If I were planning aliyah to Israel right now, there are three cities that I would be looking at seriously as candidates for my future home.

They are not among Israel’s largest cities.

They aren’t financial hubs. They are not prominently identified with “Silicon Wadi.” None is as yet a culture or arts mecca in any cosmopolitan sense.

What these cities have going for them is an enlightened planning approach. Their leaders have educated themselves about what makes cities work. They are investing in the right projects and turning down (some of) the wrong ones. Their primary concern isn’t to fill up their cities with specific desired populations — hipsters, techies, “creatives” — though they might not object to such an influx. Rather, they are consciously applying principles of good urbanism in order to benefit all residents.

The cities I have in mind are Ashdod, Tzfat (Safed), and Bat Yam.

Ashdod:

At a time when other Israeli cities are still gleefully slashing themselves to bits with highways that encourage car dependency and lay waste to valuable urban land, Ashdod has taken a different approach. A project drawn up by the Movement for Israeli Urbanism and funded by the Transportation Ministry aims to transform the city’s Herzl Boulevard from a pedestrian-hostile traffic artery into a functioning urban street that can accommodate a wide range of uses and users, especially non-motorized ones.

The Herzl Boulevard plan is part of a comprehensive sustainable-transportation project comprising bus rapid transit, bicycle paths, revised parking policies, and pedestrian-friendly infrastructures.

Now, BRT and the other aforementioned features sound nice but are a bit abstract. Even when you look at maps of the proposed bus network they are still just lines on a screen. But the transformation of a major thoroughfare is something that captures the imagination, even without detailed simulation images (though such images do help). You just have to open your mind and believe that change is possible.

Currently, the only thing that Herzl Boulevard offers non-motorists is cosmetic greenery — “nature band-aids” that serve as traffic buffer but have no other use. There are no stores, services, workplaces … even the residential buildings that line the thoroughfare are set far back from it, behind walls and hedges, making for a dead street environment:

herzl before after slides4

Herzl Boulevard, now and future (courtesy of the Movement for Israeli Urbanism)

The grotesque waste of land resources — the economic void shown in the first of the two images above — is going to be made pedestrian- and bike-friendly and filled up with stuff that humans like: restaurants, offices, schools, clinics.

Instead of an “arterial” that merely connects Point A and Point B, Ashdod’s Herzl Boulevard will become a destination for people, with an economic life of its own.

Tzfat (Safed):

Recently, Tzfat almost lost its dynamic young mayor, Ilan Shochat, to the 20th Knesset. It isn’t clear whether Shochat relinquished his parliamentary gig due to an outpouring of love on the part of Tsfat residents, or because an incipient corruption scandal made it wiser to stay put. We can certainly all hope that the allegations of financial impropriety prove unfounded.

It would be a great pity if the record of a mayor who has been saying and doing some very right things were to be tainted. Shochat — whom Meirav Moran, urban critic for Globes, has dubbed, only semi-ironically, the “Galilean Messiah” —  is more than just a personable politician. A recent interview and an inspiring talk (both in Hebrew) show what goes on in the mind of a city official in Israel’s periphery who “gets it.”

Selected insights:

  • The center/periphery dichotomy that lies at the heart of so much Israeli governmental policy and Jewish philanthropy is passé. The embattled cities of northern and southern Israel don’t want handouts. They don’t want Trojan-horse “projects” that cannot be sustained over time. They want to be economically viable entities.
  • Rather than waste public funds building new localities from scratch that require duplicate infrastructures and have no economic existence of their own, invest in the cities that — like Tzfat — are already there and have the potential to become regional employment centers and cultural destinations.
  • Think “inside the box.” Utilize underused resources within the existing urban fabric, rather than creating new, superfluous developments on the city outskirts.

When  Bar-Ilan University decided to establish a medical school up north, it apparently took some doing to ensure that the institution would not be situated on an isolated hilltop between Tzfat and Rosh Pina …

Architectural rendering of BIU medical school on hilltop outside of Tzfat

BIU Medical School  as originally planned

… but embedded, rather, in the city proper:

BIU Faculty of Medicine in Tsfat -- embedded in the city's street life

BIU medical school, Tzfat (Google Street View)

Shochat:

[…] I said to myself, if I don’t bring the medical school into the built-up part of the city, I won’t have accomplished a thing

[…] Instead of an ivory tower, the buildings are distributed around town […] Thanks to this model, [the medical school] has become a “force multiplier” [bringing] pedestrian traffic into the city each day.

Bat Yam:

Bat Yam has generated some media buzz these last few years, as certain high-profile arts projects have softened the city’s rough-tough image and given it the appearance of a potential hipster capital — a Brooklyn to nearby Tel Aviv’s Manhattan. The conversion of an abandoned beachfront nightclub into an art gallery and the establishment of a design cooperative in a “renovated, loft-like space” — these look like stock situations of the familiar gentrification narrative.

Bat Yam’s gritty industrial area, pictured below …

Google Street View

… is now home to the Design Terminal … whose young and lively tenants receive low-cost studio space in return for volunteer teaching in local schools:

Same area, new inhabitants

Without belittling the youthful artisans’ social contribution, one can still imagine a gentrification scenario in which Bat Yam’s less-affluent are forced out by skyrocketing housing costs, and a Mizrahi Spike Lee rants about the city’s Ashkenazification.

But wait — there’s another, more equitable narrative unfolding in Bat Yam, a narrative of sound urban planning that benefits everyone. Like Ashdod’s BRT maps, it doesn’t tell a story that’s especially dramatic, or funky. It conveys its message in language that only a social scientist could love, as in the following passage from a study analyzing pedestrian movement in the city:

space syntax paper3

Bat Yam’s 132-page transportation master plan, which views walking as a crucial transport mode and relies on the painstaking space-syntax study excerpted above, is not as photogenic as the Design Terminal denizens.

But I suspect that its impact, in terms of making Bat Yam a better place for all of its residents, will be greater.