Spending a couple of days in Tel Aviv has enabled me to walk through the part of the town that was designed by Sir Patrick Geddes in the 1920s. The legacy of that plan is still evident today in what has become Israel’s main gateway city. Can some of Tel Aviv’s dynamism be traced back to Geddes vision? What are the lessons for today’s planners?
Tel Aviv is now a city of half a million, and home to most of Israel’s large corporations. It is the place where countries locate their embassies. It is a thriving centre of culture and a destination for tourists from home and abroad. Its airport is the main entrypoint for Israel. Yet a century ago it barely existed – the site was a line of sand dunes north of the ancient harbour of Jaffa, where Andromeda was rescued from the rocks by Perseus after her dad had tied her there – naked – to placate Poseidon: some fathers are a great disappointment to their daughters!.
The city really began to develop just before World War 1 and by 1925 it had about 25,000 inhabitants. Geddes was then brought in by the mayor to produce a plan for a town of 100,000. The plan he produced reflected his synoptic and environmentally-rooted approach to town planning, and, to a large extent, it was implemented.
A key feature of the plan is how it handled the circulation of traffic. It provided four main roads, which Geddes called “mainways”, roughly aligned north south, parallel to the coast. These are the main commercial frontages.
There were also some east-west connecting roads which funnel the onshore sea breezes to this hot Mediterranean city. However, most of the east-west roads are much more narrow and short. Together with the setbacks and tree planting this arrangement still provides a pedestrian-friendly environment. Their narrowness and shortness is a means of traffic calming, designed and implemented long before the term became invented or there was mass ownership of cars.
The north-south mainways were extensions of streeets leading out of old Jaffa, though the area of the Geddes plan was cut off from the old settlement by land that was already under development. Similarly, the narrow streets Geddes designed echoed the narrow lanes in the old town – or the wynds in his beloved Edinburgh Old Town, creating permeability within his super-blocks.
A plan for green growth
One of the famous dictums of Geddes is “By leaves we live”: “How many people think twice about a leaf? Yet the leaf is the chief product and phenomenon of Life: this is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent upon the leaves.” This philosophy pollinates the Tel Aviv plan.
Trees were to line the mainways, providing shade from the hot sun. Each block would also have intimate community gardens at its heart. Though not all of these were implemented, and some have been sacrificed to later development, nevertheless enough survive to impart charm, provide cool oases and let today’s users understand the fundamental relationship that Geddes saw between respecting the natural word and building social capital. The shared and cared for public spaces would bring people together and retain their link to the natural world and its cycles of growth and decay. Fruit trees and flowering shrubs would line the parks.
Geddes did not seek to constrain the architectural style(s). This was not city beautiful planning, rather it was pragmatic and modest, a place where poor immigrants could live once they had sailed across the Mediterranean. Geddes anticipated a city of multi-national immgrants, bringing and adapting their own building styles. The main developments were to be medium-density, largely 3 storey buildings, though higher along the main routes.
Tel Aviv today,
The area planned by Geddes is now less than 10% of the urban area. The fringes are rapidly growing with business and office parks and housing areas. A pollution cloud hangs over the city, as it does over so many of our major settlements today. However, the northern area close to the beach which was the focus of the Geddes plan remains a crucial component of the success of the city. The combination of greenery, access to the beach and the intensity of service provision makes this area crucial to the bustling, cosmopolitan feel of Tel Aviv with its numerous cafes and restaurants.
More generally, some of Geddes’ basic principles have been vindicated by the test of time. Of course, there are those who would like wider, faster roads, but the level of street life and vitality would be diminshed. The value of communal green spaces carefully placed and shared in a medium density development can be appreciated here. Last but not least, and despite the additions of predictably boring high rise hotels along the strip, there is a promenade that gives public access to the sand the the Mediterranean, silver in the intense afternoon sunshine.
What stands out is the importance of the street layout and the adaptation of a grid / super-block form to create diversity and human scale spaces, along with the use of soft landscaping to provide shade and nurture a sense of nature within a city.