PPS brings its “place-making” message to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

By Orna Coussin

January 8, 2001: PPS President Fred Kent and Vice President Kathy Madden spent New Years Eve and the following week giving 15 presentations in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Jerusalem. Hosted by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), a community-minded environmental nonprofit, the pair met with a wide range of influential citizen groups, professional organizations, government agencies and other nonprofits. Their workshops covered local issues surrounding light rail, public markets, waterfronts, streets, civic plazas and parks. The following article includes highlights of the workshops:

“Forcing people to go underground in order to cross from one street to the next is humiliating,” says Fred Kent, an expert on revitalizing urban spaces. Visiting Tel Aviv last week, he was appalled by the appearance of main thoroughfares such as Allenby and King George streets. Pedestrians who want to cross from, for instance, Sheinken Street to the Carmel market are forced to descend to filthy, neglected subterranean tunnels. Most choose to bypass the indignity of such underground passage, and instead make the trek through a long, roundabout route to reach their destination. Such circuitous pedestrian journeys are caused by needless separations between bustling urban spaces.

“It’s pathetic and doesn’t need to happen here, and you can change it,” Kent declared, speaking to dozens of environmental activists who attended one of the lectures he gave during his visit to Israel. “These spaces have vast potential, but they’re squandered because a road is designed for cars, and not for people.”

Kent, who came to Israel to review symptoms of urban blight at the request of Tel Aviv region environmentalists, is a pioneer in a global effort aimed at reviving urban streets and public spaces for the benefit of city residents. Inspired by work on urban decay and revitalization done by William Whyte and Jane Jacobs (author of “Death and Life of Great American Cities”), Kent founded the organization Project for Public Spaces, Inc. (PPS) a quarter-century ago, and serves as its president today.

Kent’s work tools are common sense, and also slide photographs. Using common sense, he observes urban centers and studies what people do in them, and what they have trouble doing in them; he watches them try to overcome problems moving around and relaxing, taking notes about what works for them, and what doesn’t. His analysis is geared toward identifying just what turns a mere urban space into a genuine “place.”

Inviting city spaces, Kent explains, enhance pedestrians’ link to their surroundings, facilitate access to other urban areas, and teem with activity. Using slides, he shows his audience examples of urban streets, plazas and sites from around the globe which have succeeded or failed according to the criteria he uses in assessments. Two successful examples of urban revival taken from Kent’s own stomping grounds, New York City, are Greenwich Village’s thriving Bleeker Street, which combines commercial and residential sites, and Union Square (between 14th and 18th streets, and Broadway and Park avenues), a site which was brought back to life by virtue of a simple solution (setting-up a farmer’s market). These are places that tourists like to visit, and where local city residents feel at home.

Architecture, Kent claims, is not responsible for the success of urban centers. The opposite, he contends, is too often true. “Architecture and ego are what destroy the city,” he explains. “They create cities that lack pedestrians.”

To prove his point, he shows a picture of a large bank in Houston, Texas, a large, impressive facility designed by the architect Phillip Johnson. The photo shows a deserted sidewalk leading to the bank; and a lone soul standing before the building’s tall facade is barely distinguishable. Kent adds that the bank’s managers bemoan the lack of customers – apart from architecture students. They complain that nobody enters the building, he says. “Similarly, in Tel Aviv, where there are many attractive streets built in accord with human needs, huge buildings are being constructed, buildings whose presence on the sidewalk appears removed, alienated, and distant.”

According to Kent’s model, successful public spaces have four components: accessibility (the site is easily reached, and it’s easy to move from it to other sites by foot, bicycle or public transportation); comfort and positive appearance (people linger at a site because it looks clean, safe, and comfortable, and because the surrounding buildings seem inviting and non-intimidating); a diversity of activities and uses (people gather at a site which offers a range of services and activities – benches to sit on, recreation space, exhibits of various sorts, water fountains, etc.); and last, sociability (a successful urban “place” is one where people meet to talk, walk around, and develop friendships).

Making a brief visit to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, Kent observed the lack of the first, most important, component: accessibility and connection to other urban spaces. “The market itself is wonderful,” he says. “You can really feel how emotions soar there. But it’s so disappointing to stand on the street where the buses come [Jaffa Road] and not know that there’s a market around you. This is a site which should be the heart of the urban scene, but there’s no connection between it and the city. The market’s separation from the city is painful. You enter the market via a parking lot. That’s really insulting.”

As a corrective to Mahane Yehuda’s seclusion, Kent imagines Jaffa Road providing a simple, accessible entrance to the market. A public transport depot would be located directly across the market; Agrippas Street, he proposes, could provide access for walkers and bicyclists. Speaking with people who work in or utilize the Mahane Yehuda market, Kent learned that many customers are taking their business elsewhere, going to large supermarkets. Should the problem of access to the market remain unsolved, he predicts, Jerusalem could lose one of its most crucial spaces.

Kent also visited urban centers in Tel Aviv. Even as a guest who was just passing through, he had no trouble identifying trouble spots in the city. He was amazed to see cars parked on sidewalks – he stopped to photograph a woman who was forced to push a baby carriage on the street because the sidewalk was clogged. Generally, he encountered a glaring waste of public spaces.

Tel Aviv’s listless Habima Square, Kent says, could be revived. He proposes scrapping the parking lot and creating a public square that would facilitate recreational activities and also street theater and concerts performed as a logical outgrowth of events on the Habima stage. Activities in such a revitalized square would enhance its links to the two main thoroughfares, Rothschild and Chen, which lead to it. As for the parking lot, Kent believes that it could be shoved underground. Revenue accrued by taxes paid by the parking lot’s owners to the Tel Aviv municipality could be invested in the maintenance and administration of the outlying public square. “Experience shows that such arrangements work,” Kent says. He adds a word of caution. “Joint administration [between the public and private sectors] represents 80 percent of a place’s success. You have to make sure that there’s a body set-up to review constantly what works, what needs to be changed, what can be updated. Otherwise, such a site can go downhill.”

Focusing on Tel Aviv’s dead zone, its harbor, Kent suggests that public spaces should be zoned and planned as a first stage. Only after such planning is completed would it be prudent to discuss specific types of buildings and commercial activities. He urges city planners to set high standards, and resist any temptation to be satisfied with mediocrity: “Harbor areas in cities which attract tourists from all over the globe ought to be the model. Your harbor can also be stunning, an attractive symbol of the city as a whole. Take a look at harbors around the world, and think about what makes them work.”

Kent thinks that a splendid facility, akin (for instance) to the Sydney Opera House, can be built at the site. “But opera,” he warns, “doesn’t suffice to bring people to Sydney’s harbor. There’s a promenade which leads to this facility, with activities strewn along it… They are the what give life to the place. Beyond the promenade, Sydney isn’t more impressive than Tel Aviv.”

As it stands today, visitors at Tel Aviv’s harbor lack access to the sea, and the various store outlets attract cars to the area rather than pedestrians. So far, architectural proposals drawn to revitalize the harbor have been flawed by neglect of pedestrian needs, by the failure to perceive the harbor as a venue designed first and foremost for human activity. On the whole, the harbor is thought of as a prime site for accruing profit in real estate deals, for parking, and for erecting shopping mall facilities. “If you don’t change these patterns and perceptions,” Kent warns, “Tel Aviv won’t bustle with life; it won’t be a place worth visiting, and that would be a shame, a real missed opportunity for generations to come.”

A successful model of managing automobiles in an urban area is provided by Portland, Oregon, Kent says. One large city square there was brought back to life because contractors and entrepreneurs had the courage to invest ample sums in a train system, which shuttles people to and from the site; they didn’t allocate money to build a parking lot. Such planning innovation and boldness can revitalize areas Tel Aviv areas such as the harbor. “Your harbor can be one of the finest in the world,” Kent says. “The only thing which you need is a little imagination.”

Man is the measure by which the city should be built: this principle is paramount in Kent’s thinking. When he observes pedestrians, he doesn’t view them as objects subordinate to the construction of huge city streets and skyscrapers. Nor does he see them as consumers rendered subservient by the construction of large shopping malls and commercial centers. Instead, he sees them as people, free citizens in a democratic society in whose name a city is built. The city’s spaces, its streets and squares, belong to them.

“Traffic engineers hate streets that teem with people,” Kent explains. “They want traffic to flow. But when you think about people rather than about consumers or drivers or tourists, there’s nothing better than a street bustling with pedestrians. You can slow-down and reduce automobile traffic at the entrance of a city, widen sidewalks and add benches.” Consumer activities and tourism should be the byproducts of how city life is perceived and planned for – the city, in other words, is to be built for people, not commerce or tourism.

Using Kent’s guidelines as the measuring stick, the deficiency of prime Israeli sites such as Jaffa becomes apparent. Jaffa’s old areas were planned as artificial tourist enclaves, and they have remained deserted. Likewise, Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square is an empty urban desert – in this, and other, cases, it isn’t difficult to imagine projects that would revive the site. The annual book fair held at Rabin Square could become a weekly event; shady areas, with benches, could be created; the ground could be re-surfaced to accommodate roller-blade users. With such innovations, Rabin Square could become a popular meeting place for young and older people alike; the entire city area would gain from such a revitalization project.

Some signs of life have been shown recently by Dizengoff Square. The Tel Aviv Municipality has tried to revive the square by sponsoring an artists’ market. Some stores on the stretch running between Frishman Street and the square, which had been closed, have re-opened. But if Dizengoff Square provides a glimpse of the kind of urban revival that Kent champions, many Tel Aviv streets are fraught with signs of foreboding isolation. For example, the off-putting way in which tall buildings on Rothschild Street and Kiryat Atidim have been built – cut-off from the city, secluded from pedestrains – typifies trends that cause damage to public spheres.

These trends are surveyed in the article “The Changing Public Space of Globalizing Cities,” written by Harvard University researchers Greg Smith and Katrin Bindner. Increasingly, state and local authorities in countries around the world are putting responsibility for the management and economic well-being of public spaces in private hands; huge private corporations are increasingly gaining control of major urban buildings and spaces. The companies try to attract a particular social stratum and type of consumer to these facilities and sites; corporate outlooks and activities detract from the diversity of urban sites, and cultivate a dull, homogenous ambiance in public spaces. The article’s authors deride processes leading to the establishment of stores such as the Gap, the Banana Republic and Starbucks in innumerable public venues; such tedious duplication of public spaces curbs the full utilization of a city’s potential, they argue.

Similarly, Kent views diversity as the key to a city’s success. Heaps of money, he says, aren’t needed to preserve urban authenticity and diversity – sometimes it’s enough simply to widen a sidewalk, or install a bench at the right spot near a park.

As an example, he cites the revival of a street corner in New Haven, Connecticut, close to Yale University. Here, and elsewhere, just a few benches or sidewalk improvements were needed to encourage owners of coffee shops to put tables and seats outside, and to bring a book shop back to life.

“A wide range of people sometimes suddenly find reasons to come to a site,” he reflects, optimistically.

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