Planning for the haredi community

While recognizing the severe problem of land availability, more Betar Illits and Modi’in Illits are not the answer.

Betar Illit 311 (photo credit: Bet Hashalom/WikiCommons)
Betar Illit 311
(photo credit: Bet Hashalom/WikiCommons)
Reliable demographic research estimates that by 2020, the haredi population – some 700,000 today (60 percent of whom live in poverty) – will reach close to a million, or 17% of the population. The haredi family’s average of about eight children is roughly triple the rate for the population as a whole. Barring major reductions in the birth rate, the dramatic increase in the haredi population, one of the fastest-growing in the world, isn’t likely to stop. With no signs of a slowdown in sight, profound social, economic and political impacts are likely Urgently needed is a comprehensive government policy.
Yet with the emphasis invariably placed on other issues such as core education, military and national service and labor-force participation, not enough attention has been given to their physical environmental needs. Often in the past, haredim populated neighborhoods constructed with the secular in mind. New neighborhood planning and building for haredim has mainly resembled that of secular communities, with superficial changes. Although special physical planning briefs have been prepared by the Construction and Housing Ministry, the approach so far has been bureaucratic in the main – expedient and lacking in depth. The predictable result is that the architecture and planning of new haredi neighborhoods and towns, whether within or beyond the Green Line, has generally been of poor quality.
The shortage of land reserves mandates, whenever possible, sensitively adding to or extending the existing urban fabric, rather than building additional new communities. Bnei Brak, for example, would do well to exploit the underutilized ground levels of many of its buildings to enable the construction of hundreds of additional homes. Jerusalem, with the assistance of the Foreign Ministry, should act to transfer the present United Nations Relief and Works Agency storage facilities, inexplicably situated in the midst of Jewish neighborhoods just north of Ma’alot Dafna, to another location. This 10-acre state-owned site could then easily be developed into a new haredi neighborhood of 400 dwellings.
WHILE RECOGNIZING the severe land shortage, more Betar Illits or Modi’in Illits are not the answer. The present government’s policy of planning new, exclusively haredi cities – Harish in the North and Kasif in the Negev – should be reexamined. Political and social considerations aside, such dispersion is extremely costly in terms of infrastructure, and unsustainable.
Given the expected demographic changes and the enormous expenditure that will be necessary to meet their needs, a major question needs to be addressed.
How can architects and planners design economic new haredi neighborhoods truly reflecting their inhabitants’ unique social structure and way of life? Important is knowing what not to do. Certain building typologies should be rejected outright. Residential towers are ill-suited to families with many young children.
High-rise housing has many disadvantages, among them high maintenance costs, poor access to the outdoors and far less privacy. The space around or enclosed by highrises is often a depressing no-man’s land.
The low-rise, high-density alternative, sometimes referred to as courtyard housing, oriented toward families with children – never properly tested here – appears to be the most appropriate. Compact lowrise high-density housing that can provide a highquality living can reach economic densities suited to an urban setting through a combination of blocks of from three to not more than four to five stories in height.
Importantly too, low-rise construction is always considerably less costly than high-rise. Designing on a repetitive module, while keeping in mind that projects must be varied for interest will permit further economic benefits. Penn’s Landing Square in Philadelphia, designed by architect Louis Sauer, and the Donnybrook Quarter in London by Peter Barber Architects are two outstanding examples. The many advantages of this typology will thus be demonstrated to the general population as well Expansion capability is an all-important consideration.
Generous succa balconies and terraces that are easily enclosed or reopened, as well as the optimal use of roofs, are but some of the ways this might be achieved.
Built-in expandability means future savings. Children’s play areas need be located close by. Parking lots, empty of cars during certain hours, can double as additional play areas if properly designed.
The haredi community’s insulated way of life suggests strong and clearly defined boundaries. Local streets will of course be closed on Shabbat and religious holidays.
On weekdays, excellent inter-neighborhood transportation will foster ties to the wider community.
Haredi boys and girls attend separate schools. More numerous public buildings are the rule. These should be consolidated and as multipurpose as possible. Planting and greenery would offer a welcome change.
Creatively responding to the haredi community’s special needs will lead to new, far more compact and economic neighborhoods.

The writer is a Jerusalem architect and town planner.