Longing for urbanity
By Esther Zandberg

The French architect Jean Nouvel once said that the pretension of planning a new city is akin to the pretension of writing a library. Evidence supporting Nouvel's analysis, which casts doubt on the mere possibility of planning a city, has been scattered around the world, including in Israel, ever since the end of World War II.

Dozens of new cities were built in Israel after the establishment of the state, based on advance planning. None of them would qualify as a "city" in the traditional sense, with a center that harmoniously combines residences, commerce, employment and entertainment, with a city square, an urban road infrastructure and other elements, all of which have virtually become the stuff of nostalgia.

Lost urbanity and the ways to restore it were the subject of the founding conference of Merhav (literally "space," in Hebrew), the Movement for Israeli Urbanism, which was held last week in Be'er Sheva. This nongovernment organization, established by professional people from the fields of architecture and planning, has set as its goal the return to the city and the city square, and the fostering of a renaissance of urban centers that will be transformed into places where people will want to live, instead of the little houses in the heart of (ever-vanishing) nature. Its founders believe that an urban renaissance is the only way to save the open spaces remaining, the only way in which "Israeli society will be able to continue to exist and develop."

The hundreds of participants who filled the conference halls are evidence of the interest that urban renaissance now sparks in Israel, approximately 10 years after it burst into the international planning arena. In 1993, the Congress for the New Urbanism was founded in the United States, and for the past three years, a similar movement has been active in Europe: the Council for European Urbanism. The doctrine of these two movements is the most cogent and crystallized formula that have been developed in the field of urban planning in the postmodern age, and it constitutes one of the major - and most controversial - themes in international planning and public discourse. Inspired by them, Merhav formulated its founding charter, and the guests of honor at the conference included ranking officers of the sister-organizations abroad.

The formation of a movement for urban renaissance in Israel - which has many cities, too many, but does not have urbanism per se - is no doubt happening at the right time and in the right place. The new Be'er Sheva is a representative example, and was for good reason chosen to host the conference.

Since its establishment, Be'er Sheva has been top-heavy with urban plans and experiments that went awry. The city is too big (54 square kilometers, more than Tel Aviv, which has double the population) and too scattered. It is full of empty, unconstructed pits that are like millstones around its neck. Nevertheless, it continues to spread and sprawl. Only recently did the city receive approval to annex another 30 square kilometers of virgin land that will be filled with yet more neighborhoods, but no city.

In its choice of a locale for the conference Merhav, the first organization of its kind in Israel, expressed the important and Sisyphean task of changing the picture. A no-less important task that is facing the NGO as it takes its first steps is without a doubt the drawing of conclusions from past activities of the international movements that served as its inspiration, and from the dilemmas they raised.

Although these movements properly diagnosed the weak points of modern urban planning, the new agenda that they propose focuses on the external aspects of the city, on form and aesthetics, and less on the city's essence as a place of equal and democratic opportunity. For example, under the code name of urban renaissance they encourage privatization of public spaces, through adoption of the Business Improvement District (BID) method, and their assignment to the care of private maintenance and management companies that rid the cities of "undesirable elements." In the name of urbanism, they build toy cities in pseudo-historic styles for the white, well-to-do bourgeois class, like Seaside in the United States and Poundbury and Afton in Britain, essentially promoting a neoconservative agenda that benefits those who are already doing well.

Whether it is still possible to realize the fantasy of urbanism in an era in which the conditions of urban genesis are too complex to be painted in the pastel colors of the new urbanism - this is a question that still has no answer. In any event, Merhav's contribution will be consequential if it is able to strike the proper balance between the planned, the aesthetic, the social, the political and the ethical.

Once the fascinating discussions were over, there was no choice but to conclude that many of Be'er Sheva's problems would be solved if only the hundreds of participants at the conference lived there.