For years, the study of biodiversity – the variety of life on Earth – was thought to lie in remote areas of our planet untouched by human hands, such as rainforests and wildernesses. But today a new approach has emerged that regards biodiversity in urban nature sites as playing an essential role in the continuity of the global ecosystem and sustainable urban development.On October 19, the Jerusalem municipality signed on to this approach by joining the Local Action for Biodiversity (LAB) network, a global urban biodiversity initiative launched in 2006 at a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, by Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This initiative promotes sustainable urban biosphere development through local initiatives and is being coordinated in Jerusalem by Helene Roumani, an urban planner who has worked on various development programs in Israel.On June 1, at 4 p.m., in the framework of 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, the municipality will hold the first LAB steering committee in the city council chambers of city hall. This meeting, like those of all municipal committees today, is open to the public. It will feature the presentation of a three-year urban nature survey of 150 biodiversity assets around the city, funded by the municipality, the Beracha Foundation and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Forty of the survey’s urban nature sites have been granted protected statutory recognition in the new Jerusalem master plan. These sites include Park Hamesila, the Wildflower Sanctuary in Neveh Ya’acov, Bible Hill behind the Khan Theater, the Gazelle Valley and the Jerusalem Bird Observatory.“The LAB project is revolutionary in that it places cities in the scheme of biodiversity,”
states Naomi Tsur, Jerusalem deputy mayor for planning and environment, who has been one of the prime movers for urban biodiversity and the protection of urban nature sites in the city. “Today, some 60% of the world’s population lives in cities. In Israel, the figure is 93%. The future of our world is in its cities.” Israel, according to Tsur, is a natural for urban nature because of its dearth of wide open spaces. Jerusalem in particular is important because the city is on the seam where the country’s hilly region meets the desert.“What this means is that places such as abandoned railroad lines, old factory sites and the like end up having a wealth of species,” Tsur explains. “Where the land is undisturbed, nature gets a toehold – with vegetation, insects and wildlife. Biologists can look for all kinds of species in urban areas. And at present, there is a treasure trove of species in Jerusalem. These treasures should be recognized and utilized as an asset for education, research, ecotourism and culture.” Biodiversity is important because the loss of one species can threaten many more and throw an entire ecosphere out of balance. “As a child, I remember being told how a particular weed killer was used in England to eliminate the green fly, which was harming the roses,” Tsur relates. “But killing the green fly, a source of food for the ladybug, endangered that species. And once one link in the chain is broken, the entire chain is in trouble.” Jerusalem has been a member of ICLEI, which was founded in 1990 and is headquartered in Bonn, for a couple of years and, in its framework, has pledged to reduce air pollution emissions in the city by 20% by 2020. Now, in becoming part of LAB, the municipality has committed itself to a three-year program aimed at improving biodiversity management in Jerusalem. This includes partnering with government ministries, park authorities, academic institutions and environmental NGOs to create an organizational structure to safeguard open spaces and urban nature sites; compiling a comprehensive biodiversity report; and preparing a long-term strategy and action plan encompassing programs to enhance education, economic development, tourism and culture, and plans for management of key nature sites in the city.“This project is good for Jerusalem not just because of its scientific aspects but because it can help the city in promoting tourism, attracting jobs and improving the environment,” Tsur says. “The mayor has set a goal to bring more tourists to the city. There is a growing demand for ecotourism, and putting Jerusalem on the ecotourism map can create new markets and seasons for tourism with better distribution of hotel rooms.“It is also good for the city’s image in the world,” she continues. “Jerusalem gets to work with cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam, Bonn, Paris and Singapore. We can show that we are really doing things from which others can learn. And we are exposed to the knowledge and resources of other cities.” Tsur will be representing Jerusalem at the Resilient Cities Conference in Bonn from May 28-30, 2010. At a time when water is emerging as one of the most important resources on this planet, she will be talking about Jerusalem’s innovative use of water. “We have 40 community gardens and numerous parks throughout the city,” Tsur notes. “On the slopes between Neveh Ya’acov and Pisgat Ze’ev, where the Wildflower Sanctuary is located, we had drainpipes that released rainwater from storm drains. That water just ran off and was lost. This was not just a loss of water but also a problem of erosion on the slope. When we planted the wildflowers in the sanctuary, we took this water and made canals to keep it in the sanctuary for watering the flowers. This is an example of how to manage precious water resources. In addition, when the Har Homa sewage treatment plant is completed, the municipality will be able to use tertiary sewage water to irrigate municipal parks and gardens. I don’t think many people know this, but when the light rails were laid, pipes were also laid that will enable transporting this water for irrigation.” Another initiative that is being promoted by Jerusalem at the Bonn conference is that of pilgrim cities – holy cities that are pilgrimage destinations. The idea is to make pilgrimages greener. Jerusalem will be working with such other holy cities as Haifa (Bahai), Assisi, Canterbury and a number of Hindu holy cities to see how this can be implemented to the advantage of all.The municipality has available new city maps with the 40 urban nature sites marked with special icons. These icons give a taste of the multiple layers of environmental information to be found on the Jerusalem Green Map Web site (www.greenmap.org.il). The maps are available in English, Hebrew and Russian and can be obtained from municipal tourist information sites.“I will consider the LAB steering committee to be doing its job if the June 1 meeting draws as many interested parties as possible. We expect, in addition to council members and representatives of government bodies, the business sector, contractors, architects, green groups, neighborhood activists and the general public. Anyone can come and present ideas, and we in the municipality will listen,” Tsur concludes.