Israel's choice- concrete canyons or a more creative design process

With the increasing population Israel must postulate whether it wants to create nothing but building in an attempt to keep up with population growth or find a more creative idea.

A view towards the dense, chaotic skyline of Gush Dan (photo credit: ELI BASRI)
A view towards the dense, chaotic skyline of Gush Dan
(photo credit: ELI BASRI)

As recently as 30 years ago orange groves and agricultural settlements still dominated much of Israel’s landscape, true even in the areas surrounding what was already the densely populated center of the country. Inevitably, fields, groves, and orchards gave way to housing and commercial use as the country’s population grew dramatically.
Israel’s population standing now at more than nine million is expected to increase to 15 million by 2048, within the lifetime of most people alive today. This nearly 20-fold growth in 100 years is both an astonishing achievement and an immense challenge.
Crowding is inevitable and a landscape that not so long ago was still largely rural will, of necessity, become a mainly urban landscape. However, in spite of the great pressure for housing to meet current and future demand, a key public policy goal must be that the increasingly dense urban environments be pleasant to live in and complement the landscape rather than destroy what little remains.
While the clutter and chaos of the concrete “canyons” constructed in recent decades help to meet housing demand, they have done so at a high price to the physical and visual environment and hence the quality of life.
Providing for a larger population does not have to mean only tall towers, and especially not towers which totally ignore one another as these clusters of concrete canyons often do. Residential buildings can be planned to be in dialogue with one another and with their surroundings and be designed to provide an attractive landscape and a pleasant human-scale living environment.
Consider for a moment Paris, acclaimed as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. With a comparable total land area, Paris is home to three times the population of Jerusalem. The beauty of Paris is not in nature, though there are large and beautiful parks within its municipal boundaries and, of course, the River Seine. Its beauty is in its architecture and its symmetry; its stately buildings lining the streets and its grand boulevards that march in straight lines through the city. Paris is one of the most striking examples of what was called rational urban planning. Its current design was established during the “Second Empire” of Napoleon III in the middle of the 19th century, to ease congestion in the dense network of medieval streets.
It’s true that Paris and many other classical European cities are today surrounded by rings of ugly residential high-rises, but these are examples of failed planning, not something to emulate. Aside from these infamous banlieues, Paris apartment buildings rarely exceed six or eight stories.
Israel’s policy goals must be to preserve something of the beauty of its landscape and topography, and to build in a way that maintains a dialogue with nature. With careful planning on a national scale, much of Israel’s remaining green space – our agricultural lands, forests, coastal areas and our ecologically unique deserts – can be spared.
Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, have approximately the same population density as does Israel and yet much of their rural landscapes have been preserved. In the coming 30 years, however, Israel’s population will increase far more rapidly than either of these countries and planning must take place now to preserve what little remains of our own natural beauty.
While there will be fewer pastures and groves, fewer pristine hills and valleys, cities, towns, and neighborhoods can be designed and expanded in adaptation to differing topographies and environments rather than by simply paving farmland, leveling hills and ignoring nature. These developments can be as pleasing in their own way as was the natural landscape that they will have overtaken. Think of the view of the long elegant avenues that line Central Park in Manhattan.
It’s true that we will continue to suffer from what has already been built, but there is still time to substitute imaginative urban design for the chaotic anarchy that typifies most development in recent decades. There is time to preserve something of our natural legacy from being paved over with massive shopping centers and acres of above-ground heat-trapping parking lots. And there is still time to design future residential and commercial areas in ways that contribute to rather than detract from quality of life. There is still time, but precious little.
The author is head of planning at the Mandel Foundation, vice president of Atid EDI and has a masters in Urban and Regional Planning