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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The older parts of Jerusalem are in fact quite walkable. The Holyland development is a nightmare in almost every way. It was born from corruption, of course. Just Google “holyland bribery scandal”.

Posted by tudsy | Report as abusive

This is actually suburban Jerusalem. There are multiple definitions of Jerusalem but the one you seem to be using is “greater Jerusalem.” The area in question is supposed to be green and suburban according to the planning. There isn’t a lot of green in general.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

That kind of loopy street layout can work, but it needs lots of pedestrian / cyclist shortcuts. I bristle at Michael (in the linked article) advocating grid layout. I can’t stand cities with grid layouts; I think they’re unspeakably inhuman, particularly when combined with hilly terrain.

Cities with a lot of hills demand streets that follow contour lines or otherwise minimize sharp gradients, combined with stepped shortcuts or even funiculars and lifts like Lisbon. The alternative is unpleasant inclines that leave you sweaty; I’ve walked across the whole of SF often enough to resent them thar hills.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive

I believe Singapore is a blast for walking, mainly due to the amazing public transport system.

Posted by Shihong | Report as abusive

As far as new development, some of new Santiago is OK. But there is anti-pedestrian sprawl here too. Keep looking…

Posted by Setty | Report as abusive

Vancouver, B.C. is very walkable downtown, and has been building dense housing stock with the idea that families, and not just single rich people, might want to live there.

Posted by me2i81 | Report as abusive

As a Singaporean: Singapore is NOT an incredibly walkable city, partially because of the heat, partially because public transport is anything but “amazing” lately, partially because Singapore is not built for walking or even cycling like, say, Boston/Cambridge.

This comment comes right after a series of train breakdowns affecting ALL train lines for about a week before Christmas, and a bus driver killed a stationary driver on a road near where I live (in an underserved part of Singapore too). I’m sorry, but I laughed rather hard.

I think this article might elucidate: 1/02/share-with-public-all-data-on-bus-s ervice-standards/

Posted by masafuera | Report as abusive

tudsy is right – the Holyland towers were the biggest real estate corruption scandal in recent history here. We look out on that building from our porch – our kids call it ‘the monster’ – it’s like a huge middle finger pointing to the rest of the city. Not surprising pedestrian access to/from it is so poor, as the whole thing wasn’t approved before building. That promotional graphic/text is a joke.

It’s unfortunate that Mr. Lewyn’s family didn’t check with a local before renting there. Other neighborhoods of Jerusalem provide easy access to the main attractions – with a little workout for your legs on the hills.

Posted by MickWeinstein | Report as abusive

This is a suburban area in southern Madrid built in the 70s: 7910824497624305.0004b59d269dbce89aee0&m sa=0&ll=40.331546,-3.864634&spn=0.01042, 0.023303

There is about 45.000 people living here, zoom in the mapped area and you will see that buildings (6 to 10 floors high) are scattered across green areas and cul-de-sacs (not many of them though) are connected through walkable parks.

This is the place where I was raised, not much fun (suburban at the end) but in terms of efficiency, public transit (2 metro stations, 1 commuter station and 2 fast bus lines into Madrid city which go through the highway passing north to the area) and walkability is great.

Of course, parking was always a nightmare (in the 70s not every family had even one car in Spain) that was mitigated after many underground parkings were built 30 years later.

There is also two big sports recreational centers, a few schools (primary and secondary), a great public health care system and a university in the northwest boundary.

Again, I was raised here, boring for a teenager, but in terms of urban design I always wondered why there are not many places like this, even in high density Madrid and Barcelona.

Posted by desintegrado | Report as abusive

Old towns were designed to have a handful of main clear avenues leading to the limited number of city gates so that horsemen could maneouver in defence. However, for defence purposes most towns were built on hills and the streets were set up based on the topography which could be very variable.

So you ended up with very convuluted street layouts that were often useful in local defences for individual streets or local parts of the town. The thing that makes many of those areas walkable, but not driveable, were the little alleyways that would get built to allow for pedestrian, but not horse, traffic. some of these cut throughs require steps to transition from one topohgraphic area to another. Modern automobile-based design often neglects putting those little cut-throughs in place that existed in the ancient and medieval towns, so the cars follow long windy roads tracking the contours of the land.

Posted by ErnieD | Report as abusive