Eco-apartment helps TA go green

Citytree reconnects city dwellers to nature.

By
July 16, 2010 18:15
PARTICIPANTS IN a City Tree green workshop.

city tree 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

‘Do you make compost?” Eyal Engelmair, a volunteer at Citytree (Etz B’ir), Tel Aviv’s first urban ecology center and eco-apartment, asks me when I pay the project a visit.

My answer to this seemingly strange question is, quite simply, no. Obviously I don’t make compost: I live in a garden-less apartment in central Tel Aviv.

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Engelmair’s next question: “Why not?” Why not? The fact is, as a lifelong urbanite, I’ve never given much thought to compost. Surely composting is not an activity one would or could undertake in a central Tel Aviv apartment? “Actually,” says Engelmair, “everyone can make compost. And everyone should, because it helps people realize what they throw away as garbage.”

Compost, I learn, is the miraculous process that occurs when plant or animal matter decomposes.

Waste scraps that would otherwise be thrown away are transformed into humus – no, not the chickpea dish, but the nutrient-rich organic component of soil that helps plants grow.

Compost has been used as a natural fertilizer, pesticide and soil conditioner since the first century CE, and making it is simple, according to Engelmair.

First you separate out your organic waste (things like vegetable peels, eggshells and stale bread) from your non-organic waste (all those plastic bags and wrappings in which manufacturers like to encase our food).

“When you divide up your trash like this,” Engelmair explains, “not only can you make compost, but you can see how much non-recyclable waste you throw away. We want to help people reduce the amount of waste they produce.”

Living in a city with few green spaces, it’s easy to forget our connection with nature. Although most of us are aware of the environmental crises facing our planet, we often don’t know what we can do to help.

Citytree wants to reconnect ordinary Tel Avivians with nature right here in the city, by offering simple and easily adoptable tips for a more environmentally conscious life.

Prior to putting down roots in its current home on Bialik Square, Citytree existed only in cyberspace.

Tami Zori, a digital project designer and manager turned eco-entrepreneur, had been looking for ways to be more eco-friendly.

Realizing that many others were keen to do the same, she transferred her energy and talent into developing Israel’s first Hebrew-language urban ecology web portal, citytree.net. The website remains a rich resource for people interested in finding out more about urban ecology, connecting with others and sharing their successes online.

Zori’s website proved so popular that she decided to take the project one step further. In 2008 she created a physical home for Citytree, which has blossomed into a fully-fledged social enterprise offering the public green workshops, eco-salons, community projects, social gatherings and inspiration. Everything at Citytree, including the eco-friendly paints decorating its walls, the shelves made from recycled wood, the delicious dishes created from organic or home-grown ingredients, the materials used to clean the floors and of course the compost heap – are real examples of simple things Tel Avivians can do to enjoy a more eco-friendly lifestyle.

BEHIND THE project is the principle that “what’s good for the environment is good for me”; and while believing passionately in the cause, Engelmair emphasizes that Citytree does not preach or force others to adopt green alternatives.

“Citytree was born for the people of this city,” says Engelmair. “We want to help them stop and think, to find simpler and better ways to live.”

That’s where the compost comes in. At Citytree’s composting workshops, Tel Avivians learn how to make their own compost, and in doing so understand more about how and what they consume.

Each Israeli produces an average of 1.58 kilos of solid garbage a day, and every year we throw away 6.9 million tons of trash. While Israel’s annual population growth is around 2 percent, the amount of garbage we produce is growing at a rate of 5%. Most of this waste is non-biodegradable.

“What do we do with our garbage? We bury it out of sight,” says Engelmair. “When we throw our bags of trash into the bins outside, we forget all about it.

But it doesn’t just disappear. Most of it gets buried in landfill sites. We’re filling our country with garbage.”

While this is a huge improvement – in 1993, almost all Israel’s garbage was dumped in unregulated tips, causing serious environmental problems – there is still a long way to go. Raising awareness of how each of us contributes to the problem, and what we can do to help, is a good start.

“When people understand what they consume, they can take steps to change those consumption patterns,” Engelmair explains. One good first step is to take reusable cloth bags to supermarkets instead of using plastic ones, and to deliberately choose items that use less packaging.

To help spread the composting habit among more Tel Avivians, Citytree is planning a joint project with City Hall. People will be encouraged to get together with their neighbors and purchase a composter at a subsidized rate from the Tel Aviv municipality. Citytree’s contribution will be a support line to help people new to composting.

Citytree hopes that, as well as producing compost, this project will help Tel Avivians get to know their neighbors better. The idea of improved interpersonal relationships stems from a concept called permaculture, a model for sustainability and self-sufficiency in human settlements based on natural ecology. As a model for human habitation, permaculture can apply to city life too.

“In cities, often people don’t know their neighbors, and that’s a waste and a shame,” explains Engelmair.

“These interpersonal relationships are incredibly important, and permaculture teaches ways to improve them.”

ONE WAY in which urban permaculture improves urbanites’ relationships with each other as well as the land is by transforming vacant lots into communal gardens where people can grow plants and spend time with neighbors. Urban gardens have proved extremely popular, with small community gardens popping up all over Tel Aviv, including in overcrowded and poorer neighborhoods like Florentin. Recently, Citytree supported the opening of a new garden in Yad Eliyahu.

Though still a young project, Citytree has already shown itself a catalyst for hundreds of small, grassroots eco-projects like Florentin’s urban garden and the composting initiative, indicating a real interest among urban Israelis in greener living.

Is this a change in attitudes, or just another hip new Tel Aviv trend? Engelmair believes that the popularity of projects like Citytree and recycling initiatives like Freecycle and Agora (Web sites that allow people to give away used items instead of discarding them), are evidence of a sea change in how city dwellers think about their relationships with each other and with the planet.

“The growing awareness of green issues isn’t just some cool trend,” remarks Engelmair. “It’s a necessity. The damage we’ve done to the environment has reached a critical point, and now we have no choice but to act.”

Citytree is showing that even we city dwellers can make a real and lasting impact on the environment.


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