Can Urban Growth Management Work in an Era of Political and Economic Change? International Lessons from Israel

Amnon Frenkel and Daniel E. Orenstein

Published in: Journal of the American Planning Association 78(1):16-33, 2012.


Many countries have implemented urban growth management policy that employs a range of tools to restrain urban sprawl, promote efficient land use, and preserve open spaces. Since such policies are traditionally opposed by a variety of groups, reliable empirical evidence of the policy’s historical success (or failure) is crucial for gaining and maintaining public support. In this study we review Israeli national growth management policy over a 36-year period and assess its success in meeting its goals. We record long-term land development trends in a selected region where real estate demand is among the highest in the country, analyze them as a function of contemporaneous national-level land use policies, and develop empirically supported and historically grounded conclusions regarding the efficacy of the policy. We integrate qualitative policy data and quantitative performance indicators regarding urban spatial development over the study period. We use (a) a historical analysis of policy tools, documents, and paradigms employed throughout the time period, (b) a suite of spatial variables indicating amount, distribution, and configuration of built space, and (c) sprawl-relevant statistical data (e.g., population growth and densities, rates of motorization, economic segregation).

Results suggest that from the 1970s to the 1980s open space was preserved despite demographic and economic growth, and despite the fact that the growth management policy did not yet exist per se. To a large degree, this was achieved through an agricultural preservation policy. Growth management policy evolved beginning in the 1990s, parallel to the growing challenges to open space preservation: the decline in agrarian/socialist ideology; rising support for free markets, privatization, and deregulation; population growth; and increasing affluence. Data show that the initiation of growth management policy coincides with a profound proliferation of development and population movement to low-density suburbs. This is likely due to development momentum that began in the period prior to growth management policy, significant bottom-up development pressures, and a lag time between policy initiation and results on the ground. Statistical indicators from the past several years are equivocal, but suggest that policy is indeed encouraging higher-density development and slowing the loss of open space. Urban growth management policy and its impact must be considered within the historical context in which it was implemented. Changes in land use policy in Israel reflect socioeconomic and political changes; when policy did not adapt to changes in society, the results were undesirable. Today, planning tools strike a balance between top-down planning objectives and bottom-up development pressures. These include minimum density limits, population size thresholds, urban growth boundaries, and land use “fabrics” that prescribe levels of development and open space preservation for regions. The use of these tools within a statutory, national-level plan helps ensure consistency of implementation across regions.