The browning of Jerusalem

Celestial J'lem may be gold and copper. Earthly J'lem suffers from an excess of neglect and concrete.

jerusalem stones 88 (photo credit: )
jerusalem stones 88
(photo credit: )
Small neighborhood parks are an important part of urban life. Close to home, neighborhood parks are where new parents take their babies, children play tag, young couples sneak furtive first kisses, and the elderly sit comfortably and safely. Neighborhood and pocket parks are small - according to planning definitions, such parks are less than 50 dunams each. But they are crucial for urban health and individual well-being, because they are small and accessible, providing a sense of safe and familiar open space and greenery. According to urban planners, architects, sociologists and Israeli norms, on the average, each and every citizen should have at least five to seven square meters of green, open space within a 150 to 250 radius from his or her home. These experts distinguish between pocket, neighborhood, borough, city and metropolitan parks. Jerusalem does have its share of open spaces. In fact, according to Osnat Post, acting city engineer, nearly one half of Jerusalem's municipal area (56,000 of 126,000 dunams) is defined as open areas - although this includes "open" (but unusable) spaces such as the slopes on either side of Begin Boulevard. But while parks such as Sacher Park and the Rose Garden near the Knesset are large and, on the whole, well-maintained and equipped, they are not "nearby" for most Jerusalemites. One has to travel or walk far to get to them and, because they are large, they provide a different sort of urban-nature experience. When it comes to the pocket and neighborhood parks, Jerusalem offers the citizen, on the average, a meager two square meters of maintained, open green space to enjoy within close proximity to his or her home - a far cry from the nationally mandated five to seven dunams. In the city's defense, it is worth noting that few Israeli cities actually reach the national norm. And according to Yael Dori, architect for the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense (IUED - also known as Adam, Teva, V'din), municipalities are notorious for including median strips and thin rows of planted flowers as "green spaces" in order to boost their comparative statistics. And municipal officials point out that Jerusalem is an old, historic city, built around courtyards and small, winding alleyways. This is certainly true for the Old City and areas such as Mea She'arim. But Dori points out that many European cities, no less historic than Jerusalem's older neighborhoods outside the city walls, reach an average of 20 - 40 square meters per person on the neighborhood level. Throughout western Europe, the standard norm mandates 14 meters of neighborhood parks, within the 150 to 250 meter radius, per person. Jerusalem's lack of neighborhood parks is just one of the findings of a three year survey recently completed by the Urban Forum, a coalition that seeks to present alternatives to traditional and official urban planning. The Urban Forum is composed of the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the Environment Ministry, the Hebrew University's Institute for Urban Studies, the Jerusalem Company of Neighborhood Administrations, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS), the IUED, the Tourism Ministry and Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights. Noticeably missing from this list is the Jerusalem Municipality. The municipality's "Master Plan 2000" is almost complete. Post insists that the plan emphasizes the creation and maintenance of open spaces and sets clear planning criteria and binding norms. However, the plan has not mapped out pocket and neighborhood gardens. Post explains that this is due to technical, logistical and financial considerations. Furthermore, she adds, a master plan is not intended to provide a neighborhood-level of detail. The Urban Forum disagrees. According to Yael Hammerman-Solar, architect for the Jerusalem branch of the SPNI, "Unless the planners pay attention to this level of detail, they can't plan properly or determine priorities. They can't know what needs to be rectified, where they should be investing their resources." Supported by the Bracha Foundation, the Urban Forum survey mapped out and characterized different types of neighborhood open spaces and assessed the extent to which these spaces actually serve the public. Using a complex, multi-modal methodology, which involved aerial photographs as well as on-the ground investigations, questionnaires and focus groups, the Urban Forum was able to develop a measure for the quality of each park and a mathematical model to assess the ratio of people-to-space at the neighborhood and city-wide level. According to the Urban Forum, citywide, some 8,000 dunams have been defined as neighborhood-level, open public spaces. But the survey also shows that only about 1,500 dunams are actually maintained as parks that serve the public. The remaining 6,500 dunams are neglected and underdeveloped. In some areas, these spaces have become sites for illegal buildings or have been paved over for use as parking lots. "Because the city did not map out the neighborhood-level parks and did not assess their quality, they cannot fully plan for the residents' welfare. If the space that has been allocated by law were fully used and maintained, then the ratio in most neighborhoods, and city-wide, would go up to about nine or even ten square meters per person," says Uri Bar-Shishat, strategic adviser to the SPNI and one of the survey's chief investigators. "The city could easily add more than five gardens to every existing one and improve the situation in almost every neighborhood, and especially some of the most bleak neighborhoods, without demolishing a single building, without expropriating a single meter of private land, and without passing any new legislation." Post acknowledges this, but adds pointedly that Jerusalem is Israel's second poorest city, with little money and great needs. Furthermore, Jerusalem's hilly topography means that many of the open spaces are not accessible or useful as public parks. Bar-Shishat points to another, perhaps even more troubling, finding - the extreme gaps in the per-capita ratio between Jews and Arabs, rich and poor, haredi and secular. Yemin Moshe's residents, for example, enjoy 95 square meters of neighborhood-level public gardens per person. In contrast, the ratio in Beit Hanina is 0.4 square meters per person and in Shu'afat it is an abysmal 0.2 square meters per person. In Makor Baruch, the ratio is also 0.2, while in the neighborhood of Mahaneh Yisrael reaches only one square meter. Says Naomi Tzur, director of the Jerusalem branch of the SPNI, "The lack of distributive justice with regard to the open areas in Jerusalem cries out of the data in the survey. We call on the municipal leadership and the city planners to internalize these figures and act for the welfare of all citizens of the city." Says Post, "We are aware of this problem [of gaps] and every year, the municipality plans to upgrade several pocket and neighborhood parks. But areas such as Mea She'arim may never reach the national standard, because of the way they were built. In some areas, we are considering building underground parking lots and then turning the newly vacated areas into neighborhood gardens." With regard to east Jerusalem, she says that the situation is "very complicated," since much of the land is privately owned, making attempts at public use very difficult. Post adds, "In east Jerusalem, there is also extensive illegal building on areas defined as public spaces. And in the past, we have found that when we did invest in local parks, they were not well-maintained, even vandalized, and it was very difficult for the municipality to service these areas. "Despite this," she continues, "the municipality is investing tremendous efforts and great sums of money to bring the situation in east Jerusalem up to the standard in west Jerusalem." In their report, the Urban Forum presents the data from the neighborhood of Neveh Ya'acov as a sample project. Developed in the Seventies as one of the neighborhoods ringing Jerusalem, Neveh Ya'acov was planned for 4,000 residential units over a total space of 820 dunams. Today, there are 4,700 residential units. A ring road provides vehicle access to the housing, with pedestrian walkways and gardens connected to an internal boulevard that leads to the area of the public institutions. Similar to the situation in so much of Jerusalem, only six of the officially designated pocket and neighborhood parks are actually functioning as parks. The rest are so neglected that they are unusable - even dangerous. Some have been been paved over as parking lots or sprouted illegal construction. Over all, in 98% of the neighborhood, residents "enjoy" less than one meter per resident within the mandated 150 to 250 meters. In most of the neighborhood, the ratio is less than .05 meter per person. "With proper usage of the survey, the city could genuinely change the face of the the city and improve the quality of life for all citizens," says Tzur. "The situation in Neveh Ya'acov is a perfect example. If the municipality would only develop the areas that are already designated as parks it would significantly improve the ratio and the quality of life for the residents of Neveh Ya'acov." Experts agree that neighborhood parks serve many needs and provide many benefits. From an ecological perspective, these spaces provide shade, lower the prevailing temperature and counter air pollution. And they have aesthetic, design, and economic functions, too. Furthermore, says IUED's Dori, "It is a basic social right to be able to leave your house and reach an open, well-maintained green space within a five minute walk." Dori points to another, perhaps less-obvious benefit. "In Israel, social gaps are increasing. A neighborhood or pocket park is one of the few places where kids can hang out without having to spend money. Children's games are a strong force for socialization and social learning. Studies conducted abroad show that genuine social communities can form in open areas. After all, in a park, everyone is equal," she says. According to a recent report in the Boston Globe ("Getting back to roots," June 18) urban leaders throughout the United States are setting new goals for increasing greenery, citing a growing body of research that links trees to a wide range of benefits, including lower crime rates, better mental focus in children, longer life spans and decreased air pollution. The Boston Globe report even cites studies that have shown that elderly residents in Japanese cities lived longer in neighborhoods with trees and that hospital patients in Philadelphia recovered faster from gall bladder surgery when they could see trees from their rooms. The city of Boston is now mapping out and cataloging every tree on Boston's streets, hoping to show a linear relationship between healthy people and healthy streets. Upon completion, the new map of city greenery will be compared with corresponding demographic information, including neighborhood incomes, crime rates, race and ethnicity, as part of a growing environmental justice movement. And according to the Globe's report, the city of Boston employs three full-time arborists and spends $740,000 per year on tree maintenance and planting. As the survey comes close to completion, the Urban Forum intends to make it available to the Neighborhood Administrations as well as to other urban planners. But Hammerman-Solar says, "We've handed the municipality a survey on a silver platter. We need another to finish, and need an additional NIS 160,000 - money which the municipality has repeatedly promised to allocate but still hasn't." Post acknowledges that the municipality has yet to hand over the monies needed for completion of the survey, but adds, "This is a wonderful project. It is consistent with the municipality's change in priorities, which now include, among many others, cleaning up the city and improving the state of all of the open spaces in Jerusalem. Says Tzur, "We are glad that the municipality appreciates our work. But something is off here. Millions of shekels have been invested in preparation of the municipal Master Plan, which did not pay attention to the neighborhood gardens and parks. "The municipality relied on non-governmental groups and philanthropists to do this. But all of us know how important these parks are to the quality of our lives."