Tel Aviv 2025

Aug 24th, 2010 | By | Category: Featured Articles

What the city’s new urban master plan means, and why no one seems to know for sure what’s in it.


New skyline: one possible future for the city center, east of Ibn Gvirol. New tall buildings in brown, currently planned in purple, existing in blue.

The Tel Aviv Municipality is promoting a new urban master plan, officially named תא/5000, which will guide the city’s growth and development through the year 2025. In formulating the plan, Tel Aviv joins Israel’s other three major cities, all of which are in the process of replacing old, obsolete master plans.

The new plan will be a statutory document, with the force of law. As such, it should clear up much of the present ambiguity regarding what is and isn’t permissible to build, and where, in Tel Aviv. The plan is based on the city’s previously-formulated strategic plan, as well as input from an extensive public participation process.

However, the city’s activists and NGO community are up in arms about the way the plan is being promoted.

What’s in the plan?

First, the numbers. According to the plan, Tel Aviv’s population will increase  to 450,000 people in 2025, up from 393,000 people today.

But the plan’s major emphasis is on creating new office space, with the stated aim of preserving Tel Aviv’s status as the country’s business and financial capital. In order to accomplish this, the plan adds an amount of office space equaling 17 of New York’s ill-fated Twin Towers to the city, ultimately more than doubling the city’s current volume of office space.

Critics have argued that so much new office space, without a corresponding increase in housing stock, is liable to drive housing prices, already on the rise, even higher, which would further compound current problems with gentrification and a lack of affordable housing in the city. And if Tel Aviv’s planned mass transit system fails to materialize over the next decade or so (and according to many, this is a likely scenario), housing prices may climb higher still, when some half a million people employed in the city are forced to move closer to the center to avoid endless traffic jams.

The “planning principles” guiding the plan are relatively progressive and in line with trends in contemporary planning. They include things like: promoting “multimodal and sustainable transportation,” mixed land uses, quality public space, a mix of housing solutions, regulations concerning where hi-rises will and will not be permitted and environmental regulations.

While these are solid principles on which to build a city’s master plan, the municipality has not yet seen fit to explain the specific policy steps that it intends to take based on these principles. So, for example, while the principles include creating “quality public space,” no one can be sure if this means that the municipality will actually begin to pay more attention to urban design, or if we should simply expect more of the same. And while the plan’s principles emphasize sustainable transportation, the new plan contains some controversial new highways, especially in the south of the city.

“Green buildings” are also mentioned in the plan’s principles, but does this mean that 104,000 new housing units and 9.6 million square meters of new office space will be LEED-certified, or at least built according to green building principles? None of this is explained in detail in the documents that the municipality has released, and it seems the municipality prefers to keep its commitments vague in these areas, at least for now. There are, by the way, apparently a host of policy documents attached to the plan which deal with these issues, but they of course have not been released to the public.

As far as transportation goes, the plan predictably rehashes longstanding plans for a metropolitan mass transit system. While ambitious and impressive, these plans have been stuck for years, and negotiations between the state and the consortium that won the tender for project recently collapsed. Even if the problems are miraculously solved, the system’s first lines are not expected to start running for at least another decade. Thus, the plan contains no meaningful transportation solutions for the foreseeable future.

A Lack of Transparency

To this day, the plan has not been presented to the public in full. Although an exhaustive and even unprecedented public participation process was undertaken ahead of the plan’s formulation , the sessions were mostly designed to solicit input from residents, with very little revealed about the specifics of the plan. From the documents describing the public participation process (which have been released in full), it appears that a large percentage of the participants were not particularly satisfied with any of the alternatives that were presented to them. Several documents have also been posted online regarding the information that serves as the basis for the plan, and some of the different alternatives presented in the plan. (The information contained in this post was culled mainly from these documents, as well as materials presented to city council members recently.)

However, most of the information that has been made public is selective and even incomplete. The scale and nature of the information posted online does not even approach the sophisticated websites that cities such as New York and New Orleans have built as part of their master planning processes.

Adding to the confusion, the municipal spokesman’s office has refused to comment on the plan or grant interviews with its planners before it is approved by the city council (in other words, while the public is still able to exert influence). Perhaps for this reason, media coverage of the master planning process has been sparse, and many are not even aware of its significance or even existence.

Presumably, after the city council approves the plan, an effort will be made to make the public aware of its contents, but by that point any opportunity for the public to have a meaningful influence on the plan, including expressing its objections to specifics, will have passed.

The overall effect of this process is that, while the city can claim, rightly, that it has created space for public input regarding the plan, it has also managed to tightly control the terms of that discussion by reserving the right to release only that information which serves its purposes.

In a scathing letter sent recently to a member of the city council, the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel’s (SPNI) Tel Aviv center criticizes the way the plan was presented to the city council. The 4-page letter pointed to a long line of procedural failures, inconsistencies and ambiguities, among them the fact that complete maps were not presented to city councilors, a lack of clarity regarding procedures for public participation, a failure to adequately engage with urban nature and sustainability issues and so on.

The SPNI also criticized the plan for its overemphasis on massively increasing office and residential density, without a corresponding increase in green spaces and public institutions or adequate public transportation solutions. In conclusion, the letter called on city council members to heed the public’s objections to specific projects (mainly in the south of the city), and to plan the city for the benefit of its current and future inhabitants.

An Alternative Plan

Meanwhile, a group of urban planners and architects from south Tel Aviv has been working on a plan of its own, which is meant to serve as an alternative to the municipality’s master plan and a basis for changes to it. The alternative plan, which was recently presented to municipal planners and residents, focuses on south Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

The alternative plan asserts the uniqueness of south Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and demands that these areas be planned with an eye toward preserving that uniqueness. Instead of filling up the area with massive buildings, the group suggests new construction that fits into the existing architectural fabric. Whereas the municipality’s plan calls for using roads in the south of the city as arteries for thru-traffic, the group proposes developing the area’s historical road grid and a network of urban streets and boulevards, while preserving the area’s ecological and architectural patrimony.

The alternative plan also suggests extending Tel Aviv’s historical preservation plan to Jaffa and south Tel Aviv, parts of which predate the “White City.” The alternative plan also puts a heavy emphasis on developing the area for its residents, preserving the existing human mosaic (especially in mixed Jewish-Arab Jaffa), creating affordable housing and a balanced housing mix and leveraging local assets into urban regeneration, without gentrification.

To what extent the municipality is willing to adopt any of these principles remains an open question.

What Happens Now?

Last week, the city council held the first of several hearings on the new master plan. The meeting focused on the northern and eastern quarters of the city. No special effort was made to make the public aware of the meeting, and in fact only a few dozen residents showed up to observe.

The members of the city council had quite a lot to say about the plan, most of it critical. In response, the mayor agreed to hold more frequent meetings, twice monthly, and encouraged  city council members to approach the planning team with their comments. Mayor Huldai also backtracked from his original plan to attain the council’s approval for the plan by the end of 2010.

To conclude, someone once wrote: Bureaucracies use boredom the way a skunk uses smell… Being part of democracy ought to feel exciting, and invigorating: we should view every part of it that’s boring with deep mistrust.

In the way that it has promoted this plan, the municipality has exhibited a deep distrust of its own residents, and a tendency to mask the democratic process with procedural jargon and a lack of clarity.

The city’s master plan is a huge opportunity, both for re-imaging the city and for including the residents of the city in the process in a way that builds identification with the city itself. Thus far, the leadership at the municipality has not shown that it understands this. One hopes that, after what happened this month in the city council, the city’s leadership will change its approach – and that the public will recognize that is also has a part to play in making that happen.

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2 comments
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  1. You didn’t mention whether there there should be heritage overlay on, and preservation of the original Tel Aviv buildings. Most will be Bauhaus buildings of the 1930s, But the “alternative plan also suggests extending Tel Aviv’s historical preservation plan to Jaffa and south Tel Aviv, parts of which predate the White City” – so there are older buildings as well.

  2. Mott,

    Tel Aviv has an approved preservation plan. You can find the map of buildings for preservation here: http://www.tel-aviv.gov.il/Hebrew/_MultimediaServer/documents/12517385.pdf and here: http://www.tel-aviv.gov.il/Hebrew/_MultimediaServer/documents/12517386.pdf.

    You will notice that the plan emphasizes mainly Bauhaus construction from the 1930’s, as well as what is known as the “Eclectic Style” from the 1920’s. Despite the fact that buildings of these styles also exist in Jaffa, which developed in parallel to Tel Aviv during those years, the municipal preservation plan does not cover Jaffa at all.

    Jaffa does have even older buildings than those in Tel Aviv. They range from hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years old to century-old buildings constructed by Palestinians, Jews, Turks and the British. Some of these are protected by local plans, but all were left out of the official preservation plan.

    Critical historians like Sharon Rotbard, who happens to be part of the team promoting the “alternative plan,” have argued that the municipal powers that be have chosen to ignore these neighborhoods since they don’t conform to the “White City” narrative that has been built around the Bauhaus architecture of central Tel Aviv. If you are interested, there are some excerpts from his books, translated into English, on his blog: http://babelarchitectures.blogspot.com/2009/01/excerpts-from-english-translation-of.html.

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