How green is my city?

An elaborate plan for the Valley of the Gazelles completely conceived by local residents will soon be submitted for approval.

gazelle park 248 (photo credit: Tamar LaFontaine)
gazelle park 248
(photo credit: Tamar LaFontaine)
If everything goes according to plan, by the end of the month, the first-ever plan completely designed by local activists will be submitted for approval to the District Planning Committee. The city park project in Jerusalem's Prihar Valley, better known as the Valley of the Gazelles, was launched about seven years ago, when Yisrael Krupler, a resident of Givat Mordechai, discovered that a building project had been presented to the planning committee. "These buildings were to be erected less than 20 meters from my apartment, forming a wall and blocking the view of the park. I decided on the spur of the moment that I would fight [the plan]. Then, I thought I'd try to get [them] to change the height of the buildings; I had very modest expectations." Krupler attracted many other residents of Givat Mordechai to his cause, and they were later joined by activists from surrounding neighborhoods - including the Katamonim, Nayot and Rassco. He remained very active and has been a key player in the locals' campaign to turn the valley into a city park. The planned construction project, which enjoyed the support of then-mayor Ehud Olmert, threatened the area - a large plot planted with fruit trees and inhabited by gazelles. But what seemed a lost cause - a group of residents from the city's poorest neighborhoods opposing rich contractors - turned into a Cinderella story. The locals convinced the District Planning Committee that a green space was no less important than new luxury high-rises. The committee conceded their point, but on the condition that the residents who initiated the anti-construction campaign bring the committee a serious proposal for a city park. "Later," adds Krupler, "when the district committee definitely rejected the construction project [in 2002], I joined the group working on the alternative plan - [one for] a city park." "It took us about five years of hard work," says Yael Hammerman of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, who headed the project. "We [already] had a core of local volunteers, who were joined by many residents of surrounding neighborhoods." Hammerman adds that the park project was also widely publicized in numerous forums, lectures, conferences and tours of the valley - efforts that drew support and interest, as well as quite a few new volunteers. "We created workshops in which we presented the goals of the project. We did surveys of the valley... [all] totally based on volunteer work: architects, surveyors, botanists, zoologists, social workers, planners. Anything we needed was done by the residents," adds Krupler. The group - based on a core of volunteers who were joined by dozens, hundreds and even thousands for events, received support from many environmental groups and schools. The SPNI and neighborhood councils also threw their weight behind the park project. "There is no precedent for this wonderful project," says Amir Balaban, an SPNI representative who has been very involved in the initiative. "We're not talking about a nice little neighborhood park - this is a big [one]. It's more than 200 dunams, and never - not here in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the country - have residents prepared a plan and submitted it to the planning committees. Never." Balaban expresses how impressed he is that locals, not from the city's most privileged areas, had gotten involved in a large and very complicated public struggle. It was, he says, "a campaign against the municipality." "Against all odds, they did a tremendous job, [the plan is] a masterpiece of social engagement and involvement, and I'm sure it will serve as a model for the future. And it's also a model of democratic activity, since children took part and could learn how goals can be achieved through legal social activism." The SPNI representative says that if the park plan goes ahead, it will serve as a precedent for other such initiatives. "It's a revolution, and hopefully, once this project is approved, nothing will be the same regarding the role of citizens in planning their own environment," concludes Balaban. The plan is nearing its final phase. "We submitted the project to the local planning committee a few months ago," says Anat Assal, SPNI's Jerusalem spokeswoman. "To our surprise, there was no reaction whatsoever from the members of this committee [headed by deputy mayor Yehoshua Pollack]." According to Hammerman, the local committee's reaction holds little significance. "What really counts," she says, "is the assembly of the district committee, which operates under the Interior Ministry, where things are really decided. And it will discuss our project in the next few weeks." According to the law, a planning proposal has to be submitted to a local planning committee, where it has to be available to representatives of the public for at least 60 days, after which it's handed over to the district committee. "Once it's submitted to the district planning committee, the real [work] begins," adds Balaban. "But we're quite optimistic." The situation appears encouraging, after the district committee decided to axe the building project, but the people who worked on the park proposal are still not entirely at ease. One problem the park project might encounter would be the allocation of part of the valley for "employment territory," as the city's new "master plan" stipulates. "According to the plan, offices or hi-tech industry [will be built] on part of the valley," explains Hammerman, "which of course we won't agree to. We're talking about a green plot - not just a little garden - so we'll have to work together to change the plan for 'employment' areas in the valley. I believe that if the district committee approves our project, they'll understand that no hi-tech towers or [offices] of any sort should take up even a little part of this green area." The proposed park would be divided into three parts: the play area, with various playgrounds; special plots for community activities, and an enlargement of the existing Jerusalem Bird Observatory, which Balaban created and heads. "The last thing, of course, will be to fund the project," admits Balaban. "But frankly, I don't foresee a problem. First, we're not talking about a huge sum... a few million shekels, no more. Second, I know that more than one of the local foundations are just waiting for the district committee to approve the project, and they'll immediately agree to fund it." Until now, planning has been funded by the Bracha Foundation, with additional financial support provided by the participants themselves and the Israel Association of Community Centers.