Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jerusalem's Rova Mevo Ha'Ir: copying the wrong Parisian model

A couple of decades ago, give or take half a decade, I spent an academic year in Paris on an American study abroad program. After 10 months of thumbing my little red Plan de Paris par arrondissement (= old-school GPS) to a pulp, I found myself facing a summer short on cash -- but unwilling to retreat to the States before I could legitimately claim to have spent an entire calendar year in Europe.

Luckily Georges, the heroically non-judgmental and patient program director, was able to arrange temporary work permits for such underfunded students who insisted on remaining abroad.

 Which was how I found myself, over a period of several weeks, shuttling from picturesque central Paris to the futuristic La Défense business district at the city's western outskirts, where I had landed a job heating up frozen croissants and serving "instant" espresso to those employed in the surrounding skyscrapers.

La Défense -- Stairway to Heaven by
Dmitri A. Mottle, via Wikimedia Commons
By "shuttling" I of course mean a Métro ride, but a space-shuttle association would not be far off the mark. Going to La Défense was like rocketing or beaming up to the moon or some kind of space station carved into a forbidding alien landscape that, by dint of hard labor, had been made marginally habitable for humans, but not attractive to them. Considering that I had spent most of a year tirelessly criss-crossing the streets of traditional Paris, it says something that I never spent a moment in La Défense beyond what the timeclock dictated. The fact that I was working -- though technically in Paris! -- in a fast-food joint  à l'américaine, serving up bad imitation French cuisine to Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who, in any other setting, would surely have turned up their noses at such travesties, said it all.

So my question is, why would Jerusalem want to do this to itself?

The Israeli (and international) media have lately been abuzz (in English: here, here and here) over an "ambitious" plan to transform Jerusalem's western entrance area -- referred to in Hebrew as Rova Mevo Ha'Ir -- into a sleek and ultramodern business district, complete with the skyscrapers that are thought necessary to project a municipal image of exuberant money-making. "The city as economic engine."

The plans for Rova Mevo Ha'Ir have actually been in the works for several years (Mayor Nir Barkat, who assumed office in 2009, was the project's primary initiator). When the plans were first publicized, a similarity to Paris' La Défense district was proudly proclaimed. Apparently,  the mere hint of a resemblance to something European was thought sufficient to place the project in a positive light.

La Défense is not normally considered a success from the perspective of urban vitality. One author and lecturer in the urban planning sphere, Alex Marshall, calls the complex "stunningly dead." Charles Siegel , writing recently at Planetizen, points out that there are better models for smart growth than the "stale modernist model of La Défense." In fact, when the Rova Mevo Ha'Ir plans were first publicized in 2009, and hailed as Jerusalem's answer to La Défense, Siegel commented, again at Planetizen, "Virtually everyone agrees that La Défense blighted Paris' skyline and is an anti-urban design. Just what Jerusalem needs to destroy its historical character."

Unfortunately, those charged with planning Rova Mevo Ha'Ir seem unable to differentiate between design elements likely to foster vibrancy and ones liable to create deadness. Much lipservice is paid to designing with the pedestrian in mind, but the plans themselves paint a different picture.

The slideshow prepared by Farhi Zafrir, the architectural firm that won the Rova Mevo Ha'Ir competition, is a frustrating mish-mash of declared aspirations to walkable urbanism and simulation images that give such aspirations the lie.

Not the least annoying feature of the slideshow is its dubious referencing of traditional city design -- its deployment of photos of bustling European streets featuring human-scaled low- and mid-rise architecture -- in order to "prove" the value of the monolithic skyscraper project that it is actually trying to sell.

Farhi Zafrir first make a ploy for audience sympathy by describing, in Slide 2, the current sorry state of the Jerusalem entrance area. That part of town is certainly a mess -- as the architects put it, "sparse and dispersed construction," "separate and isolated compounds," "a roadway rather than a street." The pictures speak for themselves. Yes, almost anything would be better.

In Slide 3 the architects treat the viewer to a warm and fuzzy photo selection featuring narrow, Nathan Lewis-type streets, European version, full of fine-grained architectural detail and hip young city dwellers doing their thing en masse. "Priority to pedestrians" is the slogan here.

Having been thus buttered up, the viewer is then meant to be duly impressed by slides 4-11, which show us how Farhi Zafrir are going to rescue us from the dreaded stroad situation that currently exists, by building an architecturally monotonous, dedicated business, government-office and hotel district (the Israeli planning echelon's idea of "mixed-use development").

via Jerusalem Municipality

Yes, there is an emphasis on transit-oriented development here -- the project's much-touted connectivity to the Jerusalem light rail and the (future) high-speed Tel Aviv -Jerusalem train. Yet it is disturbing that all this accessibility is meant, ultimately, to keep people out of Jerusalem's historic downtown -- to artificially, and in a sense even dictatorially, concentrate certain activities -- and the people engaged in them -- in this one particular area.

For instance, the idea of transferring government ministry offices from their current locations in historic downtown buildings to the sterile office park of Rova Mevo Ha'Ir, and of turning the historic buildings into boutique hotels, may seem, at first glance, to have a certain poetic justice -- relegate the dry government paper-shufflers to dull modernist edifices! Save the pretty buildings for hunky and babalicious vacationers who can appreciate them! -- but it flies in the face of everything the New Urbanists have been telling us about real mixed-use development and the vibrancy it produces.

Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon has been quoted as saying, "Anyone who doesn't have to enter the city shouldn't do so. Leave the historic city to culture and tourism."  That is one of the most disturbing statements I've heard/read in a long time. Kahlon feels that by diverting jobs and government offices to the Jerusalem entrance, the "historic city" will be spared traffic congestion and "parking shortages." Unfortunately, it may also become depleted of anything resembling real life, and turn into a giant museum. I'm reminded of Alan Davies' (The Urbanist) recent description of Venice
In a physical sense Venice is pedestrian nirvana, but in my opinion it’s also a one dimensional city. The throngs of people along the canals are almost all tourists. The businesses only provide lodgings, food and fodder for tourists.
Is that what we want Jerusalem's historic downtown to become?

 My special bugbear: the Farhi Zafrir slideshow references La Défense (slide 12), in a manner that can only reflect ignorance or disingenuousness on the part of the designers.

I can't seem to copy the slides into the blog, but here is a La Défense plaza photo very similar to that used by Farhi Zafrir in slide 12 of their presentation:

David Monniaux via Wikipedia
The above photo (that is, its counterpart in slide 12 of the architects' presentation) is grouped together with a couple of photos of traditional European public squares, including an open-air market scene that looks something like this:

Street market at the bottom of  rue Mouffetard -- David Monniaux, via Wikimedia Commons

Farhi Zafrir's aim is to entice the viewer with street scenes that most people would be happy to see in their own city, and which the viewer is meant to understand that the architects are going deliver via their proposed Jerusalem entrance project. Yet one can see at a glance that the La Défense scene (the one that most closely resembles Farhi Zafrir's Rova Mevo Ha'Ir simulation) has little in common with a traditional street market scene.

In the La Défense photo, people scuttle like insects across an exceptionally uninviting, oversized plaza, dwarfed by brutal-looking buildings that do not work together as any sort of defined streetscape or provide the sense of enclosure that human beings generally require if they are to feel comfortable in a given built environment.

In the traditional-Paris street market photo, you've got it all: lovely and varied architecture on a human scale, enclosure, "intimate anonymity."

I humbly submit that this grouping of a photo of the La Défense plaza together with photos of traditional European public squares is a cheap ploy intended to persuade the public that a relatively isolated, limited-use high-rise complex can offer the pleasing urban ambience of a more traditionally-designed quarter. In my view, this reflects questionable ethics on the part of Farhi Zafrir.

It is too bad that the local planning echelon, and the architectural firm that it chose to design Rova Mevo Ha'Ir, couldn't have mustered up a bit more ambition, and devised a plan that would have increased Jerusalem's office-space supply in a style that respected the city's architectural traditions -- as in the Le Plessis-Robinson model described so compellingly by Charles Siegel. As Siegel points out, neo-traditional development can be "dense enough for smart growth" and can deliver its density "in a more attractive and livable environment than the typical modernist development."

But very likely there are no templates for neo-traditional design in the software used by Farhi Zafrir -- so they settled for a stark modernist office park, hoping to pass it off as successful urbanism.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Israel's Construction and Housing Ministry versus Yoav Q. Public

Yoav Lerman, whose runs the popular Od Blog Tel-Avivi (“Another Tel Aviv Blog”) and is one of Israel’s foremost New Urbanism activists, has been individually sanctioned by the Ministry of Construction and Housing – for no other reason, apparently, than that he has exercised his right to criticize the Ministry.

Lerman, according to the short bio accompanying his blog, is a doctoral candidate in Tel Aviv University's Department of Geography and Human Environment, where he conducts research on "pedestrian movement in urban environments and the factors affecting it." He also directs "a research project funded by the Israeli National Road Safety Authority related to pedestrian safety." He serves on the board of Merhav -- the Movement for Israeli Urbanism, and has participated, as an expert panelist, in that organization's annual Israeli Mayors' Institute on City Renewal.
Lerman wished to register for a conference sponsored by the Ministry of Construction and Housing, to launch the Ministry's new urban street design manual -- a topic of obvious relevance to his professional concerns. Considering both his credentials and his personal standing in the urbanist community (not many blogs have five-year anniversary events organized for them), it hardly seems possible that his registration request could have been rejected.

Yet rejected it was, and in a manner shocking for its sheer crudity -- its gross violation of democratic norms.

I offer below a translation of the letter that Lerman received from the Ministry's Deputy Chief Architect, and of a portion of the blog post in which Lerman relates the incident and his response to it. A few words of background:

I have been following Od Blog Tel-Avivi for a while now, and so far as I can tell Lerman is situated well within the mainstream of New Urbanist thinking. He is generally critical of what he sees as a sprawl orientation on the part of Israel's Construction Ministry, an orientation that dictates the creation of car-dependent suburban communities and peripheral urban neighborhoods that lack services, amenities and shopping within walking distance of residents and that are unserved or underserved by public transit.

In one blog post from May of this year, Lerman posited a direct link between a murder that took place in a Be'er-Sheva park and the Ministry's anti-urban policies. In this tragic incident, which was widely reported in the Israeli media, a young father of two was stabbed to death by youths in a park below his apartment building when he went down to complain about the noise they were making. Lerman attributes the prevalence of such delinquent gatherings to the incompetent way in which Israeli communities are designed: "[t]he Israeli planning echelon is creating suburb after suburb in which only four elements are present -- dwellings, parking spaces, parks and roads. There is no commercial activity, there are no cafes, no jobs and -- worst of all -- there is no reason why any adult would want to move around these places on foot." The lack of an adult presence on the streets voids "the suburbanized public space" of "informal adult surveillance" -- i.e., no "eyes on the street."  At the same time, the car-less teenagers who live in these places are forced, by default, to congregate either in garages or in "dark and deserted parks."

Readers with an urbanist orientation will find nothing earth-shattering in this analysis; still, one could argue that Lerman overstated his case somewhat. He certainly chose a sensationalist title for his post: Murder by Planning [רצח על רקע תכנוני]. Now, Lerman is a witty and engaging writer, and one can understand how he might have found such a title irresistible; I think it can hardly help but appeal to anyone who already shares his views.  But readers unacquainted with such concepts as "mixed-use development" and "eyes on the street" might well have trouble agreeing that the Construction Ministry's zoning practices, however detrimental to urban health, were necessarily to blame for a cold-blooded stabbing; and it is perhaps only human nature that the various cogs in the Ministry machine would feel personally implicated here. Perhaps such gems of pithy vitriol are best reserved for instances in which the planning echelon bears obvious, unequivocal responsibility for fatalities, as in the Raquel Nelson affair.

Whatever the case may be, there is no excuse for the way in which the Chief Architect's Division in the Construction and Housing Ministry responded to Lerman's conference registration request:

Dear Mr. Lerman,

The upcoming conference is open to only a limited number of participants and is intended for planning and implementation personnel, not for those involved in incitement; we are therefore obliged at this stage to turn down your request.
Moreover, since the new urban planning guidelines were drawn up by the State, at the behest of one of its "superfluous entities," namely, the Ministry of Construction and Housing, and since they constitute a perfect formula for future murders within the public space, the basis for your interest in attending the conference is not exactly clear to us.
Not only that, but since we have good reason to believe that our response will immediately be posted on the slanderous blog that serves as your customary vehicle of expression, we would greatly appreciate your taking the opportunity to publicly apologize for your earlier attacks.
The Chief Architect's Division

The disrespectful and vindictive tone in which this governmental entity chose to communicate with a law-abiding citizen speaks volumes about the state of democratic culture within the Construction and Housing Ministry. As Lerman points out:

Some employees in the Construction Ministry's Chief Architect's Division appear to have taken personally my opinion that the Construction Ministry is a superfluous entity and feel that, on this account, they are somehow entitled to impose upon me individual sanctions unconnected to the matter at hand. In my innocence I had assumed that a citizen of the State of Israel has the right to criticize the government and its ministries if he sees fit to do so, in the hope of ensuring needed rectifications or at least of generating discussion on topics worthy of being addressed. This is an everyday occurence in Israel, a country where freedom of expression is the order of the day. I fail to understand why this freedom ends at the door of the Construction Ministry, and it seems that the Ministry, whose boss I am (as are you), could use a refresher course in demoracy. In all my years as a blogger I have never encountered so disgraceful a response from the government establishment, even from entities that have been subjected by me to prodigious amounts of criticism (the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality first and foremost). Fortunately, most of these entities have realized that the criticism, however harsh and uncompromising, is not personal, and is certainly not directed toward any specific cadre of functionaries, but comes, rather, from a place of wanting to improve things.

Construction Ministry spokesperson Ariel Rosenberg, responding to Lerman's post on another site where the affair was publicized, reiterated that the conference had been intended for "planners and engineers -- the target audience that will actually be adopting and implementing the guidelines formulated in the new manual," and noted that all other parties who had sought admission to the scheduled conference had been placed on a waiting list. He went on to express strong disapproval of Lerman's mode of expression ("murder by planning" did not go over well), characterizing it as excessive and "bordering on libel." These statements, taken on their own, might seem reasonable enough -- one man's strong criticism being another man's libel -- but the concluding sentences of Rosenberg's response show his true colors -- that is, the Ministry's true colors -- in an embarrassing way:

 [J]ust as public servants must take care to interact with the public in an appropriate and professional manner, so must the public weigh its actions and words wisely when criticizing the actions of official bodies. Mr. Lerman, like journalists and others who are involved in the field or who take an interest in it, may attend the conference in order to learn about the positive activity underway -- space permitting, as noted above.
The thinly-veiled threat (weigh your words when dealing with us, or suffer the consequences) does not reflect well on the Ministry. Nor does the complacent, patronizing attitude embodied in the spokesperson's words -- the presumption that anything coming out of the Ministry must be "positive," and that the Ministry is doing the larger public a favor when it allows it a glimpse of its inner sanctum.

Given this attitude, what might one expect of the Ministry's vaunted "professional" activity -- its competence in shaping the environments that we all live in? No one is more eloquent on this topic than Yoav Lerman:
If we take Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias' statements on the subject of housing as a reflection of his views, we find him to be utterly ignorant of the needs that housing shouild meet, excepting, perhaps, the simple provision of a roof over one's head.  The Housing Minister tends to express himself in terms of volume -- "We've authorized a gazillion and a half apartments," "We've put two trillion housing units on the market." But he pays no attention to the details, particularly to location, transit, dwelling sizes and features, or access to opportunities. The Housing Ministry thus continues to market apartments that no one wants, rather than moving in directions that the market is demanding, and that current economic development makes possible.
And to conclude, I demand an apology from the Chief Architect's Division in the Ministry of Construction and Housing [...] An apology for imposing individual sanctions, for not being able to accept criticism, and, in particular, for the poor quality of the Israeli public space. Any employee of the Chief Architect's Division (or of the Ministry itself, or anyone else) who wishes to do so is welcome to publish a response post on this blog, and to explain why the Ministry of Construction and Housing is necessary and what successes may be laid to its credit, and why the Israeli public is willing to pay more to live in areas that were planned, for the most part, during the British Mandate period, than to live in those that the Ministry was involved in planning.