Jerusalem’s public squares are in trouble

Urban public squares are a most important defining part of city life.

Jerusalem Western Wall, Dome of the Rock 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jerusalem Western Wall, Dome of the Rock 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The public improvements program of historic proportions in Jerusalem’s city center, linked to the building of the light rail line and involving the expenditure of hundreds of millions of shekels, has been underway now for over a decade.
But while elements of this extremely large and complex undertaking have proven successful and of high quality, mainly the treatment of streets and pedestrian malls, a glaring blind spot in the planning effort is related to the city’s urban squares, whether newly designed or modified as part of this program or not yet dealt with at all.
Jerusalem, to be fair, is not alone in this regard. Tel Aviv, for example, has more than its share of failed public spaces. Atarim Square, which effectively blocks pedestrian access to the sea, is a beachfront slum. Dizengoff Square died the minute it was elevated above street level, where the real life of any city takes place.
Hamedina Square isn’t a square at all but an enormous, poorly maintained park of problematic dimensions.
Architects’ exaggerated aesthetic concerns, unrelated to the urban context and the scale of man, are often to blame. So too, at times, is the extremely narrow vision of transportation planners.
The failure appears to be a national one, and congenital.
Since these urban public spaces represent the capital’s social center, the very heart of the cities and thus part of their identities, nothing in urban design terms is more important. What is it that makes squares live or die? Although the shaping of urban space is an art, or at least should be, the key factors are easily understandable.
The main points: Urban squares, being the goal of the pedestrian movement system, must obviously be easily accessible by foot but also by public transportation. Safra Square, situated at the center of the city hall complex at some distance from and raised a full story above Jaffa Road, is not properly tied to this main pedestrian and public transportation artery.
Squares and the buildings around them need to be well-proportioned.
Monumentally-scaled Safra Square fails this test as well.
The massive Zion Square Hotel does harm to Zion Square, as does the Sha’arei Ha’ir building to Nordau Square, neither one of them offering anything at the pedestrian level.
In order to enable human identification and foster a sense of belonging, it is critical that squares be clearly defined spatially, having the right measure of visual enclosure, which sometimes can partially be achieved through landscaping.
Zion Square lacks definition.
Planting a tightly grouped set of trees to the east of Bank Leumi, for example, a minimal intervention, might provide the additional necessary enclosure.
Trees and seating alone aren’t nearly enough. Squares should encourage social interaction.
Public squares succeed when life takes place around them as well as within. It is the interaction between adjoining buildings and squares that make them interesting, lively and safe. The recently completed Davidka Square, designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta, cut off as it is from adjacent commercial frontage by a newly constructed arcade which acts as a barrier, hasn’t a chance to come alive.
It is not surprising in the least that Safra Square, bounded by a rarely-used stage and dead arcades, remains desolate. Here, major surgery is required.
The street-level functions of buildings adjoining squares are most important. Banks (such as the three bordering Zion Square), supermarkets and department stores, insulated as they are, kill opportunities to give them life.
Small-scale retail enterprises, outdoor cafes and certain public buildings with active ground-floor frontage are far more desirable.
Finally, squares should be comfortable and clean, safe and inviting, be constructed of warm materials, well-shaded, having visual focal points such as a fountain or an urban sculpture.
With most of the planning effort having been focused on Jerusalem’s city center area for more than a decade, Mayor Nir Barkat needs to be reminded that our long neglected neighborhood squares are equally important. Rundown Denya Square, directly opposite the light rail station bearing its name, for example, the traditional heart of the Beit Hakerem neighborhood where Mayor Barkat himself resides, hasn’t been attended to in over 50 years. The perfect place to begin.
Treating these problematic spaces and their surroundings after the fact is a difficult challenge – emergency rescue work.
Clearly, money alone is not the answer, neither are cosmetic solutions.
Required above all else: sensitivity to the human dimension.
Urban public squares are a most important defining part of city life.
Mayors set priorities. A lively and widely-used public realm, city-wide, ought to be one of them.The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.