Is Jerusalem construction killing its green spaces?

The construction project for more than 5,000 housing units on the slope of the Reches Lavan illustrates the issue more than any other case.

HOUSES UNDER construction in Har Homa. (photo credit: REUTERS)
HOUSES UNDER construction in Har Homa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Earlier this week, on Sunday, about a hundred residents and activists for a green and sustainable Jerusalem demonstrated near the location of the district planning and construction committee, which was debating the controversial project to build 5,000 housing units on the White Ridge (Reches Lavan).
“If the committee does not stop this project, we will go to the Supreme Court,” Naomi Tsur, former deputy mayor and founder and chairwoman of the Jerusalem Green Fund and the Jerusalem Sustainable Green Lobby, told this journalist.
Housing projects have been, for the past 20 years or so, the hottest potato of Jerusalem local policy, torn between the real and urgent need for additional housing solutions, affordable housing vs luxurious ‘ghost apartments,’ as well as the tension between several sectors in the city. But before the issue of what kind of housing solutions and for whom, it seems the primary question in Jerusalem all these years is still the environmental aspect. What kind of construction projects will be promoted –  will it be towers; will it be affordable and who will be targeted – haredim, Arabs or young couples and families? Yet the first question remains: Where will it be built? Considering the lack of available plots, the threatening shadow of the Safdie Plan (building on the west side, which means sacrificing nature assets) – which, while officially canceled, reappears here and there – every single construction project raises the touchy question of how it will affect the environment and the shrinking green spaces in and around the city.
“Recently, a large new construction project was submitted to the planning and construction committee by an entrepreneur,” recounts Deputy Mayor Eliezer Rauchberger, head of the haredi Degel Hatorah Party branch and chairman of the committee. “It was an interesting project, with 7,000 housing units; something Jerusalem needs like fresh air. But it included sacrificing a large green space, and I said to the entrepreneur that it won’t work; that we can’t approve it, unless he gets a green light from the environment and green activists, which he of course could not obtain. The entrepreneur submitted the project to Mayor Moshe Lion, whose answer was exactly the same – impossible – and the project was rejected right from the beginning.”
Lion says this is not an isolated case. “Every few weeks we receive such proposals, and every time we decide not to approve them, because it includes harming the environment. But considering the rising need for housing solutions, I cannot pledge that we will always be able to save the nature [in question]. We try, and we have succeeded thus far in not touching green spaces, but I cannot ensure this will always be the case.”
Asked if that anecdote means city leadership has turned into environmental activists, Rauchberger said that “environment and green spaces are as important to the haredi sector as any other sector. So yes, we care about protecting the environment; however, we also have to provide solutions for the Jerusalemites who wish to remain here, and for others who wish to move in. This is not an easy task at all – in fact, it is a daily struggle.”
According to Rauchberger, expectations regarding the future development and growth of the city point to a population of 1.3 to 1.4 million residents, all sectors included. “The forecast is that we will reach that rate within 20 to 30 years,” continues Rauchberger. “So it is our duty to prepare housing solutions for this development, which will require, according to all experts, about 100,000 new housing units. We have to build these units somewhere, whether through towers, urban renewal (pinuy binuy) or approving new projects in areas not built on thus far.”
AGAINST THAT backdrop, the construction project for more than 5,000 housing units on the slope of the Reches Lavan illustrates the issue more than any other case.
“The Sustainable Jerusalem Lobby continues to work to protect the White Ridge from unsustainable development. In the last few weeks, we supported demonstrations, and initiated a successful meeting of the Knesset Interior Affairs [and Environment] Committee, which requested an examination of the rationale for building on Reches Lavan, and proposed it be declared a national park,” says Tsur.
It is much more than an issue of finding and promoting solutions to provide enough housing units, explains Tzur. “It is linked to the plans for urban renewal. Take for example the plan for HaNurit compound in Kiryat Menahem. At some point, it became clear that the project couldn’t include more than a certain number of units. It is possible, by law, to move a part of the units from one project to another, as long as it is located in the same city’s jurisdiction borders. So, 5,000 units were transferred to the Reches Lavan project, which is in the jurisdiction, but too close to the nature and green space that have to be preserved in every project. In a way, the municipality can say that these additional units are legal, yes – but where?”
Tsur adds that it is clear to her Jerusalem needs more housing solutions, and she supports the high-rise buildings authorized by the local and the district committee, on the basis of the master plan for the capital, along light rail paths. “But again, why not be satisfied with eight to 10 stories? Why [do we] jump to 25 or 30 stories? It is not true that this is the best solution, and this is also an issue of the environment that has to be answered. We have to densify the housing construction in Jerusalem, but there are enough possibilities before we jump to skyscrapers.”
Tsur believes that the struggle for the sake of the environment and city green spaces has to be led by civil society. For the last two years, environmental organizations have been battling for the Reches Lavan project, firmly supported by all 55 members of the Sustainable Jerusalem Lobby – some of which are community centers, others academic institutions, schools, businesses or green organizations. “They all understand that the plan will not only destroy important natural areas outside the built perimeter of Jerusalem, but will also condemn the urban renewal projects of the Ganim and Yuvalim neighborhoods to becoming tomorrow’s slums. Their 30-story and higher towers will rapidly fall into disrepair,” cautions Tsur.
In 2009, the Regional Planning Committee adopted a new city plan, which rejected the precept of building out to the west (the Safdie Plan) and instead focused on strengthening Jerusalem’s existing neighborhoods and densifying the city, while preserving parks and gardens. Tsur and the environmental activists aim to implement this vision, facing the repeated attempts of many entrepreneurs – sometimes supported by the municipality – to bring to the local committee projects, such as those recently rejected by Rauchberger and Lion.
“It is these assets that make Jerusalem attractive for young families, who want good schools and an attractive public domain to improve their quality of life. Jerusalem’s future housing needs can be provided within Jerusalem’s built perimeter, and indeed tens of thousands of apartments are being planned along the five light rail routes that crisscross the city.
“The final round of the Reches Lavan battle is currently being fought; we can only hope that common sense will prevail and prevent additional urban sprawl in Jerusalem,” concludes Tsur.