democratic process represented on
two fronts that are ironically at odds; the public action surrounding
the work, and the architectural intent of the architects.
on the first section of Mayslits Kassif’s promenade renovation plan is
nearing completion. The second phase is being postponed by a District
Court order, following a public objection by a group claiming the
project is environmentally and financially irresponsible. Judge Michal
Agmon Gonen has ordered a public consultation and an environmental
assessment that allegedly should have been carried out in the planning
phase of the project.
The Facebook group “Saving Tel Aviv Beach
and the related activity on the social network are the driving forces
behind the scrutiny surrounding the project. It should be seen in the
larger context of the democratization of the public sphere, promoting
accountability for actions that affect wider society. Israelis have
taken enthusiastically to such activity, and it has brought about
historic shifts such as the social justice protests of 2011.
have also, however been cases of irrational mobbish behavior spurred by
erroneous online information. Last month, a photo of a woman using her
mobile phone was uploaded to Facebook falsely claiming that she ignored
the nationwide memorial sirens. The photo became viral and the woman
suffered abusive comments and threats as a consequence.
to the online petition of the group “Saving Tel Aviv Beach” uncovers
emotive hyperbole such as “in a few years there will be no beach left at
all”; a counterproductive statement in the context of rational debate.
The objectors do however raise a number of valid points. Amongst the
objections, is that the plan extends beyond the currently built area
without having been subject to the relevant approval process and an
environmental report. At a costly NIS 150 million, the group claims that
the municipality funds are better spent on improving deprived
The objections raised have in turn been addressed
with varying success by most major parties involved in the project.
Mayslits Kassif claim that following an in-depth analysis during the
design process, it became apparent that there was an opportunity to put
to greater use the seldom frequented space alongside the current
promenade wall. Commentators are responding that the little used part of
the sand constituted a ‘buffer’ zone, or was integral to the view of
the beach from the promenade above. The details are numerous and do
require debate, but the effect is incontestable: what in the past would
have been in the hands of a select few has evidently become a more
Alongside the public debate, a separate
process is aiming to implant a democratic quality to the promenade. From
the project’s inception, the architects were confronted by territory
layered with compromises. In the three most recent decades, the sand and
the sea have gradually been reclaimed back into the public realm. The
promenade stands as a relic corresponding to a dated city wall, from a
time when misuse and pollution rendered the beach an external territory.
The challenge faced is to bring together city and nature, and correct
the currently binary architectural quality of the existing structure.
Kassif have instated a variety of optional interactions with the beach.
One can walk the upper promenade and survey the view, sit or lie on the
large steps, walk along the sand on the lower promenade, or occupy the
sand. In a coastal city that up until now had no free attractive spot to
enjoy the beach without sand, the option is long overdue. Without
addressing the particularly wide dimensions of the lower promenade
(which bears numerous objections), it does allow for parents with prams
and disabled people to enjoy significant proximity to the sand for the
first time. In diversifying the experience between concrete and sand,
the architects have addressed the multiplicity of the beach’s
the wider historical context of the beach, the latest architectural
intervention, and the social action involved mark a peak of democratic
intentions. The process of architectural projects in the public realm
will need to adapt in order to consider the citizens’ demand for greater
influence. With that influence, a mature rational voice must be adopted
to ensure fair democratic accountability.
execution of their role is yet to be judged, though the reaction of the
public to the opening of the first section hints at success. The measure
of the project’s effect will ultimately lie not only in the change to
the number of people using the beach, but also in their variety. If the
beach is once again to become the common ground for all of the city’s
residents, it must succeed in rearranging the permeability between city
and nature, and the disparity between self
. Through the
augmentation of the beach’s inclusive qualities, Tel Aviv stands to
strengthen a symbol that epitomizes its character as a pluralistic,
Itai Palti is a British/Israeli architect currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel.