Even if fertility declines and urban planning improves, say the authors of a new study, the pace of home building must double in order to keep up

Zafrir Rinat Jun. 27, 2021

Rekhes Lavan nature reserve in Jerusalem on which thousands of housing units are expected to be built, last year
Rekhes Lavan nature reserve in Jerusalem on which thousands of housing units are expected to be built, last yearCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israel is expected to lose about 10 percent of its open spaces by the middle of the century if the current birth rate continues, as land will be needed for housing, infrastructure and large-scale solar energy projects. This is one of the conclusions of a recent study on population density in the country, whose authors say only by curbing population growth and using land more efficiently can Israel hope to slow the transformation of open spaces into roads and buildings.

The study examined population growth forecasts for Israel from 2030-50 and their implications for different areas such as health, education, energy, transportation and open spaces. It was prepared by Tzafuf, the Israel Forum for Population, Environment and Society, an advocacy organization founded by a number of academic researchers and environmental activists.

The report was compiled by Prof. Alon Tal of Tel Aviv University (a freshman Knesset member from Kahol Lavan) and Yaara Tsairi of Haifa’s Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Its various chapters were written by scholars from a number of research institutions and from the Tel Aviv-based Heschel Center for Sustainability. The study’s findings will be presented Sunday at a conference at Tel Aviv University.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, if current trends continue, Israel’s population will nearly double by 2050, to 17.6 million residents from its current 9 million. Agency forecasts based on a decline in fertility project a population of “only” 13.8 million to 15.7 million by the middle of the century.

Under the scenario of a moderate decline in the birth rate, according to the study, the number of households in Israel will double within four decades, requiring a pace of new home construction in 2040-50 that is double the rate of the past decade. Land will also be needed for services and employment. This construction, together with the expansion of utilities, transportation, infrastructure and more, will lead to the loss of 342 square kilometers of open space – 2.3 percent of the total open space in Israel.

In many areas, the loss of open space will translate into the loss of habitat that will challenge the reproductive abilities of many plants and animals. Assuming that the total area designated for nature reserves remains largely unchanged, the growth in population will necessarily reduce the area of nature reserves per person – an index of the ability to take advantage of these areas. If current population trends in Israel continue, the per capita area of nature reserves will be halved. “In an attempt to experience nature, Israel’s residents will have to travel a significant distance to reach the sites, which will themselves become more crowded, or fly overseas,” the report notes.

If Israel acts to meet the target of providing 95 percent of its energy needs through sustainable sources, large tracts of land will be needed for solar panels and for storing and transporting the electricity they produce. If the current pace of population growth continues unchecked and that energy target is met, an area eight times the size of Lake Kinneret will have to be given over to solar panels.

According to the report, any country would find it hard to match the pace of infrastructure building to that of population growth, which in Israel is approaching 2 percent a year. The challenge here is made more difficult by the limited amount of available land. And it is made even more complex with the need to account for declining rainfall, rising temperatures and extreme weather events expected due to the climate crisis.

Gloomy predictions aside, there are measures that could reduce population growth and moderate its effects. These include the introduction of planning policy based on urban density, halting the construction of single-family homes and avoiding the establishment of new communities.

Also vital are policy changes, including giving economic incentives to small families rather than paying child allowances to encourage childbirth, as well as improving education and encouraging female empowerment. In addition, there must be a new conversation about the implications of the personal decision to have many children on the future of these children and that of Israeli society as a whole.