Gerard Heumann
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The perils of residential towers

Consider Ir Yamim, a high-rise complex on the Mediterranean that essentially ignores the precious sea views
Illustrative: A construction site in Or Akiva (YouTube screenshot)
Illustrative: A construction site in Or Akiva (YouTube screenshot)

The swelling tide of free-standing, hi-rise residential buildings flooding our cities is an irresponsible, banal and lifeless response to the justified need for increased urban density in order to meet the needs of our growing population. The wrong thing, poorly done. Perhaps the most problematic example of this trend is the corporate “city,” so called in spite of its zero urbanity.

We’ve all seen these projects a thousand times over. Super-blocks defined by ring roads with rows of identical residential towers placed indiscriminately. Which building is yours? No one knows. Within these enclaves are bedroom communities of a deadly conformity inhabited by well-off families. Generous but totally undefined open spaces, no-man’s lands, complete the picture. Constructed all at once, they are sterile, lacking the signs of life found in urban areas where old and new coexist side by side. Homogeneous, segregated and anti-social, these projects are unrelated to anything in sight.

Incredibly, the Ir Yamim confine in Netanya incorporating some 50 towers all but turns its back on the Mediterranean Sea which granted its name. The Kiryat HaSavyonim confine in Yehud is oblivious to its low tiled roof neighbors surrounding it on all sides. Wasteful of precious land resources and extremely costly in terms of infrastructure, the aesthetic level of these projects is bottomless. How have we arrived at this sad state of affairs?

For several decades now, the Israel Lands Administration has been selling off large blocks of land to corporate developers the likes of Africa Israel and Gindi, who are interested in packing the maximum number of dwelling units into their site. That’s the number the developer cares most about, the most important element in his program. The public buildings that are to be dwarfed by his proposed towers and open space interest him far less. His architect, happy to oblige, works speedily, his computers capable of duplicating building plans at the touch of a key.

Each new dwelling unit has of course a capital gains tax attached to it which will go into the municipality’s coffers. The agreement of the municipality is insured. The municipality, in turn, has representatives on the District Committee for Planning and Building. Home-free, the developer goes on to his next project.

Two major problems of hi-rise residential buildings stand out. As   towers are isolated vertical objects in space, columns if you will, with large spaces between them and setback from streets, they interrupt the continuity of the street and are disconnected from the public realm. For much the same reason, they are incapable of defining internal public and private open space.

An alternative which avoids these twin perils is combining hi-rise with medium and low-rise building, the towers regarded as part of an urban ensemble, thus enabling an active relationship to the street and open spaces while at the same time relating to the existing adjacent physical environment appropriately.

Another strategy for increasing urban density at human scale while saving considerably in infrastructure costs, is adding to existing buildings or building new medium-rise buildings meeting the street   with a continuous edge.

It is widely accepted that an available and efficient transportation system is a precondition for increased density. Mixed-use, we know, reduces trips by car. Hi-rise residential buildings, usually occupied by the well-off, do just the opposite. The hi-rise residential buildings we see are simply in fashion. There is, in fact, no proven correlation between density and residential towers. The same number of dwelling units can be distributed, volume-wise, in a number of ways.

Any thoughtful and viable policy for increasing urban density can never be a simple exercise in arithmetic. To date, our governmental planning bodies in their unfathomable ignorance, have grossly oversimplified the problem, racing in the wrong direction. Whatever the approach, it is clear that the residential – urban density equation must be expanded to include not just quantity, but quality of life, environmental quality, and social responsibility.

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