Gerard Heumann

Social justice into urban form

It is not the first time that our government has tried to tackle the housing crisis. Four years ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to his plans for a fast-track housing effort as a “Supertanker”, as if the matter was comparable to putting out the Carmel fire. Then, following the social justice protests of the summer of 2011, one of whose central demands was the call for affordable housing, Professor Trajtenberg’s Committee for Socioeconomic Equality made its recommendations. And let’s not forget Yair Lapid’s zero V.A.T. proposal. Two elections and two wars later, with little changed on the ground, pressures for government action have increased tenfold.

But after the 2015 elections one significant change did take place. The head of the new Kulanu party and former Minister of Communications and Social Affairs, Moshe Kahlon, fought for and was granted unprecedented powers to deal with the situation. He is now not only our Minister of Finance but also heads the Israel Lands Administration, the Planning Administration and the Housing Cabinet. Moshe Kahlon has become the nation’s housing czar.

Since taking over, Kahlon has presented an entire arsenal of strategies, still to be approved, for attacking the problem, among them: freeing up state-owned lands, increasing the building industry’s workforce, limiting real-estate speculation, improving minority access to housing and freeing up existing housing stock. Reams of red planning and building tape are to be cut.

Unfortunately, the physical planning aspect of new large-scale housing isn’t given to administrative reforms, as important as they are, alone. Housing, as we know, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The addition of a great number of new home units by whatever means necessitates fully integrated planning and urban design solutions that are well-related to transportation, employment, health, education, cultural and open space facilities: schools, synagogues, kindergartens, day-care centers, parks and the like. Even the simplest of building additions requires additional parking spaces. Strangely, of all of these, not to mention design quality, we haven’t, as yet, heard a word. Social justice must be given urban form. How do you plan for the addition of tens of thousands of new home units without sacrificing the quality of life?

To begin with, know what is unacceptable. Reject all design proposals for single-use and self-contained enclaves of every type that sever opportunities for social contact and economic opportunity. Only where a great variety of housing types and workplaces exist in close proximity to one another and social communication is encouraged, can age and economic class differences be reduced. Create compact and diverse live and work environments that will enable not only the bonds of authentic communities to be formed but also reduce the number of necessary trips by car.

New large-scale neighborhood design especially, is a professional challenge of the highest order. One of the most crucial and difficult problems to overcome is that of over-repetition with its dehumanizing effects. Only the most talented designers are capable of finding the path to a coherent, organic complexity. Variety really is the spice of life.

Good transportation connections mean more job opportunities. Suitable public transportation, appropriately scaled to high or low density situations, is essential. Give close attention to the spatial and physical aspects of transportation elements and how they affect social intercourse. The “New” Tel-Aviv Central Bus Station, for example, that has had disastrous effects on its surroundings, would never have been approved and constructed had this been understood.

Arrest the construction of new isolated and unsustainable, mainly Haredi towns such as Kasif in the Negev and Harish in the north, presently being carried out by the Ministry of Housing. Dispersion is costly in terms of infrastructure, not to mention the extremely negative social consequences of segregated communities. Reinforce existing towns and cities through their densification and extension instead. Make insuring urban continuity a first principle.

The natural landscape belongs to us all and is not to be allotted by the state to private developers for their short-term profit. Strengthen ties between the urban tissue and natural surroundings. A community spirit is born in well-defined and accessible urban open spaces. Public buildings, symbols of community identity, need to be well-placed and well-designed.

Buildings must respect their natural and built physical environmental context, historic buildings and complexes preserved. Wherever possible, buildings should address the street and sidewalk with entries, architectural features and activities, to help create a safe and pleasant walking environment.

Know that the great majority of projects incorporating industrialized building methods to speed construction, have failed worldwide, to be accepted only on condition that the image they offer is compatible with our social and cultural context.

Given the housing problem’s double challenge — its complexity and urgency, Kahlon must be strongly supported by interdisciplinary teams made up of our most experienced and talented planning and design professionals. He must have before him a comprehensive national housing plan outlining priority rehabilitation and development areas, the most urgent of which would then be chosen for speedy execution.

Kahlon must be made aware that even if he succeeds in getting his budget and plans approved, he will have won only half the battle. Expressing social justice in urban form is possible only if the myriad interrelationships between the physical environment and the social one are deeply understood. While the numbers are admittedly terribly important, it is the quality of life issues that will count most in the end. The ultimate goal: an attractive and lively, healthy, safe and sustainable urban environment.

About the Author
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.
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