By Jesse Fox
January 23, 2011

Halfway through his third term in power, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is promoting his most ambitious project yet: a comprehensive master plan, meant to guide the city’s explosive development over the coming decades.

The magnitude of the plan is difficult to overstate; the mayor himself has described it as a “constitution” for the city. Yet, try Googling the master plan and you’ll find almost nothing. Amazingly, despite the enormous impact it is expected to have on the city, the plan has yet to be released to the public in full.

While some information about the contents of the plan is buried deep inside the municipality’s website, the city’s well-oiled PR machine has made no serious effort to bring it to the attention of the general public. (Quite the opposite, in fact: during a recent overhaul of the municipal website, several documents actually disappeared.)

During a series of public hearings, ostensibly designed to solicit feedback on the plan’s proposals, residents were given a partial and selective picture of the plan. As a result, municipal officials were able to limit discussions to narrow, predetermined parameters, while excluding the plan’s more controversial elements.

This pattern has continued as discussions on the master plan have moved to the city council. In meeting after meeting, council members have complained of receiving insufficient information about the plan. The result has been a series of unfocused and contentious discussions – yet the mayor has resisted council members’ calls for greater openness.

Meanwhile, the municipal spokesman’s office has apparently imposed a media blackout, telling journalists that no comments or interviews on the master plan will be forthcoming until after it is formally approved by the city council (at which point it will presumably be too late for the public to influence the plan in any case).

With no access for journalists, media coverage of the plan has been almost nonexistent, and with few details to go on, civic groups have had a difficult time influencing the planning process. The public, for its part, remains only minimally aware of the plan’s existence. This has proven a winning strategy for controlling the terms of the debate, though hardly a democratic one.

An analysis of portions of the plan that have been released, as well as materials distributed to city council members, reveals that the lack of transparency may be obscuring an unambitious and depressingly mediocre plan – one that stops short of offering real solutions for Tel Aviv’s urban problems, while failing to propose a compelling vision for the city’s future.

One of the plan’s most glaring shortcomings is its failure to propose a viable solution to the city’s transportation problems. Despite a rhetorical commitment to creating sustainable transportation systems, the plan hinges entirely on the realization of long-delayed plans for a light rail/subway system – a project which is only expected to begin to come to fruition a full decade from now, if not even later.

This is especially disappointing considering the emerging consensus (among residents, activists, government bodies and even municipal officials) that a parallel investment in nearer-term solutions, such as improved bus lanes and bus rapid transit (BRT), would offer more immediate results.

Regarding the city’s other major problem – the spiraling cost of housing – municipal officials are not saying if the plan will pursue anything more aggressive than the bare-bones policy on affordable housing that the municipality has already adopted.

Climate change, another critical challenge, is not even mentioned in the plan. As both Israel’s most carbon-intensive city and its center of creativity and innovation, a strategy to position Tel Aviv on the vanguard of national efforts to move to a low-carbon economy would seem like a no-brainer. Strangely, although the city says it is working on a separate plan for reducing emissions, that plan will apparently not be integrated into the master plan.

One thing, however, that is clear is that the plan will transform the city’s skyline beyond recognition. While low skylines will be preserved in the center of town and in parts of Jaffa, areas east of the city center would be transformed into a forest of skyscrapers. In a victory for real estate interests over long-standing opposition by residents, the plan would also allow for extensive high-rise construction in the south of the city, creating multiple corridors of office and residential towers, which would hover awkwardly above existing low-rise neighborhoods.

In comparison to long-term plans for other cities around the world, Tel Aviv’s new master plan aims low. For example, San Jose’s “Green Vision,” a 15-year plan adopted in 2007, includes ambitious, quantifiable goals such as adding 25,000 new green jobs to the local economy, planting 100,000 trees, powering the city with 100% renewable energy and using recycling and waste-to-energy technologies to eliminate 100% of the city’s solid waste.

In cities around the world, the trend is clear: urban master plans are no longer simply tools for handing out buildings rights to developers, but road maps to urban sustainability. That Tel Aviv’s leadership has yet to grasp this fact speaks to a profound failure of imagination.

The best way to shake up the stagnant logic of the new master plan is to expose it to the public. The new master plan would benefit greatly from an open public debate, something which has been sorely lacking thus far. Rather than shutting out the city’s people and NGO community, many of whom have long expressed an eagerness to be partners in shaping the city’s future, the municipality would do well to tap into their creativity.

In order for this to happen, the municipality needs to release the new master plan to the public, immediately and in its entirety. Following full publication of the plan, the municipality should create a website dedicated to explaining the plan’s proposals to the public (an accepted practice around the world), while creating space for residents, NGOs and community groups to help shape the plan. At the same time, the municipality must engage with the media and raise the level of awareness about the plan among the general public.

Tel Aviv is a city of openness and creativity, and its planning and municipal governance should reflect that spirit. The last thing Tel Aviv needs is another formalistic document, cooked up by worn out technocrats and approved over the heads of the public. What is truly needed is a master plan that authentically reflects the collective wisdom of the city’s people and civic organizations, formulated in an open and democratic process. Only then can such a plan legitimately be called Tel Aviv’s “constitution.”

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