2012-05-07

Co.Exist

Remaking A 1950s Planned City, MIT-Style

In Israel, students from the university are finding ways to turn a sleepy city into a powerhouse of modern urbanism, and learning simple ways to turn any city into a city of the future.

In the 1950s, rapidly built planned cities (also known as "development towns") sprung up in Israel to accommodate the influx of new citizens, including Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Holocaust survivors. Now many of these development towns are struggling due to depopulation and an aging populace. Teams of MIT graduate students and researchers at Tel Aviv University are using one —named Kiryat Gat—as a living lab for a new kind of high-tech, environmentally sound planned city. The goal is to create a plan for Kiryat Gat that can be used in urban communities around the world.

As the MIT graduate students working on the NexCity project discovered during a 10-day trip to Israel, Kiryat Gat is not particularly popular with Israelis. "The general response from people in Israel was that they kind of considered Kiryat Gat to be rather inconsequential. The majority had never been or their only experience was the bus depot, where people transfer buses to get to their army base," explains Alexis Wheeler, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. "But people who live there really love it. It’s a family-oriented community with lots of active community support. The major criticism is that it’s not serving people in their 20s and 30s."

The city has plenty of problems to overcome: a lack of mixed-use developments (giant high-tech industrial parks are separated from housing and urban life); a railroad—separating the urban core from the industrial district—that can only be crossed via a single bridge near the city border; and socioeconomic fragmentation.

Over the past few months, the MIT and Tel Aviv researchers came up with a number of proposals for Kiryat Gat centered around four themes: the mobile city (transport and accessibility); the mediated city (technological infrastructure); the compact city (urban space and population growth); and the natural city (integrating environmental features into the urban landscape). Among them:

  • Breaking the city down into "urban cells"—a classification even smaller than neighborhoods—to reorganize it.
  • Bringing housing, retail research, and development into the same sphere as the industrial parks to create a more livable area. In the past, this wasn’t possible because, well, who wants to live next to a factory? But as industrial processes become cleaner (and unlike in some parts of the world, companies take care to ensure that they stay that way), the idea of living near a factory may not seem so bad. "It’s not a big deal to live next to [industry]," says Eran Ben-Joseph, the professor leading the MIT team.
  • Putting weekend marketplaces in underutilized spots that are designated for temporary use, like the space underneath the town’s bridge connecting different industrial campuses.
  • Continuing to turn old warehouses into live/work and startup spaces.
  • Installing temporary mobile solar installations on underutilized land (until the city starts using it).
  • Redeveloping the land adjacent to the town railroad (an area dubbed "the Hinge") to include a shade garden to increase enjoyment of outdoor space, a commercial and residential corridor, and a more bustling train station containing a walkway with scenic views and a restaurant. "Instead of trying to expand and build on greenfield development, we want to densify the existing land," says Ben-Joseph. "The issue is to attract the middle class."
  • Putting recreational spaces alongside industrial spaces to change the way people think about spending time near industry.

Kiryat Gat has no obligation to follow MIT and Tel Aviv University’s recommendations. But it’s already starting to. "One of the big issues they have over there is that they don’t necessarily have the manpower to generate these kinds of study or research. They’re actively looking at ways to start implementing suggestions," says Wheeler. The city immediately embraced a handful of smaller-scale ideas, including citywide Wi-Fi, a community soccer league, more bike paths, and an initiative to plant a tree for every family.

Next up for the MIT and Tel Aviv students: working on final presentations, and then hopefully publishing their findings. "Some of the studies we’re generating are these typological interventions," says Wheeler. "They could be implemented in other places in just about any context."

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