Improbably unwalkable city of the day, Jerusalem edition

By Felix Salmon
January 2, 2012
Remember the importance of counting intersections? Density alone is good, but not sufficient for a pleasant, walkable urban experience: you also need to be able to get from one place to another in a reasonably straightforward, noncircuitous manner.

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Remember the importance of counting intersections? Density alone is good, but not sufficient for a pleasant, walkable urban experience: you also need to be able to get from one place to another in a reasonably straightforward, noncircuitous manner. Cities did this naturally before the 1930s, but then urban planners started building cul-de-sacs and other ways of maximizing the effective distance between any two points.

Now, Michael Lewyn reports on some extremely unwalkable street design in a city which most emphatically predates 1930: Jerusalem, of all places. He was staying in a 32-storey residential building called Holyland Tower, whose official rendering shows lots of people on foot and just one car. But in reality, this is not a neighborhood for pedestrians:

To find the area, go to Google Maps and go to a street called Avraham Perrera. You will note that the street is in a section of looped streets that make the typical American cul-de-sac seem like a masterpiece of clarity. As a result, very little of interest is within walking distance, and what is within walking distance is hard to find unless you know the area really, really, really well.

One look at the map and you can tell this is not a walkable neighborhood. Yes, Jerusalem is hilly, but there are lots of walkable hilly cities: San Francisco and Lisbon spring to mind. This area, to the west of the city, is relatively new; it was clearly built with the idea that people would get around first and foremost using their own personal cars.

What’s more, the Holyland development seems to be targeted at Americans, who are used to the suburban lifestyle, like it a lot, and are attracted by developments which can claim to be “surrounded by 15 acres of green park”. Residential towers can be fine things, but they become very bad neighbors when they’re surrounded by nothing.

I suspect that what’s going on here is a classic case of Nimbyism: Jerusalem has a growing population, it needs a lot more residential square footage, but the locals in Jerusalem proper refuse to allow developers to build up. So those developers retreat to the hills, where, attempting to make a virtue out of necessity, they create luxury towers as removed as possible from the bustle of urban life.

I’d be interested to hear about growing cities which are getting this right, rather than wrong. There are lots of cities which predate 1930 and are very walkable. And there are lots of cities and suburbs which postdate 1930 and aren’t. But it’s now been 50 years since Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Which new or growing cities have taken her lessons to heart, anywhere in the world?

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