Israeli gov't plans more densely populated cities

Tel Aviv Photo: Nir Elias

The Planning Administration insists that population density in cities is less in Israel than in Europe and the US.

The Ministry of Finance Planning Administration Subcommittee for Principle Planning Matters has met to discuss the Planning Administration's proposal to dramatically increase population density under the Tama 35 plan.

Israelis stuck in traffic jams already feel that they live in the most crowded place on earth, and not without reason. Israel's 400 per square meter population density is among the highest in the world. The Planning Administration, however, says that population density in Israel's cities is far less than in cities in Europe and the US: 8,565 per square meter in Tel Aviv, 7,186 per square meter in Jerusalem, and 4,346 per square meter in Haifa. Population density in Barcelona is four times as great as in Tel Aviv.

Tama 35, approved in 2005, is based on a plan devised by architect Adam Mazur. It is designed to strengthen the existing city, avoid suburbanization, encourage multiple land uses, improve public transportation, etc. The Planning Administration is now seeking to make construction much more dense. In essence, they are saying that the crowding we have now is simply not enough.

The justification for crowding now is two-fold, and all the planning personnel we spoke with agreed on adding housing units to a given area and creating a better municipal environment that offers more proximate services, while relying on more efficient public transportation.

Planning Administration head Dalit Zilber told "Globes," "The Planning Administration is currently considering a change in the density table of Tama 35 in order to create a revolutionary reorganization of urban space that will improve the quality of people's lives. We want an urban space that will be active for all hours of the day, with opportunities for study, business, commerce, residences, and leisure."

Former Real Estate Appraisers of Israel chairperson Erez Cohen says that one of the results of approving the plan will be a leap in land prices. "Although the plan is a national outline plan from which detailed local plans will have to be derived, wherever land rights increase, it can be assumed that prices will rise immediately after the plan receives final approval." This will take more time. As a result of the detailed plans, it is likely that we will also see local authorities steeply raising betterment taxes.

From housing units per dunam to number of people per square meter

The main change that will be discussed tomorrow is a conceptual change. Instead of measuring density in terms of housing units per dunam in built-up areas in residential neighborhoods, density will be measured in number of people per square meter in a city. The Planning Administration says that the reason is that if we look at a neighborhood in terms of housing units per dunam, it may appear crowded, but in many cases, the area zoned for housing in plans amounts to barely one quarter of the area. Where does the rest of the area go? For public buildings, various facilities, roads and sidewalks, and open spaces that can be planned and built more efficiently.

If we look at many neighborhoods in Israel in terms of people per square meter, the Planning Administration says, a lot of space wasted there can be saved: dead roadside areas, areas near filling stations that cannot be used for residences, public spaces that are not used because they are inaccessible, gardens that are empty for most of the day, etc.

Changing the criterion

Looking at residential neighborhoods merely in terms of housing units per dunam also makes it impossible to consider different types and sizes of housing units. When the marriage age, the divorce rate, and life expectancy are all rising, there is more need for small apartments suitable for one or two people, meaning more single people, more divorced people, and more elderly people. This is easier to achieve by thinking in terms of people, instead of housing units. In this context, the Planning Administration wants to diversify the mix of apartments and increase the number of small apartments along the light rail routes.

The Planning Administration cites the haredi (Jewish ultra-Orthodox) cities as an example. 12 housing units per dunam (48 housing units per acre) may not sound very dense, but in the haredi areas, there are nine people in each apartment, so it is very dense. The streets in the haredi cities work very well from an urban perspective; they are bustling with life at all hours. Even though the haredim have fewer high-rises because they do not use elevators on the Sabbath, the density and intensity on the street are much better than in the new neighborhoods.

The revised density principles will be valid not only for new neighborhoods, but also in urban renewal plans. Furthermore, the revised density policy will be valid in small communities and rural areas, not just in big cities.

Up until now, Tama 35 did not distinguish between different types of construction. The revised density table, however, distinguishes between three types of construction in every urban model: high density in main business centers and near light rail lines, medium density, and low density in private housing units.

Density will also increase in rural communities

The change is not a moderate one; density will increase dramatically. In large cities with more than 500,000 people , for example (only Jerusalem as of now, but it is assumed that more cities will exceed this number in the future, including Tel Aviv and perhaps Netanya, Haifa, and Petah Tikva), density will increase from 16 housing units per dunam (64 housing units per acre) in main business centers to 30 housing units per dunam (120 housing units per acre), and to 20 housing units per dunam (80 housing units per acre) in medium density construction.

In cities with up to 200,000 people, which currently includes most of the large cities in Israel, for example Ashdod and Rishon Lezion, density will increase from a minimum of 14 housing units per dunam (56 housing units per acre) to 20 housing units per dunam (80 housing units per acre) along the light rail line and to 16 housing units per dunam (64 housing units per acre) in medium construction.

Even in the small cities density will increase. For example, in cities with 20,000-50,000 people, e.g. Yehud, Kiryat Ono, Ofakim, Tira, and Maalot Tarshiha, density is current 3-7 housing units per dunam (12-28 housing units per acre). This will increase to a minimum of 11 housing units for medium-density construction and to a minimum of 15 housing units in construction along transportation lines, such as currently exists in Nahariya, and soon in Karmiel.

Quality of construction: Density is not a dirty word

The Planning Administration's proposal is not confined to increasing the number of housing units; it will also affect the quality of design, or more exactly, how we will feel when we walk around our neighborhoods in 20, 30, and 40 years. How far away will the kindergarten be? Where will there be stores? Will we have to drive to get to services such as clinics, hobbies, and movie houses? Will our neighborhood be somewhat similar to our neighborhood today, or will its fabric change completely? These questions are frequently raised today about urban renewal projects in which the old neighborhood's identity is completely wiped out.

Another important aspect is the street level - the concept that what is important is not how many floors there are above, but what happens on the ground floor in the meeting between the building and the street. If the building is 25 storeys high but has a commercial floor below, it is far more likely to make people circulate than a 25-storey building closed to the street by a glass door.

The Planning Authority knows that it faces a difficult task: convincing the public that density is not a dirty word; it is a blessing. It wants to convince people that kindergartens on the ground floor of residential buildings, as in the Bezalel market project in Tel Aviv, for example, will become a common option, and not necessarily a bad one.

High density, the Planning Administration says, ensures more extensive municipal services close to home: more educational and cultural institutions, more commerce, and more access to efficient public transportation, which can exist only when there is an adequate mass of users. In order to justify rail transportation, such as a light rail or metro, projects that cost billions, density of 20,000-30,000 people per square meter is necessary, far greater than the density in cities in Israel.

It is not so simple, however. The lesson of the results of the last October's municipal elections is that people have become far more involved in planning and building matters, and will not hesitate to sign petitions, establish private organizations, hold demonstrations, and even go to court if necessary, as shown by the case of the outline plan for Hod Hasharon. Public sentiment is opposed to density and opposed to towers that change the face of the city and are difficult to maintain. Residents in many cities voted in favor of what they called "restrained construction" - infrastructure before buildings. In quite a few cases, they voted out mayors who promoted too much construction without appropriate infrastructure.

One issue about which consensus exists is that not every place is suitable for high-rises, which many feel generate alienation and are unsuitable for relatively small cities, not to mention their high maintenance costs. "There are all sorts of topologies that can generate great density," says a Planning Administration source. "Say that instead of one Park Tzameret in Tel Aviv, you could have made the entire city 7-8 storeys. You don't have to build towers at all."

If the high buildings are construction mainly along the light rail route - in Jerusalem, for example, the recent decision to build 30-storey buildings along the routes of the Red Line and the Green Line - it will be possible to settle for medium-density construction in the rest of the city. In this case, it may be possible to think about changing the lines for construction. Having four exposures is less essential now when there is air-conditioning and green construction, the Planning Administration says. A zero building line can be made for the street if it is a good street on which activity takes place.

"This is a fundamental change in attitude. Not everything is right for every place. It's illogical for every place to look the same. The regime of pure density and how much you have to allow for public needs is a problem. There needs to be more flexibility in planning. It has to be accompanied by condensing public spaces, and that has to come with public transportation. This is the basis for everything," Planning Administration sources say.

A common sight in new neighborhoods now is residential buildings of 14, and even 20, storeys, with a cluster of gardens on one floor, or at most two floors. Increasing density means not only condensing residences, but also the space designated for public buildings.

This is where things become even more complicated. When the budgets for public buildings come from government ministries, it is not easy to find financing for a building shared by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services, and the Ministry of Culture and Sport. If we want a more efficient building that will be open all day and also at night, however, it is essential to find a solution.

Additional saving on public spaces can come from creative thinking, for example green spaces above roads or creating a connection, say a bridge, between a poor area in with public spaces and an area that lacks public spaces. The Planning Authority sums it up by saying, "This is a fundamental change in approach."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 12, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Tel Aviv Photo: Nir Elias
Tel Aviv Photo: Nir Elias
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