Urbanization and Land Use: A Biblical Model

The design of the Levites? urban settlements featured open spaces and regional integration.

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Reprinted from the column “The People & the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, July 15, 2002. This article is a commentary to the dual weekly Torah portions Mattot-Mase Numbers 30:2-36:13.

We wouldn’t expect to glean useful insights regarding urban planning from the Bible. First off, from Genesis on the Bible has a distinctly anti-urban cast. The first recorded city was built by the murderer Cain (Genesis 4:17), presumably as a result of his alienation from the earth which had become cursed on his account. Then comes the ill-fated city of Babel, with its problematic urban architecture, followed by the original sin-cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. The only apparent exception to this inclination is the sanctity Jerusalem, city of God.

Furthermore, if there’s one social-environmental issue that seems uniquely modern it is the phenomenal growth of urbanization. As recently as 1800,only 2.5% of humankind (20 million people) lived in cities, and there were only nine cities with populations of over a million. By 1900 that swelled to 10% (160 million), and 27 megalopolises. Now, more than half the world’s population-- over 3 billion-- live in cities, with at least 240 cities of a million inhabitants or more.

But even though contemporary numbers and social context are wildly different from antiquity, the same questions were relevant then: How should cities be designed? How should they function in the landscape? What should be the relationship between urban and rural, settled and wild?

Levitical Cities -- Surrounded by Green Space

At the end of the book of Numbers, though the Israelites are still wandering in the wilderness, there is already talk of the boundaries and tribal shares in the Land. Most tribes received large areas to afford extensive agriculture and animal husbandry. But one tribe remained essentially landless, relegated to urban areas: the tribe of Levi. The Levites and their work in the Temple are supported by tithes, and therefore they receive no nachalah, no “territorial share” among the tribes (cf. Numbers 18:23-24). No large farms perhaps, but this week’s portion (Ch. 35) requires setting aside no less than 48 Levitical cities, and includes instructions for their layout, making it a significant prooftext for Biblical views on urban and regional planning.

skyscrapersThe cardinal charge is to leave a sizable migrash around the built area of the city. Migrash is variously translated as pasturage, commons, or unenclosed land. Rashi explains this to be “an empty open space for the beautification (noi) of the city…” -- a public open space that functioned both as grazing land and as a ‘green lung’ for the city and its inhabitants. This precept has two significant implications: open space becomes a constituent element of urban form, and the city is fundamentally defined as embedded in its regional context.

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Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.