Israel’s third city is defined by its port but its urbanist mayor is helping to build a smarter future.
As the sweltering summer heat hits downtown Haifa, its hillside neighbourhoods – built around a steep mountain slope – are swept by a cooling ocean breeze. A labyrinth of stairs and cobbled alleyways winds up through Israel’s third city, zigzagging between bougainvillea-shaded gardens and modernist buildings. Seen from the top of Mount Carmel, Haifa stretches out in all directions, bordered by the country’s largest industrial port, an oil-refinery complex to the northeast, university campuses to the south and sandy beaches to the west.
For most Israelis, Haifa conjures up images of heavy industry and air pollution. Not for long says newly elected mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem, an urbanist and Haifa native. Elected last year, she’s quickly steering government policy away from its tendency to put the city’s profitable port and oil refineries at the forefront of every decision. Instead she is favouring proper urban planning. “Industrial waste, disconnected neighbourhoods, heavy traffic: we need to cure all the diseases of a 20th-century city and move Haifa forward into the 21st century,” says Kalisch-Rotem, who became the first woman to lead a major Israeli city when she ousted a three-term mayor in October’s elections.
Kalisch-Rotem is calm and composed as she welcomes Monocle to city hall, despite the many battles she is facing. The day before our visit she ordered a petrochemical giant to close a faulty pipeline that was leaking underground just 500 metres from people’s homes. “I saw my city degrading,” she says. “So I decided that, in order to make a lasting change, I had to enter politics and tackle the issue at the root.”
Haifa’s mayor, who holds a Phd in urban planning from Eth University in Zürich, is looking to European case studies for pointers for her efforts to transform Haifa. Her vision for her home city combines the Swiss public-transport system, Barcelona’s integrated waterfront and Paris’s respect for its architectural heritage. But it’s a mammoth task: when it comes to quality of life and sustainable growth, Haifa’s infrastructure is more of a hindrance than a help. “Haifa has a lot of potential waiting to be released,” says Yasha Grobman, dean of the faculty of architecture and town planning at Haifa’s Technion Israel Institute of Technology. “All the ingredients are there: the natural beauty, the beaches, the climate and the economy. But they are disjointed. The multi-track train line separating the city from the sea perhaps best illustrates this lack of connection.”
A subterranean funicular between downtown and Mount Carmel opened in the 1950s and is still Israel’s only underground transport system – but very little to do with public transit has happened since. Buses and private cars were the previous mayor’s answer to Haifa’s challenging terrain but Kalisch-Rotem sees the hilly setting as something worth embracing rather than shying away from. “We’re focusing on becoming more cycle-friendly, despite the hills, by adding funicular lines for bicycles,” she says. Another long-term solution is to reduce the need for transport by connecting residential areas with commercial and cultural neighbourhoods. There are also plans to move parts of the University of Haifa campus to an easily accessible downtown location. Designed in the 1960s by Oscar Niemeyer while in exile in Israel, the current site is a 45-minute journey by bus from downtown.
Hadar HaCarmel, just north of city hall, feels like the type of neighbourhood that many would like to call home. Sandstone-coloured Bauhaus villas with rounded balconies and pointed windows line the leafy streets, blending in with ever-present ocean views. This was Haifa’s first planned Jewish neighbourhood and it became a playground for architects experimenting with the Bauhaus style in the 1930s and 1940s, including Munio Gitai Weinraub, one of only three Israeli architects to have studied at the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany.
“Haifa has more examples of the International Style than anywhere else in Israel,” says Ben Gitai, an architect – and Weinraub’s grandson – who splits his time between Haifa and Paris. “The buildings are unique in their mixing of Bauhaus and more ornate Arab elements.” But as public funding has been directed towards the Unesco-protected White City in Tel Aviv, Haifa’s buildings have been left to deteriorate. By shifting investment from suburban high-rises to heritage housing stock, city hall hopes to reawaken the charms of central neighbourhoods such as Hadar and restore residents’ pride in the city’s architecture.
On Masada Street and around Talpiot market – housed in a striking, if crumbling, example of the International Style – the first signs of change are already showing. Young families are buying and renovating fading modernist properties and creative-minded entrepreneurs are setting up shop amid Jewish bakeries and Arab falafel shops. “Haifa’s transformation is starting here,” says Ilan Ferron, owner of seafood restaurant Hamara Talpiot. In his 20 years in Haifa he’s seen many young people leave for Tel Aviv. “The locals need to regain appreciation for their city,” he says.
The recently developed seafront – 10km west of downtown – offers a glimpse of what Haifa has the potential to become. A new promenade lined with cafés connects a beach on which suntanned twenty-somethings gather for rounds of matkot (beach tennis), teenagers exercise in outdoor gyms and the older generation watch over it all while playing cards. The city’s revival is still in its early stages but, as the sun dips and casts a warm glow on the seafront, it feels as though a new dawn for Haifa is closer than ever.
Oscar Niemeyer was left stranded in Israel for six months in 1964 after a military coup in his native Brazil made him an outcast for his communist beliefs. The mayor of Haifa at that time – also a communist – invited the architect to plan a campus for the newly founded University of Haifa. Niemeyer’s design drew on the National Congress of Brazil in Brasilía, which he had designed a few years earlier. The large horizontal library building was intended to be topped with a number of geometric structures but only the Eshkol Tower was built.