Let the country's heart thrive

Thoughts on Tel Aviv's centennial conference on urban sustainability.

tel aviv 100 fireworks 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
tel aviv 100 fireworks 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
At the ripe old age of 100, Tel Aviv has earned the right to a bit of introspection. From its origins as a dusty "garden suburb" of the ancient port city of Jaffa to its lofty position today as the thriving heart of the country, the city has come a long way. Despite the many mistakes that have been made over the years, Tel Aviv has developed as an exceedingly pleasant place to live, with a dynamic energy that attracts admiring visitors from around the world. Sometimes it seems, however, that the city's leadership might not possess the wisdom to nurture the very things that make the city great. Thus it was a welcome surprise to hear that City Hall had chosen to kick off the city's 100th birthday celebrations with a conference on urban sustainability. The Centennial Conference on Urban Sustainability, held earlier this month, could have provided an opportunity for a serious discussion of the city's past and future development. The city invited a series of excellent speakers from abroad, who brought fresh ideas to the table. Despite this, many of the discussions felt stale and lacking in substantive debate. Below are a few thoughts on moving toward greater urban sustainability in Tel Aviv, based on what was (and wasn't) said at the event. 1. Be modest. This month's conference was anything but modest. The mayor, city engineer and a host of other official personalities waxed poetic about their own accomplishments. It was clear that the city's leadership thinks very highly of itself and its own abilities, but not very highly of other people's ideas - especially when they raise doubts about the way the city is used to doing things. Way back in the 1960s, American theorist Jane Jacobs argued that large-scale urban development schemes often do more damage to cities than good - and leave behind scars that persist in the urban fabric for generations. To those who shape the city: Be modest. Tread lightly today, for tomorrow the theories and ideologies that guide you will likely be discredited and discarded in favor of new ways of thinking. 2. Choose: cars or people. "Better cars do not make a better city, they make a city worse," said Richard Register in his presentation at the conference. In many cities around the world, the car is now seen as the greatest enemy of the livable city. In Israel, the car is still king. In Tel Aviv, there are plans for new highways all over the city (these, for some reason, did not feature prominently in presentations by city officials). In both Haifa and Jerusalem, expensive mass transit projects have not stopped city planners from attempting to widen streets in the city center, often necessitating large-scale demolition of historic buildings. Cars take space away from people, fill the streets with noise, pollute the air and even hit people, sometimes maiming and killing them. Cars multiply: More and more cars hit the streets every year, and this means we must provide them with new roads. Even if, as Tel Aviv's planners hope, the city's streets fill up with nonpolluting electric cars, our problems will not be solved. Why should we keep building our cities as if drivers' rights are sacred - especially considering that traffic problems could be easily solved with better public transportation? City planners must choose: a city for cars, or a city for people. They can't have both. 3. Make decision-making more inclusive. Urban decision-making is by its very nature a complex process - a balancing act between many and diverse interests, which requires endless patience and an open mind. Our mayor, a former air force officer and high school principal, tends to view decision-making as a hierarchical affair: One man gives the orders and everyone else must fall into line. Perhaps the real test of a city's openness is how it is perceived by neighborhood activists. But ask some of the people in South Tel Aviv struggling for progress in their communities what they think of the city's decision-makers, and they will likely paint an unflattering picture. In Jaffa, as noted during one of the conference panels, an entire community is living under constant threat of eviction. No city can be sustainable unless its communities feel that their needs matter. 4. The grass ain't greener. Israel is in the midst of a very serious water crisis. Despite reaching a compromise with the Water Authority which will allow them to continue watering parks, the country's local authorities must consider how to adapt their landscaped open spaces to the semi-arid climate. Somehow, grassy lawns have become the default choice for yards and urban parks, despite the fact that grass is not native to this part of the world and requires huge amounts of water to survive. In Tel Aviv's new seaside parks, especially near Jaffa, entire stretches of land have become vast lawns: sod rugs stitched together over the sand, sustained by extensive sprinkler systems. Native plants and grasses, the kind that grow naturally up and down the coastline, consume little water and can often survive without any special irrigation systems. Landscape architects, take note. 5. Think outside the glass box. Land is scarce, argues City Hall, and therefore our cities must densify. In practice, this translates into a disjointed skyline, with new skyscrapers popping up haphazardly wherever developers can find enough empty land. Despite stubborn opposition from residents, City Hall often sides with the developers. However, there is already plenty of evidence that the tall buildings we are building today are more compatible with short-term profits than long-term sustainability, and add little to the functioning of the city. In his presentation, creativity guru Charles Landry described Tel Aviv's tall buildings as "isolated blobs" lacking any real interaction with the street. Still, for economic as well as cultural reasons, skyscrapers are promoted. A plan for one of the last new neighborhoods in the north of the city is called "Manhattan on the Sea," and proposes a new "downtown" of 30-35 story buildings. Walkable, mixed-use, human-scale neighborhoods can be just as dense (or denser, if they allocate less space to roads and parking lots) as high-rise areas, while providing a more humanizing environment. City Hall knows this - a study that it commissioned revealed no clear correlation between building heights and population density in Tel Aviv's neighborhoods. 6. Define sustainable. "Sustainability" is one of those words for which everyone has his own definition. With enough convincing, almost anything, no matter how ordinary, can be presented as "green" or "sustainable." Perhaps the time has come to formulate (with the full and equal participation, of course, of all stakeholders) a clear picture of what a truly sustainable Tel Aviv would look like. A serious dialogue with the many green organizations and community groups that fight every day for a more sustainable and human city (and which, by the way, were not invited to take part in the conference) would be a good place to start. The writer is an urban planner and writer based in Tel Aviv. He blogs at www.sustainablecityblog.com.