Ancient beauty: Why Jerusalem is not just a famous city, but a nice one

Jerusalem is not just a city on a hill. It is also a light unto the nations. Thanks to wise municipal ordinances, especially a requirement inherited from its British colonial administrators that resulted in most buildings being made of, or at least clad in, tasteful Jerusalem stone. I know, I know, you're not meant to go there and have realizations about the new urbanism. But people do live in Jerusalem, mostly in quite ordinarily life-like ways. As a result, they rightly care as much that their city is nice, as well as that it is famous. As I learned on my Canada-Israel Committee sponsored trip, Jerusalem is both.

The city has enjoyed some good luck in this respect. First, being on a hill rather improves the climate, especially in summer. Second, as you may vaguely have heard, Jerusalem is a bit old and revered. (According to senior archaeologist Dan Bahat, the “salem” is not a cognate with shalom/salaam but is the Canaanite god of night, though an Internet search reveals controversy even over that; in addition to one site saying Jerusalem has more than 100 names and another that it has just 70, a third flatly contradicts Mr. Bahat about the origin of the one the city is normally known by. Brockville was never like that.)

Being old, Jerusalem has a street layout created organically over many centuries by actual live humans rather than cyborg city planners. And while being revered can be a bit of a handicap (digging so much as a barbecue pit will probably infuriate three religious authorities and possibly dislodge something left by someone who considers Herod the Great “that Johnny Come Lately”), this attitude also helped Jerusalem escape the peculiarly destructive modern sort of urban renewal that has, and gives cities, the soul of a machine.

Of course, the city has considerable experience of old-style urban renewal (“After we sack the place, we burn the temple, level everything, steal the inhabitants and change the name”) plus a big earthquake in 1033. But from that you can rebuild. Unlike the damage done to New York City by Moses (Robert, not prophet). As for the essentially new city of Tel Aviv, it was once called The White City because of all the modernist Bauhaus architecture that renders it, let's be frank, hideous. Whatever charm it possesses, aside from a few imaginative buildings, including some by Moshe Safdie, is despite what architects and planners have done.

I doubt the average city council would want to model itself in every way on Jerusalem. There are drawbacks to having your burgh disputed not only between but within major religions to the point that brawls have erupted within holy sites. And at least some North Americans might be inclined, in evaluating Jerusalem as an urban environment, to obsess on terrorism to the point they think the explosions keep you awake nights.

It may not be all that reassuring to be told the traffic is even more dangerous. But in fact the statistical probability of being a direct victim of terror is very small in Israel, while being an indirect victim is up to you. People we met seemed mostly as bafflingly blase as, say, Canadians are toward potential hypothermia. We heard rather comical accounts of living right next to Gaza or Hezbollah-controlled bits of Lebanon from which various lethal objects were routinely, if ineptly, hurled. “It's a good quality of life. It's quiet, you know the neighbours, the schools are nice, there are rockets coming in, it's prosperous, there's a strong sense of community.” After hearing this in Natif Ha'asara, where a mortar shell killed someone two hours after we left, and in Metulla, we went down to the Dead Sea, and as we climbed Masada I had this image of the zealots explaining the advantages of the place circa 69 A.D. “There's a great view, the schools teach values, it's quiet, the neighbours are industrious, see where they're building a huge dirt ramp to come up and kill us, we got caves full of millet and oil, fresh air, sunshine, there's a strong sense of community.”

There's something a bit unnerving about seeing not only the main security wall but also additional concrete walls inside Jerusalem, built to keep the neighbours from taking potshots at the local kindergarten, prettily decorated by the kids. But people mostly shrug off the danger and go about their business in an urban environment delightful in ways that can be copied.

Start with the ban on high-rise buildings. And let me not hear Canadians lecture Israelis about limited available space and the need to infill. (The Jerusalem Post just described a plan, with the three main Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem almost full and people reluctant to encroach on the Jerusalem Forest or build beyond the Green Line, to dig vast, multi-storey tunnels under the existing Har Hamenuhot cemetery, also providing lots more building stone.)

It may seem odd that someone generally libertarian on economic issues would thus casually endorse urban planning. I assure you it is not casual. Urban planning that imposes patterns of living people would not choose for themselves or, indeed, any member of the human race is much to be avoided. Instead, it was much embraced in the 20th century, making our cities quite unnecessarily hideous. Zoning should be flexible and humane. But urban planning of some sort is inevitable, because cities contain much that is inevitably public space.

Private housing developments can contain local streets privately owned by local residents' corporations. But main streets must be public because competing road networks are impossible on a two-dimensional surface. And the fact that we must all share public spaces suggests, to me at least, that we must have a “highest common denominator” rule: Rather than permitting anything any one of us might personally do in our private space, we must reject anything that most people would find offensive in their living room. Like living in a Bauhaus canyon of dead, ugly, overwhelming glass and steel.

As Christopher Alexander and his colleagues observe in their splendid A Pattern Language, huge monolithic buildings are bad to work and live in; their chapter “Four Storey Limit” claims: “There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.” From any height greater than four storeys, people in the street look like ants, an alienating perspective from which to look down. But it's even worse living among and walking between such buildings. If one were merely making a private error in staring at life through the wrong end of a telescope I would be more than happy to let people do so. But in such public spaces we all have to see the buildings. As their occupants look down, we look up and find the experience equally inhumane and alienating.

It is pretty generally understood that one may not exhibit an obscene or disgusting object in public unless it is a piece of modern art. But if a building may not display a naked woman 600 feet high on its facade, why may it display a hideous facade 600 feet high at all or, indeed, even have such a facade? And by golly, four storeys was for a long time the limit in Jerusalem. It's great.

Local authorities had a fortuitously strong incentive not to clog the skyline because no one wanted to spoil the view of, or from within, important sites in the Old City. (Unlike, say, the Alamo, secretly a grubby mud heap to begin with, but far worse for being overshadowed, when I visited San Antonio in the late 1980s, by an equally grubby department store). But even Ottawa managed to avoid hemming in the Parliament buildings too closely. Regrettably, I am informed by Amiram Gonen of Hebrew University that Jerusalem has begun relaxing this rule. It is a decision they will come to regret. And since the best time to plant an olive tree or a pleasing city plan is 25 years ago (or 2,500) but the next best time is today, let's cut the scraping of skies. It's not nice.

Jerusalem has some problems you wouldn't want and some blessings you can't have. But it is also a very humane city, pleasant to stroll through, with a harmonious colour scheme especially beautiful as the sun sets, and healthy, walkable, eminently humane winding streets. We can't all have hills or a non-grid street plan, let alone the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And once bits of your city are overrun with high-rise buildings, you must be ready to live with the unpleasant consequences for a while. But we should still think about what an ideal urban environment would look like and how much of that ideal we can achieve. For, if you don't know where you're going, you may well end up somewhere else, and you could have worse urban destinations than Jerusalem. Like Newark. Or Tel Aviv.

How many cities can boast that you absolutely have to see the local YMCA, built by the guy who also did the Empire State Building? Plus architects could come back from conferences on livable cities with T-shirts saying “I went to Jerusalem and got stoned. And I didn't even say J-h-v-h.” And did I mention the strong sense of community?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson