Expert interview: Ron Huldai, Mayor of Tel Aviv Now serving his fifth term as Mayor of Tel Aviv-Yafo, Ron Huldai has long been a champion of progressive ideals and equality for all. Since 1998, Mayor Huldai has slowly but steadily brought his vision of a forward-thinking, technologically advanced Tel Aviv to life, resulting in a city that’s absolutely teeming with startups, young professionals, and a diverse range of individuals all living and working together. In our latest Expert Interview, Mr. Huldai looks back on his decades-spanning tenure as the mayor of this Israeli metropolis, while also detailing his future plans for the city, the ongoing challenges that it’s still facing, and how his unique “kibbutz in the city” worldview has helped shape Tel Aviv into the cultural and technological hot bed that it is today. Over the past 20 years, Tel Aviv has consistently improved its city’s attractiveness. What do you think have been some of the most successful initiatives for making this a reality? The most important decision I made after being elected mayor was to prioritize the residents over the commuters. In the period before I took office, city policies greatly benefited those who came into the city daily to work and spend time and then departed for their homes in the evenings. There was a clear indication prioritizing businesses and commuters and in those years Tel Aviv-Yafo was a deserted city – a city where more people left it for home than those who lived in the city. Anyone who started a family and began raising children preferred to leave the city; the prevalent perception of quality of living at that time was that a single family home outside the city was better than a small apartment inside the neglected city, and the population of Tel Aviv-Yafo was growing older. I decided on a complete change of the center of gravity and investment. In my first two terms, over ten years, I invested enormous resources in upgrading the urban infrastructure. Roads, sidewalks, pipes, public buildings – the infrastructure that had been neglected for decades – were taken care of. During these years, much of the public was very angry with the municipality, as many streets were blocked and daily life was impeded; but urban processes take a long time. At the same period, we began increasing budgets for services: education, welfare, social services, culture, and attractive public spaces. For instance, we embarked on a path to upgrade and revitalize all the cultural institutions in the city, most of which had not been redone since they had been built decades before. After a few years, residents began to see the changes, and the exodus from the city was reversed. The most important demographic change that occurred during my time as mayor is the return of young people to the city: about one-third of the city's residents are aged 18-35, and when the children are added to the equation, then about half of Tel Aviv-Yafo residents are under the age of 35. This is possibly the highest proportion of young people in a western city, and is more indicative of the huge demand for housing in the city – despite the cost of housing and the relatively small living space compared to areas outside the city. When I took office, the municipality had 250 parks; today we have 500. In recent years, we have been opening an average of two to three new elementary schools and a new high school each year. These are big challenges, but they reflect the great desire of people to live in the city, and the quality of life they gain. What are the biggest challenges in promoting the quality of living? How do you make a city attractive to businesses, residents, and tourists? Theoretically, from a purely economic point of view, it is best to promote businesses above residents, because residents cost us money, and businesses make money for us. Under the municipal taxation method used in Israel, the local authority charges a property tax – i.e., a tax determined by the size of the apartment or office. For an apartment, residents pay a very low tax and of course consume many services, while offices and businesses pay very high taxes but do not require services like education, health, or welfare. In other words, businesses fund our ability to provide services to our residents. Therefore, in order to improve the quality of life of our residents, we must ensure that our business owners are satisfied, and that more companies choose Tel Aviv-Yafo. In the last two decades, we have been experiencing tremendous momentum in building commercial spaces and office buildings, greatly increasing the city's income sources. And of course, we are careful about optimal and smart financial management, on the side of deeper tax collection. Tel Aviv-Yafo today is a city characterized by inviting and welcoming public spaces, personal security, a thriving cultural and arts scene, and public institutions – such as schools, kindergartens, community centers, cultural institutions, welfare institutions, religious institutions, and more – all at the highest standard. All of this costs a lot of money, but thanks to proper management, we have been able to produce a solid municipality. When I took office 21 years ago, the municipality was on the verge of bankruptcy. After a few difficult years, we made an absolute turnaround and as of today we have enjoyed 17 years of a balanced budget with a surplus. The Israeli affiliate of Standard & Poor’s rated our municipality as Triple A Stable. Can you give tips to other cities that are already thriving today on how to further improve the quality of life of their residents? I couldn’t presume to advise other cities. On the whole, we all function with different political methods and other constraints; yet, I have found over the years that when mayors meet, we always find a common language as we find we have common problems. The solutions are not always the same, but the challenges are similar in each city. And so, with your permission, I would like to talk about the worldview that guides me in urban development that I call "kibbutz in the city." It seems to me that this worldview can be relevant to other cities. First, I would like to explain to those who do not know what "kibbutz" is. This is a type of cooperative community that numbers between tens and hundreds of families. The kibbutzes – or “kibbutzim” – were founded by young idealistic people with socialist worldviews who sought to establish a utopian and equitable society. These pioneers were part of the prevailing conception of our national movement in the early decades of the 20th century, which saw a supreme value in the Jews returning to manual labor and the cultivation of land. My parents were among those pioneers who believed in the kibbutz ideal, and together with their friends they founded Kibbutz Hulda on the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I spent my childhood in the kibbutz and to a large extent, my worldview was shaped there. The kibbutz provides for all the needs of its members, and in fact there were always three conditions: the collective provides the members with the best services, at the lowest price - or free, and everything existed within the home environment. A kind of self-sustaining farm. Thanks to these conditions, although I grew up in a poor environment, I did not feel a lack of anything, and the community structure was of great importance in daily life. Today, in the big city, one of the biggest challenges facing mayors is providing the same community environment that characterizes small places. A few years ago, the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality completely changed its organizational structure, creating a huge community management team with numerous resources. The organizational change reflects our desire to deepen the sense of community among the residents, and the model we aspire to I call "kibbutz in the city": having the ability to satisfy the same three conditions that the kibbutz provided for me as a child. We try to envision each neighborhood as a kibbutz, and see how the best services can be provided to the residents – whether in education, health, culture, or welfare services. We make great efforts to subsidize the services and lower their prices to the absolute minimum, if it’s not possible to give them away for free. In this context, in recent years we have dramatically expanded the range of services that residents receive from the municipality, while leveraging our ownership of many community, leisure, cultural and entertainment institutions in the city: classes, children's play facilities, libraries, swimming pools, activities for young parents with their children, educational enrichment for children and adults, activities during holidays, movies, shows – and wherever possible, we provide these free or at a token fee. And as in the kibbutz, we try to make it all close to home. The fact that every neighborhood has schools, kindergartens, a commercial center, a community center, a cultural hall and the like is, among other things, meant to allow every resident to build a sense of community with their neighbors. Do you agree that the ability to attract businesses and talent is directly linked to the ability to provide a high quality of life inside a city? I will answer you with a story. Tel Aviv-Yafo is known today as a city with a well-developed local start-up industry. We have around 2,000 start-ups in the city, which means we enjoy the world's highest start-up rate per capita or per square mile. This phenomenon is happening as Israel itself is undergoing an economic upheaval. In the first decades of its existence, Israel was a poor country with few resources, but in the 1990s a revolution began with the growth of the technology sector, the entry of many educated immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and the removal of the Arab boycott. Around the beginning of the current millennium, Israel began to be talked about in terms of an economic miracle: a Startup Nation - a global center of innovation and creativity. So in those days, when the Israeli tech industry was in its infancy, I talked to a good friend of mine, Yossi Vardi, one of the founding fathers of the Israeli startup industry. I told him I would like to see more startups in the city, and Vardi asked me what I intended to do to attract developers to the city. I told him I was not going to do anything about it; rather, I wanted Tel Aviv-Yafo to be the best place for a young person to live – and there, initiative would flourish. And that's what happened. After all, what do developers want? When they pop out of the office during the day, they want to have coffee in an inviting public space, and in the evening, when they leave late, they want open places to eat, drink, and have fun. Nature has given us a flat, small, almost rainless city which makes wandering around wonderful. We did everything else with hard work: we built up Rothschild Boulevard, which runs through the city, as a main business artery; we have invested huge sums in upgrading the beach, parks, streets, and squares; we have put a lot of effort into a policy of encouraging nightlife and in the personal safety of residents; we invest heavily in cultural institutions and artists themselves. And the result is that Tel Aviv-Yafo is a very fun city for young people today, and where the young people are is where the businesses are. The most important element of the story, the secret sauce, is the spirit of the city and its values. Professor Richard Florida has analyzed cities where the creative class concentrates, claiming that they all have the three ‘T’s: Technology, Talent, and Tolerance. Technology can be bought; talented people can also be imported. So why is technology booming more here than in cities far richer and bigger than us? Because the third ingredient cannot be bought with money – tolerance. It is no coincidence that there is a correlation between cities where a prominent startup scene exists, such as San Francisco, New York, London, or Berlin, to cities where a strong LGBTQ+ community flourishes. For only in a city where human rights and freedom are respected can a creative and entrepreneurial economy grow. And this respect our city provides. What do you believe are the most important matters to be dealt with over the next 20 years? Our metropolis has three major challenges whose solutions can propel us forward, but today's situation is a major barrier to our development. The biggest problem is the lack of efficient public transport and mass transit systems. As in the United States, the Israeli government has in recent decades pursued a clear policy of private vehicle preference over public transport development. The options to enter the city by train and bus are limited and the result is heavy traffic congestion at the entrances and exits of the city. Another factor that creates dependence on private vehicles is that in Israel there is no public transport on the Jewish Sabbath- i.e., Friday evening and Saturday. Therefore, even Tel Aviv residents who are able to travel in the city on foot and on buses are forced to maintain a car for the weekends. In about two years, we will inaugurate the initial line of the first metropolitan LRT system, and two more lines will be inaugurated later. This is very good news but it is not enough, and I will not stop pressuring my government to provide more public transport solutions. At the same time, we at the municipality are developing local solutions: a public system of cooperative vehicles and bicycles, and of course encouraging “walkability” in the city. The second challenge we face is the cost of housing and living. In Israel, there is a crisis today over real estate prices, which have peaked at levels that have made apartment ownership impossible for many Israelis. In Tel Aviv-Yafo, as the major central city, the problem is of course more acute and affected by the transportation challenge; if it were easy and convenient to reach the city by public transport from other cities, the real estate price pyramid would be slightly more balanced. At City Hall we have developed an extensive system of services and benefits that are provided free, or at a very large discount, to city residents. We leverage our ownership of many of the city's services and properties in order to lower prices: in community, cultural, and educational institutions, municipal swimming pools and public beaches, and more. But the bald truth is – the largest fraction of many residents' monthly spending is the rampant rent, and here only the government has real tools to intervene in the market – not us. The third strategic challenge we face is a large illegal immigrant community in the city. In the last two decades, many people have entered the State of Israel - some refugees and asylum seekers, some migrant workers. Today, one in 9 residents in our city resides here illegally. According to the immigration policy of the State of Israel, they will never be able to be naturalized citizens, so the state does not recognize them and provides them with almost no services. This is where the municipality comes in. I believe that every human being is entitled to proper treatment. Therefore, the municipality invests great efforts and resources in the fields of education, health, social care, etc. for the tens of thousands of people who are invisible to the state. These people most often live in the poorest neighborhoods in the city - in neighborhoods where the weaker local populations live. Tension between these two groups is inevitable, and we do much to improve the quality of life for everyone living in these areas. Many cities are implementing innovative technologies and infrastructure to help improve the quality of life of their residents. How important is this to you? It must be understood that the most important type of innovation is not technological; innovative thinking and innovative organizational structures are far more important. Tel Aviv is a highly technological city, but for me the most important aspect of technology is the ability to use it in the service of our citizens. As in every city, we also invest heavily in the most fashionable topic today in urban discourse – "smart cities." There are areas in which we naturally lead due to our unique conditions as a city. For example, smart irrigation – every year we open larger green areas, without increasing the volume of water required. In terms of fortitude, also, we have developed procedures related to managing the city during a crisis, an emergency, or a terrorist event – for obvious reasons related to our geopolitical reality. But the thing that we are especially proud of is a project that was initiated and developed in house. This venture is called "DigiTel" and is a sharing platform for residents in the most basic way - using digital tools. DigiTel is an enterprise that processes and disseminates all municipal information, personalizing data for each resident based on their preferences, interests, place of residence, and so on. This venture was born when we discovered, to our chagrin, that the people of Tel Aviv-Yafo really love the city, but don't like the municipality. In their eyes, everything that was fun and cool in the city came from residents or private initiatives, while the municipal establishment had nothing to do with it. We realized there was a failure to transmit the information that the municipality does a lot, but the public doesn't know about it – and most of all, doesn't know about the things that are of particular interest to them. We decided that innovative ways of communicating with residents must be considered. So how does DigiTel work? Residents sign up for the service, and at the time of registration, they give a lot of information about themselves: what they like to do, what their hobbies are, what urban activities they would like to participate in, and the like. Much of this data is information that the municipality does not have, and the mere consent to share it expresses great confidence in the system. In exchange for this agreement, we promise to inform them of the things that interest them and give them unique benefits – and promise not to share the information with any commercial or external parties. At the same time, we established a huge information management system in the municipality. Hundreds of employees, from all city departments, were recruited to be what we call "knowledge leaders." They make sure to update DigiTel's central portal with all new information in their department. This portal is managed by a number of employees whose job is to filter the information and categorize it according to interests and topics. The result is that every resident who is a member of DigiTel receives relevant information – and only relevant information. For example, information that your street is going to be closed for sewer pipe work; or that registration for kindergartens begins the next day; or that there is an evening performance at the Municipal Theater and you are entitled to purchase two tickets for the price of one. DigiTel allows us to share with city residents the decision-making processes, collaborative budgeting, or round tables on various topics. What is beautiful about this system, and in other processes we have led, is that most of the benefits and information were there before – but they had not been accessible to residents. Can you give some examples of how the municipality handles questions of gender representation, ethnic diversity, and so on for the betterment of its residents? A key ethos of the city is to be a home to every group and every minority. The municipality under my leadership does everything so that each person feels comfortable expressing themselves and living their lives as they wish. One of the most well-known examples of this is the municipality's attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community. The Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality was probably the first municipality in the world to establish a fully-funded community center for the LGBTQ+ community. At that time, about a decade-and-a-half ago, the community needed various services that it did not find in existing institutions: concentration of health, community, and psychological assistance services and support under one roof. In addition, the municipality financially supports dozens of community-related targets: an LGBTQ+ youth organization; a youth club; retirement support frameworks; LGBTQ+ art; transgender assistance; a transgender youth clinic at a municipal hospital; and of course, funding for the city’s great Pride Parade. Another issue we deal with is assistance to the foreign community in the city. In the past two decades, tens of thousands of non-Israelis have come to Tel Aviv-Yafo. Some are migrant workers, others are asylum seekers. According to the immigration policy of the State of Israel, they will never be able to be naturalized citizens, so the state does not recognize them and provides them with almost no services. This is where the municipality comes in. We provide educational, medical, and social assistance and more to tens of thousands, in the view that every person is entitled to proper treatment. The issue of advancing women in the municipality is also of the utmost importance. We have set a goal for the city that half of the senior city council members and half of the municipal board members are women. Also among my six deputies, four are women. In recent years, we have been increasingly trying to implement gender budgeting policies in municipal operations. What other cities are doing interesting things in terms of improving living standards and city attractiveness? Are there any examples you can think of? Several years ago, I published a joint article with my friend, the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, about the responsibilities of mayors nowadays. In the past, there were issues that were considered "national" and included substantive and fundamental matters, while "municipal" issues were more mundane. The expectation was that the national leadership would navigate the weighty issues, while the mayors would deal with infrastructure and construction, cleanliness, and public spaces. Today the situation is different. Governments are waning in power, ceasing to provide services on many issues that were previously in their domain. It's not that needs have changed – on the contrary; needs have increased. But in many countries of the world, a vacuum is created, which the mayors are required to fill. Mayors are finding themselves operating in new fields, and decisions are needed on issues that were never on their agenda. I always call Tel Aviv-Yafo "the social home front of Israel" as we provide services not only to our residents, but also to residents from dozens of municipalities around us – giving aid to addicts, special education students, single-parent families, sex workers, street children – everyone is looking for solutions in the big city. We do this out of love and with a sense of responsibility, because we have the financial capacity to do so – but also, unfortunately, because the state does less on these issues. Moreover, there is a fascinating political phenomenon occurring all over the Western world: national governments headed by conservative leaders, which maintain tense relationships with cities controlled by a progressive political establishment. Look at what's happening in the United States: Nearly all major cities are headed by Democratic mayors, operating policies that are at times contrary to those of the conservative president. The same is true for many European countries, where conservative forces often challenge the values that have guided the countries on the continent since World War II: tolerance, pluralism, the welcoming of immigration, and the blurring of borders between countries. Today, the very belief in democracy and its values is under threat, and in this situation mayors have a crucial role - to serve as a democratic fortress in their nations. In Israel, too, there are forces working to weaken democratic institutions, and I see the role of Tel Aviv-Yafo as preserving the values that the state was founded on 70 years ago. It is no coincidence that our town square is the main focal point of major political demonstrations in Israel. We invest great efforts to enable freedom of expression and creativity; we work to make every group and minority feel at home in the city; we have established the world's first municipal community center for the LGBTQ+ community and budgeted for dozens of community activities and groups; we have implemented an affirmative action policy in the municipality for employees from the Arab minority in Israel and in addition, act to ensure at least half of the managers and members of the municipal boards are women. This, if you ask me, is the most important role of a big city – to be a fortress of democracy in a world of increasing extremism. How would you define the role of Tel Aviv-Yafo today, and how would you like to see it in the future? I consider myself the best copier in the world. I travel the world a lot, and whenever I see a good idea, I check to see if it fits Tel Aviv, and if it does, I adopt it in my city. That is how we began our bike-sharing system after I spent a day on Velib in Paris. When I saw a light pole that has multi usages in Montreal, I asked me team to develop one in Tel Aviv. In Helsinki I learned a lot about the various services one can receive at community centers, and in New York City we learned how technological startups are promoted by the city administration.