Israel’s urban planning nightmare
Quick, what neighborhood is this?
The neighborhood is Carmei Gat, but if you guessed one of the dozens of other similar locations, in a sense you’d also be correct. That’s because Carmei Gat is one of Israel’s many new “pop-up neighborhoods”. These pop-up neighborhoods seem to come from nowhere, often exist in the middle of nowhere, and look like they could be just about anywhere.
Aimed at alleviating Israel’s housing shortage, pop-up neighborhoods offer affordable housing in abundance and little else. They all follow a deeply flawed city-planning model, harming Israel’s present and future.
The concept of good urbanism is nothing new. Take a stroll in any historic city, and you can find most, if not all, urban planning principles in place. They tend to be walkable, architecturally stimulating, human-scaled, and mixed-use resulting in a high quality of life for their residents. They’re places where people want to be, not just places to live. They also weren’t designed for a world with cars.
If the global trend continues and Israel’s politicians are to be believed (a stretch, I know), cars are on their way out as the world’s preferred mode of transportation. Pop-up neighborhoods are completely car-reliant by design. They’re constructed in the middle of nowhere, after all. Sure, there’s always a larger, more-established city not too far off, but never within walking distance. Pop-up neighborhoods are connected to a major roadway and then paved over to accommodate all the cars that residents require. Public transportation is irrelevant because everyone is required to own a car. The result is a pattern: building, parking lot, building…
Speaking of buildings, pop-up neighborhoods all follow the same copy + paste model. There are generally 2-3 different building designs that appear over and over again. They vary in height, but are often around 10-20 stories tall. This makes sense if the goal is to “store humans”, but the goal of architecture is much more than that. Architecture is representative of our past, present, and future. It’s a means of transmitting ideas, beliefs, our way of life… everything. It is so crucial to our well-being that studies indicate that bad or uninspired architecture has negative health implications!
The reason behind this style is obvious: It’s cost-effective. Cramming as many units as possible into a single project is every builder’s dream. These cheaply-built pop-up neighborhoods will lose their luster and degrade exactly as the earlier hastily-built neighborhoods of Israel’s past. And yet, this style seems like it’s here to stay, even creeping into established urban centers like Jerusalem with disastrous effects on the skyline and the unique character of the city.
The architecture lacks any sense of human scale because it’s not meant for use beyond its primary function. The monolithic structures come at the expense of creating vibrant, livable communities. The lack of variation in building heights creates a monotonous skyline and fails to foster a sense of community identity. And even if the desire is to get as many humans living on a single footprint as possible, the model is still flawed. Because of the need for parking lots with equal footprints, the value proposition is lost.
If density is the real desire, build two mixed-used 8-story buildings instead of one 16-story building on a single lot and forgo the need for parking and daily car use by giving people everything they need within a short distance. Most of the densest Western cities in the world are exclusively low-rise. Bnei Brak, Israel, the 5th densest city in the world, didn’t become that way by building towers.
It’s not enough to create density. Dense planning should be coupled with mixed-use spaces. One of the hallmarks of successful urban planning is the incorporation of mixed-use spaces, where residential, commercial, and recreational areas coexist. However, pop-up neighborhoods in Israel are almost comically homogeneous, with residential zones segregated from commercial and leisure facilities. This absence of mixed-use spaces contributes to a lack of vibrancy, inhibits economic growth, and forces residents to travel long distances for everyday necessities. In other words, you get all of the drawbacks of high density without any of the conveniences.
The housing crisis cannot be effectively addressed by creating new quality-of-life crises. It is imperative to dream bigger, expect more, and hold those in charge accountable for improving the standards of urban planning. The solution lies in developing sustainable, mixed-use communities that prioritize accessibility, vibrant public spaces, and high quality of life. By moving away from the flawed pop-up neighborhood model, Israel can build a future where housing needs are met without sacrificing the well-being and livability of its residents.