If the West Side can do it, why not Tel Aviv?

New York City's enlightened approach to urban planning has facilitated a post- 9/11 renascence.

tel aviv 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
tel aviv 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Six years ago, on September 11, 2001, predictions foreseeing the decline of the Big Apple in wake of the massive terror attack on the World Trade Center were rife. Instead, just the opposite occurred. New York City is thriving; its old neighborhoods are being rebuilt and gentrified; 50 million tourists are expected to throng its streets and shops this year; its population has increased by about one million. How did this occur? Of course, the economic boom in the United States and America's success in preventing further terror attacks played a major role. But there is yet another aspect. Under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City has undergone an accelerated replanning process involving massive construction and investments in infrastructure and culture. The numbers are staggering: Within six years, 18 new plans for urban building and 236 projects were completed, covering 13 million square meters of new construction and the creation of tens of thousands of square meters of public parks and gardens, completely changing the face of the city. Neglected parts of the West Side of Manhattan have been re-planned and rebuilt. On the West Side, one can now find numerous sports and leisure spots, art galleries and fascinating architecture. This urban revival has been integrated into preservation and rebuilding of the city's cultural sites. Of the post-9/11 despondency nothing remains. Much of this process was implemented from start to finish by the City of New York. However, if the City had had to receive authorization from a regional planning committee for each of the plans, as the case is in Israel, not a single project would have gotten off the ground and the run-down West Side would have continued to slide into neglect. IN ISRAEL, sadly, no discussion would even have been started on any of these projects. The regional committees are overloaded, they debate projects intermittently, leaving them no time to take care of the matters they are supposed to deal with (the coordination of plans among various local governments), and instead occupy themselves with trifling matters (such as the rezoning of a specific building). The discussions go on for years on end and any attempt to step up the tempo is doomed to get lost in the bureaucratic jungle. This bureaucracy paralyzes crucial plans but at the same time, does nothing to prevent the implementation of harmful ones. New York developed itself on its own. The idea of requiring every move in the city to receive authorization from a committee made up of representatives of government ministries and various local authorities would never occur to the New Yorkers. If anyone were to suggest that a construction project in Manhattan had to get a stamp of approval from a committee on which sit representatives of the cities of Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse, he would be committed to a mental institution. The outcome is obvious: The current municipal-planning regime in Israel has led to urban stagnation - and this is notwithstanding Israel's impressively fast-growing economy. Poor neighborhoods are not freed of their neglect; there is no real, significant improvement in infrastructures; new neighborhoods are built without cultural and leisure facilities; and worst of all the supply of apartments - especially for young couples - is too small, causing prices and rents to soar. It is difficult to come up with a single national-social benefit to be gained from the current planning regime in Israel. It doesn't make any difference even when matters of life or death are concerned. When the current minister of the interior, Meir Sheetrit, was minister of transportation, he condemned the foot-dragging in the regional planning committees because the committees were holding up plans for safe train crossings, causing crashes and deaths on the train tracks. SO WHAT should we do? We must make a clear differentiation between those local authorities that are worthy of confidence and trust, those that should be entitled to plan their cities as they see fit, as in New York, and those local authorities that require oversight. The former will include local authorities that are not in need of government grants and about which there are no reports of suspicions by the State Comptroller or local auditor. All the other authorities will fall into the second category - but rather than needing to get authorization from a regional committee, an experienced urban planner will review all plans and make sure that they address all the interests of urban development, including concern for young couples, green areas and leisure, entertainment and cultural sites. The current planning regime must not be allowed to continue to exist. There's no reason why the story of New York's West Side can't be repeated in Tel Aviv. The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, a former minister of education and MK, as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.