Monday, November 15, 2010

Ten Things I May Have Learned Today

 Mayors discussing urbanism on 11/15/10 at the Villa Galilee in Zefat, Israel.

Today I was not so much a traveler as a listener (and sometimes contributor). For close to twelve hours I was immersed in the first of two days of discussions regarding development, redevelopment, urban design, planning, financing, branding, transit and traffic planning, affordable housing, and the politics of city design - in Israel. While I was asked my opinion of the four city schemes we were presented, my opportunity was to listen and learn about how a very different urban environmental design culture works, or in some cases does not.

Here are ten unformed observations in no particular order or hierarchy.
  1. There is a 100% tariff on new cars imported into Israel. Not surprisingly there are at present one-third the cars per capita as there are in the United States, yet I am told that government policies push development out to the periphery of the country where there is poor transit service; thus encouraging more car ownership and the consequences of ever more sprawl.

  2. Countering the prospects for future sprawl, Israel is building both trains and light-rail systems. Bus rapid transit is also being adopted. I observed and heard about bus-only lanes in the middle of roads and through the center of cities respectively. Jitneys are also a popular form of transit. I saw, while stuck in a traffic jam, police stop a 10-person jitney for utilizing an empty bus-only lane. I guess jitneys are not yet recognized as mass transit. Policies that relate urban form to transit are chaotic, with simultaneous expansion of all system types, including the single-occupant vehicle, and little rigor with regard to the niceties of transit-oriented development or the location of station stops. Still, with all this transit construction, the country is aggressively anticipating the realization of a "multi-modal" future.

  3. Israel fosters for better and for worse "towers in a park" suburbanism. I saw several examples of new project proposals replete with towers, unprogarmmed green swaths, cul-de-sacs, and island-like urban definition where nothing was connected to nothing.

  4. There is no tax increment financing, local redevelopment agencies, complex financial tools, or even a great deal of awareness of the complex real estate mechanisms that are at the root of American development practices. On the other hand, the mortgage market did not collapse here and there are cranes and development expectations everywhere.

  5. Housing in Tel Aviv is phenomenally expensive. But, outside of a couple of pockets scattered elsewhere, housing is often cheap, encouraging further disbursement of urbanism into a diminishing countryside. "Affordable" housing as practiced in the United States, with all of its its incentives, subsidies, financing mechanisms, and types, is little known here.

  6. People get nervous as opposed to excited about the art of the deal as practiced by captains of American real estate development like Donald Trump. Deals quickly become moral dilemmas as much as development dilemmas. Maybe that is a good thing.

  7. Sustainability is not quite the impulse, fad, or framework that is familiar to those that design and develop in California. However, its coming. Israel will probably wean itself from foreign oil long before the United States. On a small scale, I saw Platanus Racemosa (California Sycamore) street trees being utilized because of their drought resistance (and lovely deciduous canopy), flipping on its head for me the notion of the definition of Mediterranean landscape.

  8. There are fewer checks and balances to the development process as much of it is top down, from the central government to the local jurisdiction, with little or cursory input and participation into decision-making. On the other hand, centralized planning is a good thing when you think it is good for you (and a bad thing when you are convinced it is not).

  9. The design of Israel, if you will, is still influenced by the legacy of the socialist founders and governments, left and right, that shape urban and development policy to this day. Another way of saying it is that they are designing their country and are even at times critical of its design. I am not sure anybody is as actively designing or at the top levels actively criticizing the design of the United States.

  10. Religious people, religious neighborhoods, and design for minorities are delicately spoken factors influencing the shaping of urban growth as well as urban form expectations. In some ways this is akin to working with equivalent communities in the United States, but there is much less confidence that outcomes can be salutary.
Outside of the city centers, and utilizing the above assumptions, Israelis have adopted a type of car-oriented sprawl that is perhaps a bit too formless given the uniqueness of this environment. Of course, one can not forget that one sees this type of environment aspired to all around the globe. The whole purpose of conferences such as these is to reveal our assumptions and then aspire to something more specific.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Good City Form Versus The Daily News

Khán-i-'Avámid, also known as the Inn of the Columns was built in 1784 when Akko, Israel was under the rule by  of the Ottoman Empire. Does this architecture bear the moral failings of its political times or is it an artifact of typology that transcends temporal concerns?

I am lucky enough to be attending, as a "resource team" member, the second Israeli Mayor's Institute on City Revitalization. Based upon a similar program developed two decades ago in the United States by the National Endowment for the Arts, the program brings together Mayors who have a design, development, or environmental design challenge, with experts in a broad range of environmental design fields, from real estate economics, to affordable housing, to urban design and architecture.

During the conference, each Mayor is given approximately an hour and one-half to present their challenge and receive immediate input and response from both the experts and their fellow mayors. One could think of it as a type of city design "pecha kucha" with feedback. I have attended three of these sessions in the United States and always been impressed with how seriously the Mayor's present their cases, listen, and much work is accomplished.

In the United States their is a long tradition of presenting and listening and considering in the course of the city design process. This planning tradition, while not unique in the United States, and not always perfect for sure, is at this point an export service that people in other lands, including Israel, are curious about. Does it translate? How does it need to be modified to meet a different culture with different constraints and opportunities and expectations? One of my main interests in participating in this conference here is Zefat is to garner some insights into these questions. Our first session here in Zefat certainly made me think.

When you put nine mayors of Israeli city's in a room and ask them to each briefly introduce and present the vision of their city, they, like mayor's in the United States, with great pride tell you about the growth patterns, the beautiful settings and opportunities, the reasons their towns are attractive to business, etc. I certainly learn a lot about places I have either never been to or only have spent an afternoon in. For instance, on our drive to Zefat, my hosts were kind enough to take me to four of the eight cities that are the subject of this conference and show me first hand the settings that are the subjects of our session. While touching and feeling a place is priceless when you are about to make recommendations, hearing a city described by it's mayor has no equal when you are trying to appreciate the context.

Through the first eight presentations here in Zefat, all was quite familiar, at least as regards the form of the conversation. Each Mayor would present their materials, typically with more emphasis on the opportunities they were developing than the challenges they were facing. Then, in our case, the mayor of our host city was given the opportunity to both welcome fellow mayors and tell us all a bit about the town we are ensconced in on a mountain top.

Zefat, is a religious city where Rabbi's, mystics, and the faithful have come for centuries. It is also a tourist town set in the mountains overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. Pre-1948, the town contained a large Arab population which fled during bitter fighting upon the declaration of Israeli independence.

The Mayor of this city was describing some of its challenges, which include moving a growing university. He also described how he spent much of his time trying to calm tensions between Jewish and Arab students and stresses between the religious people who live in the city and these same students. I am being purposely vague here because I heard all of this through translation and know I do not know the beginnings of what is a very complex situation with cultural and social dimensions beyond my present understandings.

Instead, what I can describe is what I observed, a quick shift in the conversation from the dynamics of city design to its nexus with spatial politics. Should the University be placed outside of town as a means to remove the tensions? Should Israeli Mayor's get more support from the regional and national governments to address these types of contestable issues? Is the national government paying too much attention to addressing these issues at the international level and not attending to the facts on the ground? The conversation quickly heated up, ever sharper points of view were exchanged, and a discussion about city design was all of a sudden a discussion, from this American's point of view, about the Middle East - in real time, in real place, in reality.

Our facilitator, Dror Gershon, the director of the Israeli Movement for Urbanism, did a wonderful job trying to keep everybody on topic. But still, social and ethnic tensions are ever present just beneath the surface. At one point towards the end of he conversation he turned to me, and said John, "do you have anything to say?" Talk about being put on the spot. I suggested that good city form has been created throughout history by both the most democratic societies and the most oppressive societies. I further stated that while there would always be a clear nexus between the form of the city and discussions of equality, morality, and politics, it was possible to discuss means of improving cities and good city form independent of politics. Or is it I wondered, even as I spoke.

While speaking I was reminding myself of two mentors; one from books and one a teacher. Aldo Rossi, in the "Architecture of the City", discusses cities as built artifacts through which uses, memories, and lives flow across time. One day a building is a prison, the next it is a school. Everyday it is a building, and in that sense at least has a type of autonomy that transcends the present, embodies memories, and teaches lessons the architect must learn from. My teacher, the architectural historian Vincent Scully, in response to my youthful insistence that architecture had a moral dimension, gently chided me saying that people are guilty, architecture is innocent. From both of these points of view one can separate the political and moral dilemmas of a Mayor in Israel from essential principles of good city form.

Still, a part of me believes that a city is also the accumulation of thousands of individual decisions, and each of these do have moral dimensions. Clearly, mayor's in Israel, indeed mayor's everywhere, can not and do not make decisions about the design of the environment in social and political vacuums. Here in Israel, the liquid surface of environmental urban design is immediately rippled by the currents of the daily news, and creating cities is not easily separated from the tensions of nation building.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's The Scale Stupid

A storefront seen in Tel Aviv, Israel after an eighteen hour flight  on 11/13/10. The level of detail established by recessed entry, illuminated sidewalk, street side decor, and lighting, creates a sense of rich and vital texture. The first impression of this city; human-scale and vital intricacy is everywhere present.

In my very first (and as it turned out only) job interview upon graduating from architecture school, the Associate Dean of a college of architecture asked me what I thought of my possible future home, Houston, Texas. This was a trap of a question on many counts. How can one answer it correctly when I had been off the plane for all of two hours? At that point my knowledge of Houston was confined to the view of the City seen from the back seat of a taxi zipping from the airport to a hotel. The question was clearly a trap. In those days, and even today, the view from the freeway is a view of giant billboards, traffic, big steamy sky and a surreal skyline jutting above planes. You never experience anything that remotely resembles a traditional town. This type of urban experience was not and is not what most people strive to create. I certainly had not been taught to appreciate this schema of things in graduate school. However, my first impression was that I liked it. The Associate Dean had a perverse sense of urban humor as well. We ho it off. I got the job and the rest is as they say history.

As a traveler, first impressions are about all you have, and your sense of good and bad is pretty instinctual and pure. You either get it and like the place you have just arrived at or you don't. Part of the adventure of travel is the freedom to form these types of often uninformed and off-the-cuff  judgments. However, there is usually a thread of truth in them. Understanding more clearly this thread provides a richer clue as to why you might return a second time.

In the case of Tel Aviv, I am just hours into my second visit, and this journey started much like the first. I arrived after dark at the airport, was met by a freind, driven to my hotel, took a shower, and then was taken on a long looping night walk (with dinner) about the city. If the first time I marveled at the 1930's architecture, the street life, and the paving details, as well as the cultural sophistication of the place, this time I realized that it was the scale that makes this place so unique. The original planners and designers in the early to mid-twentieth century seem to have stumbled on some magic formula of width, depth, height, massing, bulk, transparency, open space, boulevard versus street, etc. that is just about perfect in generating a joyful sidewalk-oriented and vibrant urbanism.

There are many places in the world where you see this type of organic street life where there is a mysterious fit between the activity of the street and the size and scope of the supporting buildings but few, and none that I can recall off the top of my head, were as consciously planned as Tel Aviv. In the coming days I hope to get out on the streets of this city and experience this scale in a bit more depth and understand it as both impressionistic experience and formula. First impressions matter; here in Tel Aviv its the scale stupid.