Another month has passed, and another proposal for a new ecological community in the Negev has been released. The routine is familiar: A well-meaning individual or group wants to rekindle the Zionist passion for settlement with a modern flair. This time a businessman wants to create a community for high-tech entrepreneurs to live and work in. The settlement will be ecologically cutting-edge, and designed to fit in with the landscape. But once again, the initiators have ignored all of Israel’s national statutory planning guidelines, which discourage the creation of isolated new communities. They have turned a deaf ear to the environmental professionals, who have repeatedly explained why these proposed villages are ecologically destructive.
In many ways, I am sympathetic. Who among us has not looked to the hilltops of the Galilee or the plains of the Negev, with their promise of allowing one to leave the pollution of the cities and get back to the land? Here, in a private home with a yard, one can plant a garden, have a compost pit, experiment with environmental architecture and, most importantly, walk outside and take in the remnants of Israel’s breathtaking natural vistas. But although such a life may sound ecologically progressive, the opposite is true. Fortunately, our national planning board knows this and has already prevented some of these proposals from advancing beyond the color-brochure stage.
There are, in fact, many ecological communities in Israel today. They are called cities. The city is a place where most of us live. Its high density allows us to reside close to our work, stores and schools, which often saves us from ridiculously long commutes in our private cars. It frequently allows us to rely on decent public transportation, and we can even walk or ride bikes to our destinations. We use a small amount of residential land per capita, an important point in a country that has almost no land left for our aesthetic pleasure, recreational use and ecological needs. We share the same infrastructure, electricity, water, roads and waste collection as our neighbors, which means that kilometers of pipes, wires and asphalt are never wasted serving only a single or few families. Because we use less energy per capita than those living in sprawling, low-density communities, our greenhouse-gas emissions are also lower.
An increasing amount of academic research supports the contention that compact cities allow for the most ecologically sustainable form of development.
Of course cities have their drawbacks. A private house requires a lot of money. Most of us will live in an apartment. If the neighborhood is like mine in Haifa, as beautiful as it may be, you will still suffer the incessant noise of buses and neighbors doing home improvements, and, when walking down the sidewalk, have to maneuver between parked cars and piles of dog poop. City denizens bump shoulders frequently and eavesdrop on each other’s cell-phone conversations. Air quality is generally unhealthy.
But therein lies the challenge for environmentalists: to bring green policies, technologies and behavior to the city. Israel will only be more densely populated in the future. Our population continues to increase, and Israelis are naturally ill-disposed to the idea of discouraging this growth. Accordingly, more land will be needed for human use. This leads to one conclusion: Even as we continue to stand guard against the ever-creeping urban sprawl into our last open spaces, we must redouble our efforts to improve the urban environment. We have to make our cities wonderful places to live in.
Ironically, that means employing the same ideas promoted by the faux ecological villages: urban gardening and composting, creation of green public space, energy-efficient building designs. And we face the additional challenges of improving air quality, providing transportation alternatives, and addressing issues of noise, litter and the courtesy of dog owners. We need “green” cities that employ environmental architecture in apartments, offices and shopping malls, so as to maximize energy efficiency. We need to make public transportation a viable and attractive alternative to cars, and remind ourselves that it’s a good and healthy thing for children to walk a few blocks to school. With the infrastructure already in place, cities have limitless environmental potential, and thanks to groups like Sustainable Jerusalem and the Green Forum in Tel Aviv, work in this direction has already begun.
Achieving the goal of a sustainable city will require an expanded environmental mission, one that includes concern for the social and economic well-being of city dwellers. Because if the social fabric of our communities deteriorates, the demand for exclusive, elite communities outside the cities will grow.
Turning the city into a pleasant living space presents a much greater challenge than fleeing for a private slice of land and calling it “ecological.” In order to realize this, perhaps we can call some of our comrades back home, and convince them to invest their idealism and energy in improving the urban setting, from Haifa to Be’er Sheva. Let them come and contemplate a real ecological community, rather than despoiling the landscape for their own personal satisfaction.
Daniel Orenstein is a postdoctoral fellow at the Technion Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning and a lecturer at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
December 14, 2007