By Arlene Segal, with added material by Miron Cohen (Project Architect) Moshe Safdie Architects Ltd

Arlene Segal describes the design and development of a sustainable new city

Moshe Safdie, Architect and Urban Designer became an international figure after his housing submission for the Montreal Exposition, was built in 1967. His original ideas for Habitat Housing as it was known, were based on a three dimensional Modular Building System explored as a rational idea of repetition of individual housing modules. The innate complexity of the idea resulted in a much smaller number of units being built for the exposition, but their impact was highly significant.
The concept of a new town is not new and there are many precedents of new cities from the mid 19th century; built on large green field sites, like Oscar Niemeyer’s capital city Brasilia, the spate of post war New Towns in the UK, or Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh in India. These and other similar international developments that created large scale built environments, influenced the planning and design thinking throughout the 20th century. It is fascinating to witness the embryonic ideas of Habitat reaching fruition in Safdie’s program for the city of Modi’in, a potent prece-dent for 21st century urban design housing development.


Modi’in is located mid-way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel, on a large stretch of vacant land. The devel-opment was a response to coastal crowding and an urgent need for housing caused by an influx of new immigrant populations. It is estimated that the land will ultimately house 260,000 people. There are rich archaeological remains from biblical times found on the hills around Modi’in and these are to be protected as heritage sites.


An urban design strategy was set up for a dynamic design process rooted in history that resonates with the mood of the new century. The process is unusual since it is has a philosophy of integrated development. The proposals for Modi’in, had the political commitment of central government as landowners; support from the Ministry of Housing and all stakeholders were integral to the process. Government agreed that the revenue generated from land sales to developers would finance the entire infrastructure, which opened the way for rapid progress.


The natural landform comprises a valley surrounded by gentle undulating hills. To the Northwest there is a man-made forest, Ben Shemesh; a rocky ridge outcrop containing a valley basin to the South and a large wadi (wetlands) with wadi ravines meander through the centre of the site. Geological studies showed that most areas, planned for housing were on an aqua clod through which water could not penetrate while the central permeable valley, the Vadi Anaba, could be used for the main open space of the city. An important ecological concern at the time was the ques-tion of the potential damage new construction would cause to the replenishment of the gigantic coastal aquifer that provides water to the cities along the coast. A system of retention ponds was designed to retain flood waters and allow the water to infiltrate back into the coastal aquifer.


The City Plan indicates a green edge to the entire site and a connection through a natural route to the Ben Shemesh Forest. There are designated sports and recreation areas, districts of commercial, institutional and public buildings, a high tech industrial zone, a light industrial zone, a cemetery and sites of antiquities. Careful consideration of the to-pography is taken into account: low level housing is located in the valley, gradually rising up the hilly slopes, while the hilltops are enhanced by much larger structures that create a series of identifiable crowns providing orientation points on the skyline.

Minimum set back lines to the streets were established and a building typology of two apartments per floor, build-ing footprints parallel to the contours and the height of retaining walls limited to 3m. These guidelines set the scene for a responsive building programme. Local shops are located close to residential development and designed with internal green courtyards with offices above the shops. The convergence of three valley systems connect with the lower slopes of the hills towards the centre of the site where the city centre is planned to accommodate a range of mixed-use facilities and a transportation interchange.


The road system has been designed for efficient access based on an orthogonal grid warped to take the contours of the terrain into account. The basic structure is a linear spinal city with connections and links that feed the spine, and a secondary road system that serves the residential areas. Generic urban design principles echo the broad frame-work and much attention is paid to fine detail including paving, planting, signage, lighting, street furniture, colour and texture. The main streets are pigmented and the sidewalks have paved pedestrian footpaths that move up the hill in a rhythmic sequence of steps and terraces.

The edges of the parks are defined by three and four storey residential walk-ups that overlook the open space and provide surveillance. The visual connection with the ground also encourages use of the space by young children, as supervision may be carried out from the units. An effective integrated planting programme quickly establishes stabil-ity, quality and scale to the built environment: this simple device that has the ability to transform urban environments provided that the cost of landscape maintenance is computed into the ongoing infrastructure budget.

Construction in Modi’in began in 1994 and the first residents moved in 1996; there are presently approximately 75,000 residents and the population is growing daily. The valleys are dense with greenery and houses that step up the slopes to the hilltops where the tallest buildings are located. The slope of the land has provided some variety in housing types and attention has been paid to privacy and overlooking of the units.


Since the area is arid and hot, there was much value in keeping the valleys open for ventilation by natural breezes. Solar heating is mandatory in Israel and there are guidelines for architectural integration of solar panels into all build-ings; drip irrigation and recycling of water are part of the sustainability program, while all units are designed for opti-mal orientation.
Reversible air conditioning is used, particularly for cooling, utility rooms require visual shielding, and garbage rooms are oversized to encourage recycling. All balconies have covered pergolas for privacy from the balcony above and each unit has a garden or terrace, formed by the stepping of the buildings. Corner buildings have their own ty-pology. These conditions are all contained in the master plan that guides final architectural drawings. There is much awareness of carbon emissions arising from overuse of private cars due to insufficient employment in Modi’in and being to the west of Tel-Aviv, the town is subject to pollution from the Tel Aviv metropolis. The new rail link to Tel Aviv together with the new highway connection and excellent bus service should provide viable alternatives to the private car.


The town centre is being developed, the shopping mall is complete, the commercial hub is in progress and construc-tion is underway for a central entertainment centre that will house large-scale events, concerts, exhibitions, happen-ings, family fun and a range of cultural activities.The urban design framework has successfully integrated major fa-cilities and has been successful in shifting housing demand from the coastal areas to the country’s central district. Modi’in provides the highest open space/inhabitant ratio in Israel and the landscape has given identity to the city.

The town is attracting economically mobile young residents rather than the anticipated new immigrant populations, who have been housed closer to work opportunities in older areas. In 2007 the price of housing in Modi’in was con-sidered reasonable for young educated families of a moderately high income. 60 per cent of the population have tertiary education and the schooling system in Modi’in is consequently excellent. The average family is 3.3 children and there is very little demographic diversity.

A review of the apartment layouts, by many different architects and developers, reveal a similar typology of infor-mal housing typical of Israeli lifestyle. Differences between social classes are small and most apartments are pri-vately owned. Despite incentives, few developers build to rent and the rate of purchaser satisfaction is high. 88 per cent of residents find the city beautiful and 2.5 per cent think it’s ugly while 40 per cent moved to the city because of attractive unit prices.


A unique economic system was created for Modi’in; since the land is publicly owned the income from the sales goes to the government treasury who reinvest it back into the city. The land value is determined by a tender process in which the value is rolled over into the price of the individual units. Land parcels may go for near zero value if it is deemed necessary to maintain the quality urban infrastructure..

Modi’in’s Urban Design Framework is used to detail design and engineering drawings that become the legal zon-ing documents for final working drawings, simplifying the planning process. Once plans are approved, the parcels of land are tendered off. These plans specify uses, building rights, number of units, parking ratios, grading, heights, materials, set backs and common spaces. This approach is necessary to fast track implementation since hundreds of units are built by different developers with explicit schedules that also include details of the public infrastructure.

Modi’in was the first city in Israel to have a sustainable water system in place prior to construction. In order to maintain the sustainable environment, new internal road systems are now under-designed to restrain traffic; bicycle routes are integrated into the neighbourhoods and water run-off is retained and used to irrigate parks. An important victory for Modi’in’s was construction of the new rail spur that connects Modi’in in to Tel Aviv, with new bus connec-tions that encourage public transport and improve access to major work destinations.

The new city of Modi’in is not necessarily a perfect solution, rather a fascinating effort in creating a city heading towards a population of 76,000 people in 12 years and with an enviable potential to maintain a high quality urban environment and a desirable lifestyle.