Urban life can boast many advantages, to be sure. However, one of its foremost downsides is the conspicuous absence of greenery that often renders residents increasingly estranged from nature and longing for a breath of fresh air.In this light, the few green patches preserved in every city quickly become some of its most prized possessions and a true refuge for all to escape the rat race of their lives, if only for a precious hour or two.In the capital, the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens make up such a sanctuary.For more than three decades, they have has welcomed visitors from all over the country who flock to witness its world-class collection of flora from around the globe. Spread out in sections arranged by region of origin, the gardens lead guests through their endless winding paths and terraces, from Mediterranean scenery to an African savannah grass maze, and even a tropical conservatory. Lost in an island of breathtaking greenery, one almost forgets entirely that one is in fact only a 10-minute walk away from Jerusalem’s bustling city center.But the winds of change are now being felt at the botanical gardens. In the wake of a recent decision by the Agriculture Ministry to slash funding for all such gardens across Israel, management in Jerusalem is facing a looming crisis in the very near future if it fails to become financially independent.For Ariela Solomon, the newly hired director of development at the botanical gardens, the budget cuts provide a rare opportunity for the place to grow and metamorphose in new directions more in tune with the 21st century.
Ariela Solomon, the gardens’ new director of development (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
“The gardens have the potential to become much more than just a ‘museum of plants,’” she explains. “We want to make them an integral part of the city, engaging the local community and educating it for green living.”Rather than being restricted to the conservation and exhibition of plant species, Solomon envisions the Botanical Gardens as a “hub of environmental education,” promoting the importance of recycling, composting, domestic gardening and green building to both children and adults – and giving them the basic tools to do so.In this fashion, Solomon hopes the gardens will lead the change toward a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle in Jerusalem.“We have much work to do in Israel as far as environmental awareness is concerned,” she stresses. “But it all comes down to exposing this generation’s kids as early as possible to a green perspective and way of life, and we will see society mature down the road.”In this vein, much of the development planned by the Botanical Gardens is oriented towards making the place more approachable and meaningful to children. Among their most exciting projects is the construction of a new Children’s Discovery Trail, a marked path with “its own distinct yellow-brick-road feel to it.” The trail crisscrosses the gardens and guides visitors through a series of vantage points where kids can get a feel with their bare hands for plant life and the terrain, learning through memorable experiences involving all five senses, in tune with the latest studies on child development theory.One such stop along the path is the Discovery Pool, where children are invited to explore water plants from up close and even pull them, learning about the pond’s ecosystem firsthand.
Children exploring the Discovery Pool (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Another spot still under construction is a high wooden walkway that will enable visitors to sift through the treetops on the slopes of the botanical gardens, after which they will discover the very opposite perspective of the tree: below the bridge awaits the remarkable new Roots Center.Designed and built by world-renowned artist Will Beckers – affectionately known as the “Willow Man” – the bark-shaped canopy, made up of natural material, will offer children an unforgettable encounter with sundry plant roots and types of bedrock, ultimately compelling them to crawl to the exit for an intimate feel of the rich natural soil.“We want you to come and touch,” exclaims Alan Berkley, chairman of the board of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.“We want kids to come here and get dirty, forget about their smartphones and use their imagination. The most profound way to learn is through experience and play.” It was Berkley’s wife, Sharon Kaplan, who played a key role in envisioning the trail; while generous aid from her family’s Kaplan Foundation helped make that vision a reality. The highly anticipated trail – around a kilometer in length – is set to open on April 18.Yet another highlight in the gardens still in the making is the new Center for Biodiversity Education, a grand greenhouse that will recreate a desert habitat in one half, and a tropical rain-forest habitat in the other – two diametrically opposed worlds separated by a mere curtain. The dramatic transition will surely prove breathtaking to visitors of all ages, with extraordinary thought and effort being invested by the garden staff to make the habitats as authentic as possible.But the management of the Botanical Gardens has set its eyes far beyond the frontiers of the park. “We want to be a relevant space in Jerusalem, to touch the hearts and minds of its residents and enrich their lives in a profound manner.” Berkley has emphasized the social responsibility of the gardens to be actively involved in the local community, and to reach out to any social initiative with the potential to make it a greener city.To this end a new “green hub” was launched over the past year to serve as the focal point for all environmentally oriented endeavors in Jerusalem. The botanical gardens can offer guidance and professional training to more than 70 groups across town, from gardeners to agro-tech startups, university researchers and high school educators.
Footbridge amid the lush flora and fauna (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)No less importantly, the community coalescing around the gardens’ increasingly lively hub provides an invaluable platform for all these groups and figures to network and bloom. Ultimately, with the help of the Jerusalem Municipality, Keren Hayesod and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund, the hub will soon take the form of a green center set to be built just outside the gardens.The Botanical Gardens has also opened the door to a diverse array of special-needs groups for whom the place is a true life-changer. A team of autistic young adults works daily in the gardens, as do several IDF veterans suffering from post-trauma and head injuries – all enjoying unparalleled therapeutic benefit from the peaceful, soothing work in the greenhouses.While drawing much from the simple serenity of the garden, they also make a valuable contribution to its daily functioning, and in so doing find personal fulfillment that is difficult to overestimate. As Adi Bar-Yosef, a young worker at the gardens, put it, “this is a place where plants grow people.”The heads of the botanical gardens will keep faithful to their responsibility as protectors of biodiversity. In recent years the gardens have managed to preserve 220 out of the 414 endangered plant species of the Mediterranean, an unparalleled feat in counterpart botanical gardens around the world. Even more significantly, many of these species have been steadily reintroduced back to nature in an attempt to help them flourish again. A recent example has been the triumphant return of several local Jerusalemite plants to the Gazelle Valley park with the combined efforts of the botanical gardens and volunteers from the local community.With governmental financing down to a virtual zero, the Botanical Gardens will inevitably rely increasingly on private donations and the support of the public. But the creative minds leading the place are fixated on a vision much grander than any short-term setback, recognizing the immense potential inherent in the botanical gardens to become a central part of Jerusalem living.“I intend for the gardens to become the ‘go-to’ place in Jerusalem within the next two years, as far as environmental enterprise and education is concerned,” Berkley says.“Jerusalem can become a true example to the rest of Israel and to the world, a beacon of sustainable living and environmental thinking. The botanical gardens will continue to lead and inspire in that direction.”