As Israel’s population is expected to grow significantly in the coming decades, a new plan has been approved by the government which will increase the level of crowding in metropolitan cities, considered sparsely populated compared to other Western cities. Increasing a city’s density enables more efficient use of land, strengthens urban commerce, encourages the use of public transportation and reduces building in open spaces — all favorable effects that almost everyone supports.
On Israel’s 74th Independence Day, the Central Burea of Statistics (CBS) announced that the population of Israel has increased by 176,000 people in the past year, reflecting an increase of 1.9%. By Israel’s 100th birthday, the population is expected to reach 15.2 million. According to OECD data for 2019, Israel has the highest natural population growth rate among developed countries in the world without any competition. Environmental group Tzafuf estimates that by 2050, the country’s population could grow to even more than 17.5 million residents. These estimates have led many to question how Israeli cities will accommodate the growing population.
Three weeks ago, the National Planning and Building Council approved an important amendment to the National Outline Plan that aims to make cities in Israel much more crowded in order to sustain the enormous population growth that is expected and deal with the Israel real estate crisis that is brewing. Initiated by the Planning Administration, the amendment will lead to thousands of additional apartments in built-up city centers and a significant increase in the number of apartments in each new construction plan that is promoted. While growing urban centers, these developments will simultaneously slow down the rate at which cities are expanding into the open spaces around them.
Although in everyday life, most of us perceive overcrowding as something negative and strive to live and move with maximum comfort in spacious areas, in the field of urban planning, overcrowding is actually considered a positive trait. High density enables the optimal utilization of public infrastructure, commercial life, recreation, urban leisure, high-level public transportation systems, and more. That is why many of the cities that are considered the most successful and desirable around the globe, such as New York City and Paris, are also the cities with the highest number of residents per square kilometer.
Israeli cities, on the other hand, are considered to be under-crowded on a global scale. In Be’er Sheva, for example, the density level is 1,770 people per square kilometer, compared to a world average of about 15,000 people per square kilometer in metropolitan cities. Apart from inefficient land use, which is particularly problematic in a country as small as Israel, such planning greatly reduces areas suitable for commerce, does not allow pedestrian access to essential services, and encourages the use of private cars.
The new plan is an amendment to the National Master Plan (Tama 35), which defines the policy of how cities and towns will be spread throughout the country. According to the plan, larger cities should have higher density and have a more urban character. Based on this logic, in cities with up to 200,000 residents, the density level should be at least 20,000 people per square kilometer, while in cities with larger populations, the new plans should reach a density of 30,000 people per square kilometer. There are currently nine cities of this size in Israel.
The amendment also aims to combat a common planning trend that has taken root in a large number of neighborhoods, where huge towers are constructed alongside extensive open spaces. In these cases, buildings are only constructed on 20-30% of the area of the plan, and the density is not evenly distributed throughout the space. According to the Planning Administration, on average, only 25% of the area of a residential building plan is actually intended for residential buildings, while the rest is designated for various uses, such as public buildings, roads, and parks. The amendment hopes to create a more balanced distribution by stipulating that any plan to build more than 100 apartments must allocate at least 50% of the area to plots for residential construction. The plan also defines a minimum number of apartments to be built on each lot designated for residential construction.
Despite the obvious benefits of the amendment, not everyone is happy with it. The first to object were the big cities themselves, who understand that this is a dramatic shift that will require far-reaching changes to how the municipality grows, builds, and functions. With the support of the district planning committees, the local municipalities submitted an objection to the new plan, demanding that the amendment be implemented in a gradual manner over the course of the next five years. Their request was accepted.
On the other hand, the camp of supporters is a wide coalition of different groups that do not usually agree on issues, including both environmentalists and the Contractors Association. The green bodies support intensifying construction in existing city centers as a way of slowing down the expansion of cities into open spaces and increasing the use of public transportation. The support of the developers is very understandable, as building high-density cities mean additional building rights and a greater number of apartments to be built on each plot.
At the end of the day, the amendment to increase the density of cities in Israel was approved and will be implemented gradually until its full entry into force in 2027. By this year, according to forecasts, Gush Dan will already include three light rail lines, and work to build the metro train will be in progress. It is hoped that the combination of all these processes will allow Israeli cities to become more crowded – in the good sense of the word.