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The Jerusalem Metropolitan Park project will see the city surrounded by easily accessible leisure and sports sites, bicycle paths and picnic areas – not to mention abundant flora and fauna.

Jerusalem Park 311 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Jerusalem Park 311
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Who says dreams don’t come true? At least as far as “green” dreams are concerned, it seems that Jerusalem, a city that itself figures in so many dreams, has some good news. For the first time in the country’s history of environmental projects, the capital has shown that it can be done with wisdom and in harmony.
The Jerusalem Metropolitan Park – a green belt of parks surrounding the city on three sides, combining environmental preservation with understated development – is taking shape, following a historic partnership between environmentalists and industry.
“In fact,” explains Eyal Haimovski, deputy CEO of the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), which is co-sponsoring and developing the project, “the green trend has become such an integral part of the establishment, that veteran green activists sometime feel they are living in a daydream.”
One of the most surprising aspects of the project is the fact that it is the result of the Safdie Plan for the development of west Jerusalem, which had been rejected by the district planning committee following fierce opposition by residents and environmental organizations. At that time, the designers offered the green belt of the park as a sort of compensation. The plan was canceled, but the green areas were already allocated, and now they are emerging as a real blessing for the city.
It all started about six years ago. In one of the many suggestions raised at meetings of municipal representatives, the JDA and the government, looking for ways to attract young families to the city, the issue of quality of life was raised.
“The idea was to launch a serious plan to strengthen the city by attracting young people, students, young couples and families from the center of the country,” recalls Haimovski. “It suddenly became clear that we had to offer more. Besides affordable housing and jobs and stipends for students, we also had to provide a high quality of life that would be consistent with what could be found in the well-todo cities in central Israel. It turns out that parks and outdoor facilities were the answer.”
According to Haimovski the project, which has been approved and is almost ready to be implemented, has already cost hundreds of millions of shekels, not including maintenance, which will be running up a bill forever. There are no sponsors, no philanthropy, no fund-raising. It all comes from public money – from the taxpayers for the taxpayers.
Although environmental activists and developers are working together on the Jerusalem Metropolitan Park in a rare show of harmonious interaction, there is still a certain amount of concern and even anxiety.
“Two issues are at stake here,” explains Avraham Shaked, the regional coordinator for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel in the Judean Hills region. “The quality of development first. Is it going to be sensitive to the need to protect the important rural and historical nature heritage we have in this region? And secondly, what kind of maintenance will we have once the project is completed? The way these two issues are handled will determine whether we have a successful achievement or a disaster.”
According to Shaked, nothing has been assured as yet, and the threats to nature preservation are still there, be they in the form of natural disasters (e.g., fires in summer) or infrastructure requirements.
Another issue is the somewhat opposing needs of nature preservation versus the leisure and entertainment needs of the residents. “We used all the sensitivity, wisdom, knowledge and experience we could, and quite a substantial amount of modesty regarding nature’s rights in order to create a safe haven,” says landscape architect Asaf Shaked, head of the project.
“We did everything we could to prevent this project from turning into another field of contention between developers and environmentalists.”
THE RESULT is coming along at an impressive rate.
While the parks are already open to the public, once all the work is completed, four large parks will encompass the city from the northeast (French Hill and Pisgat Ze’ev) through the northwest (Arazim Valley near Ramot), to Motza and the Beit Zayit Valley and down to the south to Gilo, along the slopes of the Refaim River.
Except for a narrow gap between Ein Kerem and Ir Ganim, the four parks in fact create a continuous green belt. On the east side, due mostly to the topographic situation, the only green spot will be the Emek Tzurim National Park, the closest green spot outside the Old City walls toward the Holy Basin.
The parks will include leisure and sports sites (the Sportek near Ramot), bicycle paths (in all four parks), picnic areas and outdoor activities (in all the parks), a large part of them adapted for the disabled, in a vast green and natural area, which will give the city a hearty green lung.
Still not ready but on the agenda are small cafes, restrooms, and in the Arazim Valley park a hall for cultural events. Organized tours to acquaint the public with the flora and fauna of the area will also be offered.
One of the things that Asaf Shaked insisted on was accessibility. “We wanted the parks to be very close to the inhabited areas, not somewhere far to get to. We want to create the feeling that the parks are a real part of the city. No one will have to go too far from each neighborhood to get there. They are really accessible for all.”
In fact, each neighborhood will have road access to the parks, via existing thoroughfares or special routes still in the works. Before the end of this year, signs will be displayed everywhere to instruct drivers how to get to the parks.
At the heart of the project are restoration and preservation of landmark sites, as the entire area is filled with substantial remnants of ancient structures and agricultural methods.
“In these areas, we have some of the most ancient remains of the kind of agriculture used in the days of our ancestors. We have found evidence that takes it back to the settlement period, when the tribe of Judah settled in this region upon coming into Eretz Yisrael, and later on from the First Temple period (King Solomon). They installed the first foundations for that particular agriculture on terraces, growing their crops out of the stones of this soil. So it goes without saying that this must be preserved,” explains Avraham Shaked.
He adds that the landscape has managed to survive so well that doesn’t look like an old relic. “It is a lively place. With natural, almost untouched flora, it is a precious thing, but we are already ruining it because of the security barrier built close to it [in the Walaja region close to the park], which in some places creates a terrible gash in this natural weave.”
As a result of its green policy, the team appointed Amir Balaban, director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, to serve as the ecologist on the project.
“The first goal of the parks is to provide space for leisure and casual sports for the population, that is clear to all of us,” says Balaban. “But our first task is to see that it is done in a way that will not harm the natural environment, and perhaps even enhance it. For example, we could provide the necessary means for the mountain gazelles in these areas to survive and thrive in peace. These animals are in danger of extinction. Israel is the last place in which they still exist. In the countries around us they have totally disappeared, so we have to find sophisticated ways to see that the park development doesn’t harm them, or any other animals. If we decide that we need to pave a road, we have to ensure that the result will not cause the death of more gazelles. You know, a car drives by, a frightened gazelle rushes out and is run over.”
Another thing to consider, he says, is how to minimize the way the park infrastructures will affect the lives of the animals. For example, he says, “We have decided to prohibit any lighting at night. Electric lights would have a terrible impact on the animals’ lives because they need the natural darkness of night to sleep.”
Another crucial issue is that of paved roads being introduced into the parks. “Wherever we pave an access road,” says Balaban, “we take into account that it will enable people to reach these beautiful places and enjoy them. That is our objective. But on the other hand, a paved road will make it easy for hunters to enter the park and hunt the animals we want to preserve. Not to mention the contractors and builders who might leave their garbage here, which will attract more jackals, which will hunt and eat the young gazelles. So you see, nothing is easy, and every stage in the development requires careful attention. In this regard, the fact that developers and environmentalists are working together in full cooperation gives us hope that it just might work.”
Besides the concern for animal life, the most problematic issue in the project is the large and heavy infrastructures that are being set up in the same area. Water conduits, electricity, sewage, phone cables and more – they all go through the valleys surrounding the city, exactly where the parks are located.
“One of my tasks is to find rare species of plants,” says Balaban.
“If I determine that some plant or tree is a rare specimen in the region, I have the authority to declare that no work will be done near it, and I will give special instructions how far from it the work can be resumed. It is a big responsibility, but there is no other way to preserve nature,” he says.
But there is more that threatens the parks. “In three of the four park locations, there are still construction projects pending,” says Avraham Shaked, hinting that some of the Safdie Plan projects might be revived by developers at some time in the future.
Shaked fears that though the comprehensive Sadfdie Plan has been canceled, smaller construction projects remain a threat.
“Besides the huge problem of the heavy infrastructures. We’re talking about huge pipes – for water supply, for sewage and for communications. They will certainly cause damage to the natural environment there. We have to be on our guard in case these construction projects appear again on the agenda of the planning and construction committees. In fact,” he adds, “I’m afraid we will end up with a patchwork of green areas and ugly infrastructure spots. So despite all the genuine care of the team responsible for the parks project, I would not say that I am feeling at ease.”
While he thinks the parks project could be a blessing for the city and the entire area, Avraham Shaked says, “I only hope we can ensure that there will be more room for green space than for all those attractions that are being planned for tourism and outdoor activities, such as some structures planned for entertainment and festivities that have already been approved in the Arazim Valley park. That is not the kind of thing we need here.
We need more open space, more nature. Believe me, it is for the benefit of us all.”