The Jewish Roots of Planned Green Space

Howard's concept of the Garden City, visualized.

Howard’s concept of the Garden City, visualized.

A recent piece in The New York Jewish Week looks at the Torah concept of migrash. Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s description reads like an early outline of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. I also find it interesting that the financing structure Howard proposed is much like the one described by Herzl in Old New Land, and the one used to fund the original limited-equity coops in New York City (which grew out of Jewish labor unions on the Lower East Side).

Israel: Affordable Housing Still Not Getting Built

It looks like Israel may be in for its own version of the Mount Laurel experience. A year and a half ago, the government there ostensibly addressed the public’s demands for more affordable housing by adopting some reforms that included incentives for the construction of new rental apartments. Recently, after the fires had died down, Ha’aretz reported that the government began claiming (in response to a lawsuit) that its plan, as written, is ineffective; that it has no power to really accomplish much of anything.

I feel like I’ve read this story before. In New Jersey, it took a decade of toil in the courts and political branches to get from acknowledging the need for affordable housing (Mount Laurel I, 1975) to the development of a framework that could even plausibly begin to address the shortage (Fair Housing Act of 1985). And New Jersey is still one of the hardest places in America in which to find decent, affordable housing. The Mount Laurel cases represent an important legal principle, but it’s one that was drawn from the New Jersey Constitution, and whose footing in other common law jurisdictions remains unclear. These things are maddeningly slow.

My faith in the legal and political systems’ ability to solve the crisis of metropolitan housing affordability is not strong. First, the incentives aren’t there: Property owners, who benefit from high land values, tend to stay and vote and contribute to local politicians; people who can’t afford housing tend to move away. Second, the land market itself is too much of a moving target to lend itself to legislative interventions that will yield predictable results. We’ve seen evidence of this in all of the well-intentioned planning debacles of the 20th century. Given these problems, it’s hard to imagine all of those Israeli kids, who were out in the streets in 2011, now waiting for this to work its way through their country’s version of the system.

If I were there, I would support the litigation and press for policies that would yield more housing — obviously. But I would also re-read Herzl. A limited-equity (LE) model was central to his vision for the country, and it has also worked (at times) to create affordable housing in America. The most promising aspect of the LE model is that, when it works, it truly frees its participants from depending on the sluggish and often capricious actions of the state, and allows like-minded individuals to autonomously pursue their interests outside of the system. Some have even sold their own demand to initial investors, paying out modest distributions to capital investors in exchange for their relatively low risk profiles.

Patrick Geddes and Tel Aviv

White City, Tel Aviv. Photo: Google.

Esra Magazine has a nice piece about Sir Patrick G., and his role in planning the Israeli seaside city. Geddes had a special impact on what would become known as the White City– a coastal neighborhood with one of the world’s largest concentrations of ultramodern Bauhaus-style architecture. The combination of white concrete, modern lines, green desert brush, wide boulevards, and the blue Mediterranean make the White City a striking conceptual project in town planning. Sadly, a look around the newly released Google Streetviews of Tel Aviv shows that many of the structures in the neighborhood have not been well maintained over the years; worse, many parcels are occupied by ugly buildings that fail to realize the vision’s potential.

The White City of Tel Aviv

Bauhaus architecture, Tel Aviv.

The world’s largest collection of Bauhaus architecture makes up the White City of Tel Aviv.  Planning students will remember that Sir Patrick Geddes, the eccentric godfather of 20th century regional planning, was retained by a forerunner to the Jewish Agency to plan the new city’s physical layout during its first period of rapid growth, in the mid-1920s.  Between that time and Israeli independence in 1948, Bauhaus became the architectural style that filled out much of Geddes’s plan.  Recently, I came across an Israeli website, Artlog, that catalogs some of the city’s most significant structures with photographs, architectural drawings, and descriptions.  There really is a striking aesthetic to the clean geometry and smooth curves of these buildings, set against the bright skies and sun-starched land of the Middle East.  Artlog seems to be a work in progress, but its work on Tel Aviv is already quite thorough, and worth a look.

Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. The ancient seaport of Jaffa is on the horizon.

I found versions of both these photos on multiple websites, without apparent attributions or copyrights.  But if they’re really yours, just let me know, and I’ll either provide appropriate credit, or take them down.

Meanwhile, here’s a schematic map, reproduced in Dwelling on the Dunes: Tel Aviv, by the architect Nitza Metzger-Szmuk (2004), from the cover of Geddes’s 1925 report; and a Google satellite pinpoint map, for comparison: