Strolling down a few of Tel Aviv’s most bustling central streets, you’d probably have no idea that just on the other side of the storefront buildings is a secret garden that’s one of the top spots in the city for a coffee, date or even vintage shopping.
While not full of antique buildings or mesmerizing water fountains, Givon Square could be as close to a piazza as you can find in Israel. The charming pedestrian oasis was previously a parking lot serving the many restaurants and businesses on the busy Haarba’a and Hashmonaim streets that flank it.
But a few years ago, it was decided to transform the gritty backyard into an urban gem.
“There was this amazing opportunity of a huge backyard that just wasn’t utilized enough,” Avi Levy, director of urban public spaces design and development at the Tel Aviv municipality, tells ISRAEL21c.
“Once you provide an inviting, comfortable and shaded area, all the businesses automatically turn around and move their sitting areas to the back of the store, and you get a completely different public space.”
And this is exactly what happened. The square now boasts multiple seating areas serving branches of one of Israel’s top bakeries, many restaurants and even a bar or two.
In between them are more park-like benches, some grass, trees and even a little ecological pond, all situated atop the roof of the parking lot, which was moved underground.
“That was the most difficult challenge, to create all of this on top of a parking lot roof,” Levy notes.
“It’s not regular soil where I can dig or plant whatever I want. There’s the whole issue of sealing against leaks and also the question of loads – how do you place all these heavy construction tools, tractors and trucks on top of a roof, and then fill it up with soil, plant trees and water it all. It was very challenging,” he says.
“I don’t know many other municipal bodies that would have gone through with such a complicated undertaking. But an effort was made to get out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves, because we really did understand that there’s an opportunity to rejuvenate this super-central area. The businesses already existed here; we just had to turn them inwards. Everyone benefited from it.”
Levy says that the municipality, together with the TeMA urban landscaping firm, didn’t draw inspiration from any particular square or piazza elsewhere in the world. In Tel Aviv, they had to ensure one unique feature – shade to keep it cool.
“In many places around the world, especially in more northern areas such as Europe and the United States, trees aren’t always incorporated into urban squares. Instead, the squares there are all paved and that’s fine, since they don’t have the sun to worry about,” he explains. “Here, that sort of thing works less well, and shade is the most sought-after commodity in the country.”
To help shade the square from the glaring Mediterranean sun, the area is lightly shaded with gentle overhead coverings, and 15 trees were planted to provide even more respite in coming years.
Levy emphasizes that trees are now viewed as not only as a pretty addition, but as urban infrastructure just like traffic lights or road signs. A lot of effort and resources are being allocated to provide the city with trees that will grow and flourish for decades to come for the comfort of residents.
“If we hadn’t done it, we would have stayed with a concrete square that would have worked far less well. It was important to do this shading and it’s proved itself,” he notes.
And it’s true. At any given moment, visitors to Givon Square can join dozens of others sitting down for a coffee, grabbing lunch, or enjoying a short break on a bench.
On Fridays, the square hosts the famous city vintage market, which moved there from Dizengoff, another city square that underwent massive renovation in the past few years.
“The response has been absolutely great,” Levy concludes. “Once you see the before and after photos of the site, you see what added value it’s given the place. It really tells the whole story.”