Planning for Whom?

On the Design and Politics of Israeli Neighborhoods.

The nascence and evolution of neighborhoods are results of both ‘pull’ and ‘push’ factors. Notions of desired demographics rather than good urban design practice often determine the way our living spaces are built and function. Leaving aside the large urban cat in the room (i.e., “East Jerusalem”), I present examples from the city of Jerusalem in order to understand the current problems with urban planning generally and to suggest approaches to designing better cities.

Cities are places where different populations meet and interact. Urbanists often emphasize this feature when listing the virtues of cities, especially in times such as ours when values such as ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ are among the central ideals and aspirations of many sectors of society. That being said, within cities past and present, including cities known as multicultural urban centers, there are neighborhoods with distinct, more or less homogenous populations – areas where inhabitants can be said to be ‘like one another’ – sharing, among other things, a common culture, way of life and socio-economic status.

That people who live in close proximity to one another also share common attributes, by which their neighborhood can be described and identified, is accepted sociological fact. The attributes in question may be financial, cultural, familial, religious, or socio-economic in orientation. This phenomenon of neighborhoods being characterized and identified by an attribute shared by their inhabitants may be frowned upon by those advocating cultural diversity and interaction among people who are dissimilar. But it remains a persistent feature of the urban reality and not only of planned, ideological settlements.

Neighborhoods are not static entities. Populations change over time. People age, children move away, communities go through processes of revitalization or disintegration. Yet, there are planners who relate to populations and to neighborhoods—especially new neighborhoods—as fixed entities that will persist throughout the natural life span, and beyond. It is this inclination, or not, to fully engage with the “historical” nature of the physical space which human beings inhabit that lies at the heart of the divide between two divergent schools of urban design. These two approaches address differently a fundamental question in urban planning: should neighborhood planning be aimed at a particular target population, or is it that customized planning is ultimately stultifying and counter-productive?

The principles of good urban design are both universal and particular in scope. The “universal” aspect is founded on general observations about human behavior and preferences: the distance most people are willing to walk in order to buy food, for instance, or to travel to school, or to work. The planner, therefore, tries to ensure that education, employment, sustenance, together with cultural and entertainment facilities, are within reasonable distance from the home; thus, the main part of one’s waking life will be spent not in a car, but rather in what the individual would regard as meaningful and important activities. In light of these considerations, neighborhood plans are drawn up to develop environments sufficiently universal to provide a quality urban space that promotes mixed land-use; compact neighborhoods that enable walking to a given destination, while at the same time establishing a familiar neighborhood pattern that can be reproduced over and over again. Thus, one’s neighborhood can be viewed as an ‘‘everyplace,” be it in Rotterdam, Liverpool or Rome; in a word, anywhere. The planner does not have to decide if a particular public building will house a synagogue, a mosque or a church, only that the facility will be accessible and within walking distance from most parts of the neighborhood.

The “particular,” customized approach to planning tends to ignore the fact that neighborhood populations are not constant, that the overarching characterization of the inhabitants of a neighborhood does change over time. People grow older; their financial situation may change, and they may decide to move to other neighborhoods, based on their perceived needs of the moment. The belief that one can create an environment to satisfy the needs and interests of its present inhabitants for an indeterminate period of time discounts the dynamic nature of human existence, at both the individual and the societal level. But beyond this, there are planners who believe that people should live only with people similar to themselves. They think of the tendency of people to live near people like themselves as a prescriptive—and not only a descriptive—aspect of human communal life.

The idea of the constancy of neighborhoods may seem to be supported by the use of population-centered names— ethnic or group-denotative designations—for certain areas within the city. Many North American cities have enclaves named or nicknamed with reference to the ethnicity of their residents, such as “Chinatown,” “Little Italy,” and “Korea Town.” This, however, is not a unique phenomenon; nor does it indicate the longevity of the ethnic composition of such urban areas. Neighborhoods with similar cognomens existed in ancient Rome, and in most—if not all—of the cities of the Ottoman Empire, where cities were divided into mahalles, or quarters, separating the religious and ethnic communities inhabiting them.

Yet, the population of these areas were not fixed and unchanging, and this remains the case today. Israeli neighborhoods are often known by their dominant resident populations. Examples include Kerem Hateimanim in Tel Aviv (established in 1906), Jerusalem’s Bucharim neighborhood (established in 1894), and the historic city of Jerusalem itself, divided according to group affiliations. The two aforementioned neighborhoods were originally founded for and by certain groups of people; but over time, their social, urban and political realities changed—and so too their resident populations.

The demographic makeup of a neighborhood is shaped by both “pull” (attract) and “push” (propel) factors. Some people congregate as a community because they desire this, i.e., due to a “pull”; others may do so because others think that they ought to—or actually force them to (“push”). “Pull” factors tend to be predominant in situations where people deliberately seek a new place of residence and are drawn toward the lifestyles, facilities, or like-minded individuals that they believe will further the achievement of their goals.

Dr. Marik Shtern, a researcher at the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University, has shown that during the past decade, Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood has become one of the city’s most diverse locales. From a neighborhood with a populace made up of mostly secular and liberal religious Jews, French Hill is today populated by secular Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Muslim and Christian Arabs who have all moved into the area. A closer look, however, reveals that underlying this cultural, religious, and national diversity is a factor common to all these groups, i.e., they are all what is generally described as middle class. Thus their attraction (“pull”) to that neighborhood was—as they confirm in personal interviews Stern conducted and published in an article on these changes in Urban Geography in 2018 —to enjoy the middle-class amenities their previous neighborhoods lacked. And so in order to be able to live according to a desired lifestyle and standard of living, they chose a neighborhood characterized by residents who shared these aspirations. Seen from this perspective, the fact that French Hill is diverse does not – in itself – suggest an argument that the residents who live there moved there because it was diverse.

In contrast to “pull” factors, “push” factors best explain the existence of ghettos (in the sense of poor, neglected urban areas), created and perpetuated by willful actions or policies of neglect directed at certain sectors of the community. They also explain cases in which populations are pushed out of areas, in order to made room for more desirable residents. In other words the “push” factor is used to either keep in or keep out some demographic. This was the case with the well-situated Yemin Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem, with its panoramic views of the Old City and its picturesque housing stock. As a consequence of an urban renewal and conservation programs almost all of its original Mizrahi Jewish residents were forced to leave for either financial or legal reasons, and they were subsequently replaced by a different population consisting of writers, artists and wealthy people. The ‘evolution’ of this neighborhood was thus brought about by a policy that ‘pushed’ out its original population in favor of preferred new residents.

Of course, the most decisive “push”-type agents of population change in this part of the world are the wars and hostilities that have contributed to the changing demographic nature of Israeli locales.

The presence of diversity in neighborhoods where “push” presents itself as the agent of demographic change can occur in the interim period of transition, from an old to a new demographic group. This can clearly be seen today in the coastal city of Jaffa, to which more and more Jews are gradually moving—pricing out the veteran Arab population, who are leaving to take up residence in more southern centers such as Bat Yam which are cheaper to live in. Motives and values notwithstanding, this transition period has de facto changed the city environment, from a neighborhood defined by largely uniform social and cultural values into an interesting example of urban diversity.

Another agent of “push” urban change is what can be described as demographic urban planning. The goal of such processes is to use urban design as a means of determining the specific population types that will inhabit specific neighborhoods. The tools of urban design and planning are statutory; their impact is often only revealed many years after the plans have been set into motion. Nonetheless, planners often believe they can know who will—or, to put it more acutely, who should or should not—live in particular neighborhoods.

For many urban designers, the ideal is to create diverse neighborhoods. In Israel, this trend gained popularity following the translation into Hebrew in the later part of the first decade of the 2000’s of the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities by the urban planner and activist Jane Jacobs. Jacobs critiques Modernist urban planning practices for having created divisions within cities, rather than developing a dense, diversified urban fabric—such as that which typified New York’s Greenwich Village, an exemplar in her opinion. Jacobs argues that when we separate land into distinct areas according to use, compelling people to work, live, study and so on in separate spaces, we create residential areas that are empty during the day and commercial areas that are empty at night. Also, because people have to drive from one area to another, traffic jams ensue, people wasting significant chunks of the day in cars or on public transit. Notwithstanding the examples she presents—or whether she managed to turn Greenwich Village into a diverse neighborhood or simply to drive the poor residents out—her stated goal was to popularize the notion of diverse, dense areas in the city, where people could live, shop, work, study, and carry on their daily lives within a single urban area, whose streets would be used by people at all times.

The desire to determine the potential inhabitants in a given neighborhood is not a back-office agenda in Israel. Political struggles between communities, and the attempts by different communities to “control” the nature of their neighborhoods, form the basis for some of the fiercest struggles in municipal politics. Building specifically for Jews, for Arabs, or for ultra-Orthodox Jews is a common topic of discussion in city planning committee meetings. Yet these goals and strategies to achieve these goals do not appear in official planning documents. Nor are there official zoning plans stating which areas are designated for which populations. Nonetheless, for example, whenever Jerusalem’s planners seek to exclude or dissuade ultra-Orthodox Jews from purchasing apartments in certain residential areas, there are several tactics they may employ. The creation of housing units smaller than 50 m2 is an effective exclusionary tactic because—given the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews have large families—they are not interested in residing in such small (relatively speaking) apartments. For example, the new Central Business District (CBD) of Jerusaelm, currently under construction at the entrance to the city, contains a limited number of housing units designated as “Employment Supporting Residences” (מגורים תומכי תעסוקה)—prohibited from being combined into larger units. On the face of it, this appears to be an accommodation for live-work arrangements. But when one considers the unique size of these apartments and the location of the new district, one cannot but suspect an underlying demographic intention, or “push.”

Because the new CBD is situated between several largely ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, restricting the size of these apartments and prohibiting the joining of smaller apartments into larger units may very well be aimed at preventing the continuity of these neighborhoods. This technique is not the only one that has been deployed to limit the expansion of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Another tactic is based on the prevalent belief that ultra-Orthodox Jews do not use elevators on the Sabbath— and therefore do not buy apartments higher than the 6th floor. Building residential apartments above this level is, therefore, yet another surreptitious way to exclude the ultra-Orthodox from buying into a building project. Nevertheless, it unclear that these measures will have an impact since there are plenty of examples of ultra-Orthodox families living in buildings, both in Israel and abroad, that are higher than 6th floors.

The upshot of this finagling is that, rather than focusing on the types of housing and land use that can make a neighborhood a better place to live, planners make decisions about housing unit size, location and height aimed at restricting the demographic makeup of their project. This mode of planning handicaps planners from considering, and minimizing, the impact of possible future demographic changes.

Another example of this myopic planning perspective is a phenomenon seen in the Har Nof section of Jerusalem. Although automobile ownership and usage in this predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood is well below the city average, developers had been compelled to comply with the city’s parking code, and to provide more than one parking space per apartment based on the projections of transportation planners with regard to demographic projections of car ownership in each neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The problem is it is impossible to confidently predict the population composition of any particular neighborhood at some defined point in the future, let alone how many cars they will own. In Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem the need for parking spaces is not very high because many families—despite their large size—do not own cars. Developers were compelled, regardless of need, to build these parking spaces. These spaces, previously designated for parking, increased in value as a result of growing demand for living spaces, and people started building apartments in them without permits. So, inadvertently, due to city planners unfounded demographic projections regarding car ownership, a host of sub-standard subterranean apartments were constructed to take advantage of these spaces. This situation may have turned out very differently had the planners originally focused solely on creating optimal living spaces, rather than trying to predict who would live in this area and how many cars they would own. The planners did not, and should have not, had ultra-Orthodox residents in mind when they forced the parking code on the developers, but rather should have set criteria which were flexible enough to meet the needs and forms of living of many different and changing residents.

Attempting to anticipate the distinct community groups that will populate specific neighborhoods leads to the development of areas ill-equipped to adapt to demographic change. The “Neighborhood for the Young” that appears in advertisements does not remain the home of the young forever. In time some residents will move out and others will move in; some will want one car, two cars or no cars at all.

The planning of living areas for all is not new, and it has encountered its own set of difficulties and problems. In the first part of the twentieth century, High Modernist Architecture attempted to realize this ambitious idea. Its “scientific” approach, which had its roots in a perspective known as the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), sought to build living spaces according to exacting parameters presumed as suitable for all. By formulating these absolute, universal parameters, it was felt that these living spaces would practically design themselves.

The Czech architect Karl Teige promised to find a universal code of Existenzminimum (subsistence dwelling) to provide for all. Particular cultural references and site-specific design elements were discarded; in their stead, architecturally identical blocks of minimalistic housing units—developed according to universal parameters and standards set out by Modernists such as Teige—began to appear in Fez, Lyon, Rotterdam, London, Chicago and even Beer Sheva. While these projects did succeed in bringing affordable housing to the masses, the majority did not stand the test of time. Maintenance problems condemned a large portion of these projects to dereliction. In addition, the inherent problems of High Modernist urban planning, inclined to separate and compartmentalize land areas according to use (see the discussion re. Jane Jacobs above) resulted in large urban areas being left vacant of any human presence during large periods of the day and night.

Planning is a long-term endeavor, the results of which may only be judged decades later. The fact that Jerusalem had been, and remains, a divided and sectionalized city may be precisely the basis of its potential to become a multicultural city. The job of the planner has both universal and particular aspects. One must try to develop flexible spaces based on universal principles of good design: walkable distances, mixed-use areas, accessibility to natural areas and neighborhood parks, reliable, efficient and safe transportation routes, to cite a few examples. Along with this, it is important to cultivate site-specific areas related to the history and culture of the past, as well as to the present and future of the city.

While it is important to acknowledge the tendency of most people to live with others with whom they share some common bonding factor, I firmly believe that the interaction with people different from one another is a constructive personal and social catalyst that makes for a better society. We should, therefore, try to formulate urban design approaches that facilitate such interactions.

There are interesting attempts in this direction in urban centers such as the city of Amsterdam, where an urban policy was instituted to mix different sectors of the population in common building projects. This policy, which employs a 40/40/20 distribution formula, is currently in use with social housing projects. Housing associations are required to allocate 40% of a designated project to lower-income housing, 40% to middle-income housing, and 20% to the private sector. The same formula applies to private sector housing, where blocks of apartments must be allocated to public housing. Mechanisms such as this mix populations groups, and ensure that the housing stock designated for lower-income housing is of the same quality as that of the private sector. When one designs a project that includes different populations, spaces must have an inherent flexibility that is not limited to the requirements of a single client, but able to accommodate several types of populations and to anticipate both present and possible future needs.

One can say that these planned spaces hold embedded contradictions. But this is precisely what enables them to last over time. Though not directly about urbanism per se, Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture stresses the point that it is the very tension between elements that produces great architecture. If we design our neighborhoods such as to encompass many forms of living, creating plans for not one but for many possible future types of inhabitants and circumstances, we will invariably produce better living spaces.

We should adopt the universal aspirations of the Modernists, without their minimization of city design through component separation. Cities are spaces where different types of people interact; this should be our goal.

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