Tel Aviv’s Blurry Eco-VisionApr 26th, 2009 | By Jesse Fox | Category: Uncategorized
“These days we are definitely green, we’re just not quite sure what that means yet.”
Tel Aviv kicked off its 100th birthday celebrations this month with an international conference on the city’s past and future development. The Centennial Conference on Urban Sustainability, held April 1-2, brought together local officials, entrepreneurs and academics with prominent thinkers from abroad to discuss the future of the city in light of contemporary environmental thinking.
The conference, which many had hoped would help breathe new life into the discussion about sustainable urban planning in Tel Aviv, met with mixed reviews. While some praised the attempt to juxtapose the local discourse with fresh input from international experts, others saw the event as unfocused and lacking a clear message.
The conference was organized into hour-long discussions of different aspects of sustainable urban planning, including energy, economy, demography, ecology, architecture and culture. Keynote speakers included foreign luminaries such as author Richard Register and architect Jeff Stein.
In several of the discussions, a divergence of messages became apparent between keynote speeches, delivered in English and drawing inspiration from the international discourse on sustainable urbanism, and panel discussions, which were conducted in Hebrew and dealt with the nuts and bolts of various local environmental initiatives.
The gap was bridged during the “social-demographic” panel. After listening to a presentation by Fiyaz Mughal of the British nonprofit organization Faith Matters, in which he expounded on efforts to integrate diverse communities in London in planning processes, a revealing discussion developed on the planning rights of the Arab community in Jaffa. The discussion, moderated by Haaretz political editor Shai Golden, focused on the ongoing threat of eviction from their homes that several hundred Jaffan families currently face.
Until recently, Professor Rachelle Alterman of the Technion told the audience, government institutions openly sought to Judaize Jaffa. Today, however, the situation is more complex, and the planning system is gradually becoming more sensitive to the rights of Arab communities. Still, she said, the government, which owns much of the land in Jaffa, could choose to leverage that land for the social and economic development of the community, but instead is doing the opposite.
Real estate developer Alon Kastiel disagreed and, to the surprise of many, pinned responsibility for the situation squarely on City Hall. The mayor is responsible, he said, and should pressure the government to modify its policies toward Jaffa’s Arabs. Gentrification of Jaffa, he added, would continue regardless. According to Kastiel, the solution is greater cooperation between City Hall and state institutions and the local community, as well as affordable housing for the local community. On this issue, he said, City Hall likes to talk a lot, but is not doing anything in practice.
Judge Khaled Kabub, a resident of Jaffa, added that government planning bodies should treat Arab communities like they treat Jewish communities, and allow them to expand and develop.
Another highlight came during the panel on architecture, when Lodovico Folin Calabi of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, who was asked to address the issue of development versus preservation, questioned the wisdom of allowing skyscrapers to be constructed in and around historical areas. Conservation, he said, should not be seen as an obstacle to development, but as a tool for development, and proceeded to make an impassioned plea for a city “scaled to the simplest of tools: our legs and eyes.”
In 2003, UNESCO recognized Tel Aviv’s “White City” as a World Heritage Site. This status has been cited by city officials as a reason for not approving additional skyscrapers in the city center, although tall buildings continue to be approved in other areas slated for preservation.
There are concerns, said Calabi, that the tall buildings being built around the White City are threatening the visual integrity of the historic quarter. He added that well-preserved environments that respect their historical heritage are better places to live, perform better economically and reinforce a sense of community and place.
Calabi was followed by architect Amnon Bar Or, who reinforced Calabi’s point by describing the planning process which led to the construction of the Neve Tzedek tower, a 44-story residential building which towers over the low-rise Neve Tzedek neighborhood near Jaffa. Bar Or criticized the building for constituting a barrier between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, instead of a connecting link.
Danny Kaiser, Tel Aviv’s former City Engineer, chose not to respond directly to Calabi and Bar Or’s arguments in his presentation, and instead spoke vaguely about the need to integrate new construction with historical preservation projects.
The day’s discussions culminated in a panel entitled “The Vision of Tel Aviv 2025.” Mayor Ron Huldai opened the session, listing the city’s accomplishments in recent years and calling for a metropolitan transport authority to fulfill the city’s urgent need for efficient public transportation. He also expressed his wish that Tel Aviv would “preserve its democratic, tolerant and pluralistic spirit” over the next century.
A blueprint for the city’s growth over the next decade and a half was presented by current City Engineer Hezi Berkowitz. The plan envisions several new large-scale projects for the city, including a new airport built on an artificial island off the coast of the city, a seaside park and new urban quarter in the northwest of the city, a subway system and new roads and bike paths, new parks, cultural and entertainment districts, and several large office developments, including Complex 2000, a new skyscraper district located on what is now Tel Aviv’s Arlozoroff train station.
Berkowitz also noted that, for the first time in its history, Tel Aviv was in the midst of drawing up a comprehensive urban master plan, which will guide development in the city for decades to come.
According to city council member Rachel Gilad-Volner of City for All, many in Tel Aviv had hoped that the Centennial Conference would attempt to stimulate a real dialogue about the city’s problems. “A lot of people came to hear original thinking,” she said. Instead, Gilad-Volner described the event as a “song of praise” by the city’s leadership to itself. “The question of public transportation, which is critical,” she added, “was not even seriously discussed.”
The event was also criticized for the high price of tickets, which kept many residents away, and for excluding the various green organizations that are active in promoting sustainable urban planning in Tel Aviv, including the Israel Bicycle Association, the Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) and its “Green Forum” and others.
City Hall rejected this criticism, telling Metro: “The environmental organizations were not only invited, but their representatives took an important part in the conference, and were included as partners in the process of planning the conference, as well as on the various panels.”
However, despite the criticism, there were also signs that City Hall is taking more of an interest in sustainability than it has in recent years. Several veteran activists expressed satisfaction that city officials were at least beginning to use the language of sustainability in their presentations.
As one City Hall official put it: “These days we are definitely green, we’re just not quite sure what that means yet.”
Popular local blogger Yoav Lerman (Hebrew link) wasn’t convinced, dismissing the panel discussions as “bad and boring,” and noting that Tel Aviv is actually moving away from the principles of urban sustainability by becoming more car-dependent and less pedestrian-friendly.
By Jesse Fox. Published in the Jerusalem Post’s Metro magazine as Vision for Future Still Blurry on April 24 2009.