Places where I want to sit (in Jerusalem)

A North American urban strategist named Gracen Johnson, writing at Strong Towns, recently documented some places — office-park gazebos, strip malls — where no one would want to sit, but where someone nevertheless went to the trouble of providing seating.

Courtesy of Strong Towns

She then followed up by chair-bombing (with logs obtained from a local tree-removal company) a small grassy area near a farmer’s market where unmet demand for seating was obvious.

Post-chair-bombing. (Courtesy of Strong Towns)

Johnson points out that “many of our highest-potential urban environments are built to explicitly un-sittable standards using defensive architecture, while at other times:

[…] we do try to create linger-worthy public space and fail spectacularly. We often demand developers throw some cash toward green space or public amenities in order to get approval for construction. You see it all the time in subdivisions with exquisite landscaping, roundabouts, and benches that are only appreciated from behind a car window.

Less-than-captivating public spaces are hardly unheard of here in Israel. Dr. Yoav Lerman, an urban geographer, and architecture critic Naama Riba have discussed (here, here, and here) the problem of poorly-designed privately-owned public spaces (POPS) — those “gifts” that real-estate developers offer cities in exchange for zoning concessions. In current Israeli parlance, that often means cheerless wind-tunnels wedged between forbidding high-rises.

The Hebrew term for POPS — zikat hana’a — is marvelously ironic: it incorporates a word that can mean “benefit” (as in “public benefit”) but also signifies “enjoyment.” This provided an opening for Lerman and Riba to create a POPS picnicking initiative drolly entitled Hana’a b’Zika, which might roughly be translated as “Popularizing (Worthless) POPS.”

Hana’a b’Zika — finding the joy in unsuccessful public spaces. (Courtesy of Yoav Lerman)

The festival of Sukkot — when Jews are specifically commanded to “sit” in temporary structures that are often erected in public areas, such as parking spaces or even on sidewalks — seems a fitting time to look at some of the places where Jerusalemites like — and don’t like — to sit.

One place I’d dearly love to chair-bomb is the entrance area of the Israel Museum, whose recent $100 million renovation leaves something to be desired:

By contrast, the Malha area — home to an isolated office park, a car-oriented shopping mall, two stadiums, and an assortment of parking lots and high-speed roads — has nevertheless been equipped with quite a few strategically-situated benches:

Malha gas station bench

malha tech park view

Malha wall view

Malha zayit

Let’s leave highway-ravaged Malha behind and head for trendy Derech Beit Lechem (Bethlehem Road), in the upscale Baka neighborhood.

This is a street where people come to see and be seen, as evidenced by an abundance of outdoor restaurant seating:

Baka cafes

But you don’t actually have to spend money in order to take a load off on Derech Beit Lechem — there are plenty of benches along the street, and some of them are currently being upgraded (revitalized? gentrified?) in honor of the street festival scheduled to take place here during Sukkot:

dbl fancy bench
“Come embroider with me!” — at the street festival, Sept. 29
"I shall take the heart. For brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world." L. Frank Baum
“I shall take the heart. For brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.” L. Frank Baum

Shimon Street, a side street off Derech Beit Lechem that leads directly to the Baka neighborhood community center and public library branch, boasts an attractive little park (pictured below) where I’ve never spied a living soul apart from myself. Despite its charm, it appears to be situated too far from either Derech Beit Lechem or the community center to draw users, bringing to mind Jane Jacob’s dictum that parks “aren’t automatically anything.”

Shimon parklet

Beit Hanatziv on Derech Hevron (Hebron Road):

Occupying a kind of middle ground between the asphalt wasteland of Malha and the hipster hub of Baka, Beit Hanatziv — a large office-and-retail project built around a good-sized public plaza — could probably be characterized as a place where people want to sit — against all odds.

The building unquestionably fills a need for ground-level shopping and dining venues at a critical point along one of Jerusalem’s busiest thoroughfares. Its eateries get plenty of business.

The problem? Beit Hanatziv is situated behind a gas station, and its  surroundings are exceedingly hostile to pedestrians.

29.10.14 025

Despite the unpleasant environment, Beit Hanatziv’s restaurants and cafes provide plenty of outdoor seating …


… and seem to do pretty well:


Perhaps someday the gas station will find a new home, freeing up space for people-oriented uses that will work in synergy with Beit Hanatziv, rather than against it.

In the words of Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn: “The indicator species of success is not the automobile, it’s people.”

#PlacesIDontWantToSit, #PublicSpaceDoneWell

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.
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