Making the grassroots greener

Local residents come together with the SPNI to demand a park in southern neighborhoods.

Cleanup-88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Kimmy Caplan, a Katamonim resident who lives next to the train tracks, cannot spend time outside with his children without getting in a car. " When I go with my kids to play, I don't have a park nearby," he says. "I have to go up to Baka. All the local parks are small pieces of rundown land here and there." To increase the green space in his area, Caplan has organized the Committee for a Park on the Tracks, a group of south Jerusalem residents that has a dual purpose: to stop the municipality's plan to build a highway where the tracks are now and to build a park in their place. The committee is working in conjunction with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which has formulated a plan for the proposed park and is now negotiating with the municipality for its implementation. The SPNI and the committee are fighting a 30-year old city ordinance approving a network of roads to replace the tracks, which stopped being operational 15 years ago and have since turned into a garbage dump. The ordinance includes a park on the northern part of the tracks, which SPNI director of urban communities Naomi Tsur says will serve only rich residents, leaving the poorer areas of the city to cope with a highway running through their neighborhoods. According to Tsur, the proposed road, which was meant to ease traffic, is no longer necessary because of the light rail slated for completion in 2010. "One of the things we've been saying is that [the highway] isn't needed now," says Tsur, who served as the head of SPNI's Jerusalem branch until January. "If you're planning ways of getting from one place to another, you should be promoting the other things." As an alternative, the SPNI's plan suggests that the entire length of the tracks, as well as the surrounding area, should become what Tsur calls a "corridor park," which would include sports, relaxation and garden areas. The neighborhoods of Katamonim, Talpiot and those nearby suffer from a lack of open recreational space, she says. "The issue is one of social and environmental justice," she says. "The city has a plan for a park on the rich end, but it should be a park that runs through and creates open space. There is a tremendous urban need for that." According to a study conducted by the SPNI, the average city dweller has access to five to seven meters of open space, while residents of the southern neighborhoods have only two to three. Caplan says that the tracks serve to connect the seven neighborhoods through which they pass, while a road with heavy traffic would separate them. A park, conversely, would strengthen that connection. "The area we're talking about naturally connects between neighborhoods," he says. "Every day at every given hour you will see people walking from Katamonim to Talpiot crossing this area. The minute there's a road here that will end." But the municipality contends that the road will serve to clear up the area by lessening its traffic jams, while there will still be a park in the north and a bicycle trail running along its length. At this point, however, the project lacks funding. "The continuation of Road 34 is intended to solve the traffic problems coming into and out of the Talpiot industrial area and from Rehov Emek Refaim and Pat Junction," says a municipality spokesman. "All of the projects were presented to area residents." To mobilize the plan for the park, which Tsur says will cost about NIS 5 million over three to five years, the SPNI and Caplan's committee have a three-pronged plan: to begin making the area greener by planting gardens, to set up local committees to advocate for the rights of neighborhoods to open spaces, and to educate children about the importance of parks and greenery. While money has yet to be raised for the plan, Tsur says that the SPNI and residents can begin to work with what they have, and will continue to advance the project until the funding comes. "We have a policy of not waiting to have what we need," she says. "We start working with whatever we've got. We have positive energy to bring in the forces that want to invest; this is how we've managed for the past five years." As for Caplan, his challenge on the local level is to raise awareness of the campaign and to enlist people to petition the municipality. "You have certain people who are apathetic and certain people who have a mentality of what the municipality is, who have a fearful perception of the authorities," he says. "We need to raise the awareness of what people deserve, of what quality they deserve in their area."