Liveability Is … Stray Cats & Strong Coffee

Our liveability ambassador David Nichols continues his highly unscientific international survey of liveability with this look at Tel Aviv.

Not only liveable but also lovable, Tel Aviv strikes a midpoint between Hong Kong and Melbourne for density, scores a little higher on the pet scale, much lower on the tofu tally, and slays ‘em in coffee.

Israel is, in both the nicest and nastiest possible ways, an insane country of people seemingly perennially at each others' throats (when not at other people’s). It is both dazzling and perverse. It is also cosmopolitan, primitive, supercilious and eccentric. Tel Aviv not only encompasses all of the above, but adds a certain Tel Avivness (Tel Avividness, Tel Avivity?) to the whole.

The benignly mad Scot Patrick Geddes designed Tel Aviv in the 1920s as a model garden city attachment to the old city of Jaffa. Though its administrative district is still known as Tel Aviv-Yafo, the original settlement has become no more than a tiny tail to Geddes’ guinea pig: a peculiarly successful city of squares, neighbourhoods and boulevards.

Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, minus pedigree dogs and prams

Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, minus pedigree dogs and prams

All are charming, though the boulevards in particular are impressive. A small number of long, wide roads serve as city spines (although, strictly speaking, while the ideal city might be like an organism - a guinea pig, say - no organism has multiple spines). Tel Aviv is famous for its Bauhaus buildings, and most of them - and most of the residential buildings generally, in central Tel Aviv - are three- to five-storey apartment blocks set in small gardens. Since seemingly everyone not only owns but also dotes on some kind of pedigree dog, each with its own bemused or otherwise quirky expression suitable for an animated creature voiced by a beloved comedian, boulevards like Rothschild are full of hounds, terriers and their owners, often simultaneously pushing ubiquitous baby strollers.

The cats of Tel Aviv are a world unto themselves. Often unowned, they loll about in the streets like little lions, playing out their own dramas. They are lean and muscular, and people seem happy to feed their local clusters without giving much more thought to them - perhaps in the way one might water a street tree. Programs are in place to round up cats, desex them and return them to their territories. I told my host in Tel Aviv that given the realities of feline territoriality this was better than killing them. Animal rights groups, he replied, would not stand for the killing of cats. This, I thought, is a civillised society indeed.

One might find entertainment in a search to discover bad coffee in Tel Aviv, but would become utterly frazzled after a few tasting exercises of the very rich, strong and high quality stuff sold everywhere. Up in the northern suburbs, I took a mid-morning breakfast with some activist architects impassioned by the current housing crisis protests (I’ll get to that, though it does kill the utopian buzz a little). We met in Le Corbusier-style high-rise apartments, wherein each apartment is two storeys and has a balcony that doubles as an open extra room. Many jokes were made about Tel Aviv residents baffled by American coffee, particularly its Starbucks variant.

Yes, the housing crisis is an issue. In mid-2011 young people began revolting in Tel Aviv (and elsewhere in Israel) about the government’s inability or unwillingness to address housing affordability: the boulevards, identified as the place of privilege and leisured luxury, became a tent city. An attempt was made to hold a protest rally of a million Israelis: several hundred thousand showed up, no mean feat in a country this size.

Affordability has to be a part of liveability, and this of course is the catch-22; when a place becomes truly liveable, it doesn’t stay secret. Any urbanite who ever yearned to live in a city would want to live in Geddes' downtown Tel Aviv, and all the metal detectors and gun-toting teen soldiers in the world can’t change that.