Cities must be 'intense'

Shattering an urban planning myth - Israeli style.

tel aviv 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
tel aviv 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
One of the reasons why places with low urban density have a good reputation while densely populated localities have a bad reputation is a confusion over what density is all about. As urban planners understand it, high density is characterized by a huge number of residential units on a single plot of land. Overpopulation reflects too many residents per domicile. In 1898 Ebenezer Howard promoted the idea of a "garden city" - an approach to urban planning that called for self-contained communities surrounded by greenbelts, and containing carefully balanced areas of residences, industry, and agriculture. He developed this concept when the poor neighborhoods of London and industrial cities in England suffered from overpopulation, poor living conditions, inadequate sanitation and disease. Ever since, the notion of a garden city suburb as the solution to urban density has been part and parcel of urban planning throughout the world. In Israel, planning was considered "correct" so long as it conformed to the garden city approach. Thus plans for Beersheba and most other urban settlements designed in the 1950s and '60s were carried out with this approach in mind. But it turns out that the garden city idea doesn't take into account the basic reasons for the existence of cities. People live in cities because that is where the most opportunities exist - for finding work, for business ventures, establishing a family, access to services, cultural activities, for contact with a wide mix of people - for having a good time. Most of the world's populations have passed the halfway point and now live in cities. Most of these live in large metropolises, where opportunities are even greater. Most of Israel's population is drawn to greater Tel Aviv and its environs (Gush Dan) - the only real metropolitan area in the country. THERE IS no connection between low density and high quality of life. While there are a few suburbs such as Caesarea and Savyon that seem to be examples of such a correlation, Kiryat Shmona and Dimona demonstrate similar low urban densities but do not provide similar quality of life. People are drawn to cities due to their need to be in a place where opportunities exist. And - contrary to the garden city principle - good cities are actually places of high "intensity." Accumulated experience from urban renewal projects in Israel and around the world - from successful and unsuccessful efforts at reviving inner city neighborhoods and town centers - has demonstrated that to build an intensive vibrant urban place, four key qualities are needed (based on Jane Jacob's 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, recently translated into Hebrew): • high density of people and uses • a mix of uses, designations and functions • accessibility and high exposure through a large number of routes and possibilities of transit from street to street • buildings from different eras and maintenance levels, leading to a mixed and diverse population ANY SUCCESSFUL and prosperous urban area in the country (and the world) will contain all four components. A good example is the Tel Aviv city center. In fact, its population density could be increased resulting in an even more intensive city gained. However, in most of the urban communities in Israel not even one of these key components exists, much less all four. This Wednesday and Thursday (May 28 and 29), the third conference of the the Movement for Israeli Urbanism (MIU) will address ways in which these four criteria can be met in Israeli cities in anticipation of the predicted population growth of the near future. The conference will take place in Bat Yam, a town with a relatively high concentration of people and spaces with mixed uses. Since Bat Yam is limited in land and cannot spread any further, it provides a good test case for the creation of intensity and high-quality urban life through high density of people and uses. The writer is chair of the board of the Movement for Israeli Urbanism.