The 15-minute city could save you from needing a car, but will Israel run with it?

Planners envision urban spaces with everything you need a short walk or bike ride away, cutting emissions and stress; in parts of Israel, there are signs of the concept taking hold

A view of the Ir Yamim neighborhood of Netanya, July 9, 2021. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
A view of the Ir Yamim neighborhood of Netanya, July 9, 2021. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

When the State of Israel was founded, the priority was to put roofs over heads for waves of immigrants fleeing to the young country. Over seven decades later, though the nation has changed dramatically, many of the same housing challenges remain and until recently city planning tended to concentrate on building fast, rather than on creating optimal environments in which to live.

When new developments go up, they often come with promises of future infrastructure, including shops, schools, green spaces, public transportation links, clinics and more. In practice, though, these materialize slowly, if at all, turning new neighborhoods into isolated islands cut off from many of the services people need in their daily lives.

“The problem is that people view Israel as a temporary project, with planning done on a tactical basis, not a strategic one,” said Haim Feiglin, head of the Haifa district of the Israel Builders Association.

But changes in Israel are afoot, underpinned by a philosophy known as the Fifteen Minute City: the idea that everything that is needed for day-to-day living should exist within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from home.

This means that within a quarter of an hour’s radius from each home, individuals should be able to access shops, schools, entertainment, culture, green areas, sports activities, public transportation and any services that are necessary for day to day life — including, potentially, work. In the 15-minute city, built to work on a human scale and to limit the impact of human life on the planet, there is no need to leave this circle on a regular basis, reducing carbon emissions and various stresses that come with travel.

“For too long, those who live in cities big and small have accepted the unacceptable,”  Carlos Moreno, the French-Colombian guru of the so-called Fifteen Minute City Movement, said in a 2020 TED Talk. “We accept that in cities our sense of time is warped, because we have to waste so much of it just adapting to the absurd organization and long distances of most of today’s cities. Why is it we who have to adapt and to degrade our potential quality of life? Why is it not the city that responds to our needs?”

In Israel, the government has recognized the need for infrastructure to go hand in hand with residential development, putting mechanisms in place to ensure that going forward, homes are not built without the necessary support facilities.

A model of long-term masterplans for city development that are regularly updated, and overarching multi-use plans for new neighborhoods, has begun to be adopted by municipalities. These plans focus on the lived environment for prospective residents, rather than just addressing the basic need for four walls and a roof by building block after block of identical apartment buildings.

Many new developments are being built with sustainability, public transportation links and green space in mind. Urban renewal plans revitalizing aging inner cities are also following many of the same guidelines.

Illustrative: Luxury apartment skyscrapers in north Tel Aviv, December 2, 2016. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

Orli Ronen, head of the Urban Innovation and Sustainability Lab at the Porter School for Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University, prefers to reduce the radius still further, from 15 minutes to within 300 meters (984 feet) of every home.

Planners should “design for an interconnected city, made up of a network of multiple bubbles which touch each other and deliver neighborhoods that are effective living spaces in themselves but also connect,” said Ronen, a leading consultant on local climate policy and sustainability who advises the government and many Israeli cities.

Speaking to The Times of Israel recently, Ronen said she sees some improvements in the way new neighborhoods are being planned, but questions whether Israel is building with the density required to support such a vision.

“Are new neighborhoods really compact enough to offer everything needed for the daily routine?” she asked.

Ronen believes Haifa, Beersheba, Tel Aviv and central Jerusalem are working hard to try to deliver on the concept at least in part, directing much new construction in ways that integrate it into the existing city while avoiding sprawling single-use developments. But only Tel Aviv, hemmed in on all four sides, has been relatively successful and may be the only one with the scale to deliver on a 15-minute city concept.

Dr Orli Ronen, head of Urban Innovation and Sustainability Lab at Tel Aviv University, August 2022 (courtesy Orli Ronen)

“It’s only there — where residential streets, offices, shops and services constantly slide into each other, where cycling or scootering are becoming the norm in place of cars — where once the light rail is opened it will become possible to create an urban environment in which the car is truly secondary.”

All that connectivity comes with a price. Tel Aviv now boasts an average home price of NIS 4.16 million ($1.2 million), rental rates are among the highest in the country and the cost of living is sky-high.

Many of the city’s denizens say the rhythm and connectivity of the city is worth the premium.

“I love Tel Aviv, I love the city, I love the cultural life. I love that I can walk everywhere, that there are so many opportunities in terms of work and leisure,” Itai, a pseudonym, told The Times of Israel when polled about the challenges of city living.  “I don’t like it, but I am ready to pay another NIS 1,200 or 1,500 [$350 or $435] a month for those advantages.”

People are pictured in the center of Israel’s Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on December 1, 2021. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Despite the new urbanist drive to reduce sprawl, many places in Israel are continuing to build expansive office parks, industrial zones or residential developments on the edges of town, isolated from each other and the city center.

But even new, outlying neighborhoods can be built with 15-minute city concepts in mind. On the southern edge of Netanya, for instance, the neighborhood of Ir Yamim has risen out of what were pristine sand dunes in less than two decades.

While far from the high-density mixed use urban fabric of an ideal 15-minute city, the neighborhood still features large parks, a high-end shopping center with a central concert space, a mall, clinics, a community center and more, alongside block after block of residential high-rises overlooking the sea.

Piano boutique and restaurant center in Ir Yamim, Netanya. August 2022 (courtesy Danielle Nagler)

The area offers “the whole package — sea, synagogues, shops, and community facilities, all within walking distance,” said local real estate agent Maxine Marks.

Though public transportation links have improved, connectivity remains an issue, with few bike paths and the neighborhood largely designed for cars. The area is bounded by the Purple Iris Nature Reserve on one side and Poleg Beach on another. Plans to build a hotel and another shopping center near the water have been decried by environmentalists, who worry it will cut off a crucial green corridor.

Home prices there have rocketed beyond even the meteoric rises seen elsewhere: The average price for an apartment there in June was NIS 3.9 million ($1.1 million) up from NIS 2.8 million ($811,000) in June 2020, according to the Madlan real estate tracking website.

The neighborhood now has a single block of offices, but most people will need to work elsewhere. Outside of city centers, new developments rarely include both places to live and places to work. As people return to working in offices again, time spent on the road is going up again.

But with COVID having shown what a commute-less life could look like, many are seeking ways to cut down on travel, so they can live, shop, play and even work without needing to get in a car, even if they don’t live in the center of a major city. Ronen calls it: “creating livability.”

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