Tel Aviv gets a new master plan

Mar 27th, 2012 | By | Category: Featured Articles

The city’s new blueprint will not solve its major problems, but it will bring new hi-rises and business districts.

A new urban master plan for Tel Aviv-Jaffa was approved last night by the city’s local planning council by a 16-10 vote.

Brushing aside last-minute concerns raised by a number of city council members, Mayor Ron Huldai called on members of his coalition to pass the plan without further delay. Since his initial failed attempt to fast-track approval of the plan in 2010, Huldai has been watching the council’s deliberations with increasing impatience.

The plan itself is an impressive and professional document, but limited in scope. While it does create a framework for expanding the city’s housing stock over the next decade or so, it stops short of establishing a strong affordable housing program to help keep young people from being pushed out of the city by gentrification. And it has nothing to say about public housing or issues related to social justice, despite last summer’s social protests.

The plan will not solve Tel Aviv’s traffic problems either. It offers nothing beyond an existing light rail/subway plan, which has been stuck for over a decade, and foresees the continued dominance of private cars in the city in the future.

Nor does it propose steps to reduce the city’s carbon emissions. While most modern master plans use emissions reduction as a means to obtain broader goals of urban sustainability and quality of life, the words “climate change” do not even appear in Tel Aviv’s plan.

What the plan does do is to lay out, for the first time, what developers can build in the city, where, and how high. It allows for extensive construction of hi-rises and office buildings over the next couple of decades, which will ensure the city a solid tax base in the future.

However, it was promoted with a worrying lack of transparency. Throughout the process of putting together and discussing the plan, city hall refused to publish important parts of the plan. In fact, many of its core documents were only released for the first time last week. However, when city council members tried to hold a debate last night on the contents of these critical documents, their attempts were steamrolled by Huldai.

While the plan was still a work in progress, city hall made few attempts to make the public aware of its contents. However, literally minutes after it was approved, the municipality’s PR department issued self-congratulatory press releases to all the major financial media outlets, and even posted videos about the plan on Facebook.

The media, for its part, swallowed the city’s narrative whole, regurgitating its talking points uncritically, largely without seeking reactions from city council members or critics of the plan. (None of the newspapers took note, for example, of the strange fact that the master plan was formulated based on parameters laid out in a new proposed planning law – and not according to the existing law – as the municipality’s legal advisor admitted last night for the first time.)

Can Tel Aviv live with its new master plan? Clearly, the version that was approved last night is vastly superior to its initial iterations. The improvements came primarily as a result of persistent efforts by a handful of city council members and the activism of neighborhood groups, including a group of planning professionals living in the southern part of the city.

Surprisingly, many important last-minute changes came as a result of a series of public participation sessions held by the municipality’s planning teams last month. Unlike previous such sessions, the latest round of public meetings were conducted in an atmosphere of constructive dialogue and debate, and yielded a surprising number of insights, which the planners eventually integrated into the plan.

The limited opening provided by the city (the sessions themselves were conducted as a  concession to community groups, which had earlier demanded greater public involvement in the plan) for genuine dialogue with the public provided a glimpse of how city planning processes could look if they were taken more seriously by the municipality. They also illustrated how the public, when given the chance, is capable of contributing valuable input and local knowledge as a complement to the efforts of professional planners, whose approach is generally top-down.

The master plan will now go to the district planning committee, where it is expected to undergo further changes. By law, it will then be deposited for formal objections by the public for a period of 60 days, before eventually being approved by the Interior Minister.

Cover image: Rendering of a large real estate project approved by Tel Aviv’s local planning council last week (via Ynet).

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