The Urban Design Program Visits Threatened Cities in the Great Rift Valley

Tel Aviv, Addis Ababa and Beira face challenges caused by climate change, rapid expansion and economic disparity.

February 07, 2020

Every spring semester, students in the Urban Design program at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) travel to cities around the world to explore how urban landscapes are evolving in the 21st century in the face of climate change, rapid urbanization and unequal economic expansion.

This year, the group, accompanied by urban design program director Kate Orff and Thaddeus Pawlowski, director of the school’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, are going to three cities that run, from north to south, along the Great Rift Valley: Tel Aviv, Israel (January 4-10), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (February 9-16), and Beira, Mozambique (February 16-24).

The Great Rift Valley is a series of contiguous trenches created by the divergence of tectonic plates that extend from Syria to Mozambique. Along these river valleys and coastal plains, the earliest hominids evolved and great cultures flourished. The Urban Design program selected the Great Rift Valley because its cities are undergoing some of the most severe effects wrought by the major global issues of our time—migration, conflict and climate crisis. In each destination, the GSAPP team learns about local urban-environmental challenges and the current projects and policies designed to tackle them by meeting with city leaders and working with students from nearby universities to imagine more resilient futures for communities and ecosystems.

"We are not just observing, we are actively teaching our students and partnering with local entities on how to integrate design and policy to be a positive agent of change against what seem like intractable forces of privatization, displacement and top-down master planning," said Kate Orff. "For the past five years, GSAPP's urban design traveling studios have provided a counter force to typical oil-and-petrochemical-fueled urban expansion."

Following is the report from Tel Aviv. Stay tuned for forthcoming reports from Addis Ababa and Beira.


January 4, 2020

The GSAPP group arrived in the city during one of the worst rainstorms in recent years. Even though Tel Aviv winters are typically rainy, 71 millimeters (almost three inches) of rain fell in in the city over the course of a two-hour period, almost half the monthly average for January, according to Ynet local news. Two young adults drowned in an elevator, sparking public criticism that the city has not done enough to improve drainage infrastructure. But scientists warn that as the atmospheric temperature continues to rise in Israel and around the world, extreme weather events like this one are becoming less predictable and more common. Rain continued on and off throughout the week, emphasizing the range of climate challenges that cities in the region are facing—from extreme, prolonged heat to fewer, but more powerful storms. 

January 5, 2020

The visit began with a series of meetings with municipal officials who introduced the recently approved statutory master plan for the city, as well as the citywide strategic plan for resilience, which was  released in 2019. The plan emphasizes social and economic development alongside investment in historically underfunded neighborhoods. 

A group of people on the roof of a building.

January 6, 2020

The Columbia team split into separate student groups, each of which will develop design proposals for a series of communities located along a mini-rift—the seam between the new city of Tel Aviv and the historic city of Jaffa, as well as the smaller municipality of Bat Yam, just south of Jaffa. On site visits with local experts, these teams learned about problems in their respective neighborhoods. The Bat Yam group met with the city engineer, who explained the urban renewal plan for Bat Yam and then walked with them along a transect from the Ayalon River to the Mediterranean shoreline, which the students identified as a corridor to reconnect natural assets. The team that toured HaTikva, set in the lowest part of Tel Aviv, saw damages from the recent floods. And the Neve Sha'anan students discovered the complex reality of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers living in that area.

January 7, 2020

Through lectures and conversations with local practitioners, GSAPP learned how various urban systems—from transportation and housing to storm-water management—are connected to persistent climate challenges. Tel Aviv is working toward a paradigm shift in which nature becomes infrastructure, with, for example, different solutions for planting trees in urban environments: root guiding systems that enable trees to grow strong and healthy so they can provide shade and increase thermal comfort.

A cliff sticks out from a sidewalk and street that is under a elevated roadway.

January 8, 2020

The team met with collaborators at Tel Aviv University’s School of Architecture to discuss the city’s development over time. Some of the region’s late 19th-early 20th century agricultural-irrigation methods are still legible in today’s urban fabric, offering potential for interventions that would create microclimates. Local students shared their work and critiqued Columbia proposals involving Tel Aviv food culture, development of underutilized spaces and repurposing of aging infrastructure. 

January 9, 2020

Working toward the culmination of the one-week workshop, students spent the day revisiting their sites, meeting with faculty members and preparing their presentations for the following day. Each group was tasked with producing a reading of their assigned neighborhood that identified key “what if” questions and envisioning innovative answers.

January 10, 2020

Municipal representatives attended the final event of the week, the GSAPP presentations, which started with the Bat Yam team. The team suggested reconnecting the Ayalon River with the Mediterranean shoreline through a series of cooling green commercial corridors, a strategy to mitigate urban heat island effects. By highlighting its walkability, multiculturalism and easy access, the Neve Sha'anan team showed how the area’s unique character as a transitional space for immigrants and refugees could serve as a blueprint for Tel Aviv’s future equitable urban development. Finally, the HaTikva group addressed the recent flooding in the neighborhood by proposing ways in which to harness water during extreme weather events to create improved urban infrastructure.

These initial proposals are guiding the teams after their return to New York by providing the basis for further research throughout the semester.