On a quest to make streets ‘happier’

August 24, 2022

Name: Margarita Leybman Weiss

Title: Innovation Team Manager

City: Akko, Israel

When COVID-19 hit Akko, an ancient town on the Mediterranean coast, a conventional wisdom set in about how the pandemic was impacting local businesses.

Akko’s charming old city experienced a mini-boom as stir-crazy Israelis, effectively sealed off from the rest of the world, set out exploring parts of their country they had never seen. Meanwhile, businesses in Akko’s city center appeared to be suffering, accelerating a pattern of decay that had been going on for decades.

City leaders wanted to help those businesses that were hurting, and focused in on an area anchored by a commercial corridor known as Ben Ami Street. They turned to Margarita Leybman Weiss, Akko’s Innovation Team Manager, to dig into it.

Weiss and her team, made up of people working across numerous city agencies, quickly found clues that the problem wasn’t quite what it seemed. Economic data did not support the idea that lots of businesses in the target area were closing. Also, when they set out on foot to see things first hand, they found shopkeepers were busier than expected.

“Many of the stores were actually active,” Leybman Weiss says—they just didn’t look that way on the outside, especially once they closed for the evening. Many businesses were dimly lit, barred up, or covered with metal shutters. Dirty fences obscured vacant lots. The street had a sad, empty feeling. “It looked like nobody was coming back soon,” she says. But “on closer look, they were there—and many were thriving.”

With that insight, the team pivoted. Instead of saving dying businesses, their mission became working with them to spruce up the street. “We passed a law in the municipal council dealing with the unsightly fences,” Leybman Weiss says. The city architect is working on a design guide to help business owners develop clearer signage and more cheerful storefronts. It’s part of a larger plan to revitalize the streetscape, one that 26 different departments will have a hand in.

“Our goal,” Leybman Weiss says,” is that the street will be happier.”

Pro tip: “Find champions to work with. It’s harder to change someone who doesn’t ‘love it’ like you. Go with those who love it.”