Urbanization and Land Use: A Biblical Model

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

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.

A key component of this plan is the prohibition of rezoning. Maimonides in his Laws of Sabbatical and Jubilee (13:4-5), based on the [Babylonian] Talmud (Arachin 33b), rules that it is forbidden to build in these open spaces, to expand the city at the expense of pastureland or fields. Moreover, he states categorically that Levitical cities are not a special case: this applies equally to all other cities in Israel.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), founder and prime expositor of modern Orthodoxy, living in a time of great urban expansion, commenting on this ruling, writes with great fervor of the responsibility of one generation to another concerning the land. On Leviticus 25:34, which states that a Levitical city and surrounding area “is a possession unto them forever”, he writes: “Precisely because it [the city with its open spaces] has been given to them for all the generations, no generation is permitted to change it as it sees fit. The present generation is not the sole ruler over it, but the future generations are equal in their rights, and each is required to bequeath it to future generations in the same state in which they received it.”

Hirsch explained the rationale: “It appears that these laws are designed to maintain an urban population with a connection to agriculture… [They] served to prevent cities from growing into metropolises cut off from the fields [from their agrarian roots].” One of the great crises in Israeli land use today, the wholesale conversion of open spaces and the agricultural sector to villas and strip malls, would be severely curtailed under this traditional approach. Hirsch also emphasizes the social benefits of this integration, stating that it would “foster an urban intelligentsia connected to the morality and simplicity of the rural sector.”

Expanding the Limits of City and Home

A century after Hirsch, the influential contemporary urban historian and theoretician, Lewis Mumford, wrote extensively of the importance of the regional setting of the city. “The hope of the city,” he argued, “lies outside itself.” The minimal unit of urban living is much larger than the built area; a city can’t be built, conceived, or occupied apart from its ecological region. Mumford echoes Hirsch’s endorsement of synthesis in his support of attempts to “build up a more exhilarating kind of environment—not as a temporary haven of refuge but as a permanent seat of life and culture, urban in its advantages, permanently rural in its situation.”

This approach expands one’s personal and collective sense of home, and therefore responsibility, far beyond the usual city limits. Ironically, the contemporary suburban model which has come to dominate the countryside is practically a privatized parody of the Levitical locale: a house with a lawn instead of a town and its surrounding commons. We all need ‘space in our place’, but when we try to fill that need in atomized units, we end up with sprawl, and alienation from each other and our environment. Wise planning should re-embed the urban in the rural and the natural, with open spaces, green corridors, and a healthy agricultural sector thus strengthening communal ties, and preserving the world for ourselves, each other and future generations.

Discover More

Balaam the Prophet

The infamous story of the prophet with the talking donkey demonstrates the Bible's awareness that powers of divination were not limited to Israelite seers.