The Land of Milk, Honey—and High Rise Backyards?

by Diana Saverin:

For thousands of years, Eretz Yisrael, “The land of Israel,” was a purely religious concept, its borders outlined in the Book of Numbers. Since the transformation of the land from a spiritual abstraction into the modern state of Israel, its growing population and economy have placed enormous stress on the nation’s natural resources. In response to these environmental challenges, visions of a futuristic and ecologically efficient urban terrain on this land have developed—visions that could preserve it for future generations. Alma, an Israeli company aiming to create the first “ecocity” in Israel, is working to make such a vision a reality.

“Just imagine being able to go anywhere in your city, in all its work, cultural, and recreational capacities, in ten minutes,” remarked Yedidya Sinclair, director of communications at Alma. “Imagine that each apartment unit will have green space attached to it. Imagine even the 20th story will have a backyard for kids to play in and space to be able to grow vegetables. Imagine, all of this, with no cars, and run completely by renewable energy.” Such visions are enticing in a country plagued by water shortages, desertification, and unreliable access to oil.

Some Israeli homes already sport rooftop gardens. If Alma is successful, a city's worth of green innovation will soon thrive nearby. (Karen Blumberg/Flickr Creative Commons)

The leap from idea to reality hinges on much more than the conceivability of high-rise backyards. Obtaining land in Israel is far from simple. For one, the Israel Land Administration controls 93 percent of the nation’s land, and is slow to give out permits for its development. Obtaining a permit for a single house can take two to three years, and the last new city built in Israel, Modi’in, received government permission over 25 years ago. Secondly, historical claims to every inch of terrain between the Mediterranean and Jordan have resulted in ongoing tensions between Israelis, Palestinians, Bedouins, and other groups. Ideological conflict has been exacerbated by the depth of historical impor-tance: layers of history literally live in the ground, complicating contemporary construction.

Above ground, the pressures of modern Israel must also be taken into account. Israel has the highest population growth in the developed world on a plot of land smaller than New Jersey. In an effort to preserve the remaining open space, a law prohibits the construction of new cities. To fill the needs of a growing population and address environmental concerns while acting in the bounds of this law, Alma aims to extend and develop land around an existing city to create a “city-sized neighborhood,” said Sinclair.

While Alma waits for the government’s green light, other groups building in Israel have taken a different approach. Ayalim, a Zionist organization building student villages in order to develop rural areas of Israel, adds neighborhoods to existing cities, but it forgoes one of the trickier steps: government approval. Instead, the company just builds. According to Ayalim employee Karmit Arbel, “Technically we sit on land and don’t pay for it… we are working really fast, and the Israeli bureaucracy is not working as fast. Eventually we’ll be established on paper by the government.” But building a city without permits has its challenges: “In Dimona, we technically are not legal, and you cannot be connected to the sewage if you are not legal,” said Arbel. “Eventually, we raised millions of shekels to just build our own sewage so we could go on.”

Beyond the bureaucratic difficulties, Sinclair emphasized less tangible challenges inherent in building such a city: “[one] is to create a planned city which works and feels like a real pulsating organic living entity as successful cities do because of their history. The challenge with creating a planned city is to replicate that kind of organic living quality.”

Technological barriers exist as well, but Israel more than most countries is prepared to overcome such challenges. The country has a higher number of startups per capita than any other nation in the world. Pioneering firms are developing efficient water and energy systems for an ecocity. For Sinclair, the culture of innovation in an ecocity does not conflict with Israel’s ancient history. “It will be incredibly exciting to integrate the city design of the future with architectural styles that are native to Israel, where some of the oldest cities in the world have grown up,” he noted.

Visions for this ancient land have constantly changed throughout history, and some have been more successfully realized than others. But projects like this ecocity highlight the very real promise that still thrives in the modern land of Israel.

Diana Saverin ’13 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at