Feature: Garden city

Green Zionism flourishes in Tel Aviv’s urban gardens.

A rooftop garden in Tel Aviv (photo credit: LEIGH CUEN)
A rooftop garden in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: LEIGH CUEN)
Over the past two years the rooftop of 11 Zvulun Street, a neglected, broken-down building in Tel Aviv, became a wonderland of seedlings, potted plants and twisted tomato vines.
From the roof, you can climb up an old ladder to a higher level adorned with fragrant herbs and plump salad greens. In the shade of the lower level, neighborhood cats often curl up on a tattered blue chair with plush cushions.
Residents Ofir Brom and Iyar Semel founded this community nursery, Zvulun Balagan, a pun on the Hebrew words for “chaos” and “come to the garden.”
“We call our community ‘The Tribe,’” says Semel. “It’s become like an urban kibbutz, in an open way. There’s more freedom.”
Brom says that, to him, it appears there has been an explosion of urban gardening across Tel Aviv, with groups spreading quickly across social networks. When weather permits, Zvulun Balagan hosts free movie nights and yoga classes. A network of 16 to 20 neighbors spread across six apartments is actively involved with the community nursery.
Brom, whose father came from a southern kibbutz, sees Zionist values as a key part of this work. “I am a Zionist looking for land,” he says. “It’s very expensive to own a home in Israel. I want roots. So I took a start-up mentality, creativity and flexibility, and applied it to communal living here, now.”
He estimates the rooftop nursery provides 20 percent of their household’s food, which significantly bolsters their budget.
In November 2013, economist Dr. Yishai Ashlag wrote in a column for Globes that the average Israeli spends between 16 percent to 22% of their income on food, with the poorest populations paying the highest percentages. He also estimated that food prices in Israel are 30% to 40% higher than in most European countries.
In addition to providing food, Zvulun Balagan sells plants to a growing community, which earns them enough income to offset most of the garden’s costs. In just two years they’ve sold their entire inventory one-and-a-half times over. “It’s complicated to navigate these kinds of off-the-grid communities,” says Brom. “My apartment can’t be a public space.
Instead, we are learning how to nurture intersecting circles of people that move freely. The idea is to make bridges between the layers of the community: household, neighborhood, city, region.”
Meanwhile, local activists Boaz Shiloh, Yael Stav and Omri Ziv worked for two years to officially create Tel Aviv’s first public rooftop garden, which also offers urban gardening classes. TLV Urban Farming, as its named, opened at 9 Mazeh in November 2013. “Over 100 Tel Avivians came. The space was overflowing with people,” says Ziv.
Ziv worked in the hi-tech industry, yet his roots reach back to Israel’s agricultural legacy. “My father came from the kibbutz,” he says. “That mentality continues in me. We want our garden to be a place where social entrepreneurship flourishes.”
TLV Urban Farming’s first seven-week course for the public was considered a rampant success. “Students from that course stay connected and grow food using their windows and balconies,” says Ziv. A new course will open in March.
Such urban gardening classes are popping up across the “Garden City.” Most are hosted by grassroots ventures founded in the past three years, such as Edible Tel Aviv, run by former chef Danny Lifshitz, and Bar Kayma, a collective vegan restaurant in Florentin with 400 shareholders.
Three years ago, TLV Urban Garden co-founder Stav started a vertical gardening experiment as part of her PhD in environmental design through the Queensland University of Technology. Today, Stav’s backyard provides 20% of her household’s produce, and all their teas and herbs. “Vertical gardening also reduces energy costs for cooling by 30%,” says Stav. “I’ve tested this with computer simulations for my PhD studies and seen it can easily save much more.”
Since 2011, Stav has become the co-founder of both Invivo Design, which produces supplies for local vertical gardens, and Hadar Yosef Community Garden, run by 16 neighbor- Garden city Green Zionism flourishes in Tel Aviv’s urban gardens A VERTICAL gardening experiment in Tel Aviv.
www.jpost.com 11 hood families. So far, Invivio Design has provided vertical gardening tools to four urban schools and four local day-care centers, and taught elderly residents in the Yemenite Quarter how to use vertical space for growing food. Hadar Yosef Garden now routinely hosts public events, including free swapping parties and “neighbors teaching neighbors” workshops, where anyone is welcome to share a skill.
“Five years ago, there were only a few community gardens and collectives in the center,” says Stav. Today, the Tel Aviv Municipality lists eight community gardens. Yet a disconnect between organizations remains, as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel lists more than 25 community gardens in Tel Aviv. Considering that – in addition to the sudden growth of grassroots gardening – Stav believes there are actually twice to five times the official number. “It’s hard to say because no one is counting,” she says.
CityTree community leader Beny Shlevich, who lives and works in the sustainable commune on Bialik Street, agrees that those official numbers are a vast underestimate. “There’s an explosion of grassroots urban garden communities in Tel Aviv. But they don’t register with the government or send out press releases,” says Shlevich.
Activist Tami Zori founded CityTree seven years ago. It now has a full-time staff of four residents and a network of 200 to 300 locals who regularly participate in events. Shlevich believes that economic pressure and political stagnation are driving this increase. “Today there’s a huge, strong network of urban gardeners in the center,” he says.
The sudden influx of urban gardeners has not completely escaped official notice. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Ministry published a report titled “Growth, Sustainability and Well-Being Indicators.” It said a rising number of Israelis participate in grassroots communities, which may stem from the “less favorable” reduction in services available to the public. Where such services exist, they tend to be inefficient.
Thousands of Israeli families visit Ha-Chava, Tel Aviv’s urban farm run by the municipality, during holidays such as Shavuot and Tu Bishvat. The farm’s lush fields stretch across seven hectares (about 17 acres) beside Hayarkon Park, along the border with Ramat Gan. Ha-Chava opened its first public programs four years ago. It now has a staff of eight full-time employees and a “citizen garden” with space for 100 participants.
However, the farm has yet to measure its own progress and public demand. So far, the initiative doesn’t have any strategy for cooperating with surrounding communities.
Zvulun Balagan is currently working to open an official shop in Florentin, a hub for community-supported agriculture, to serve as a resource for this growing network. “In the wake of the protests, Israelis saw that we aren’t alone,” says Brom. “In Tel Aviv, we are all dissatisfied and struggling. The government won’t change. We have to change ourselves.”
While they are still in the phase of filling out all the necessary paperwork, Brom takes bureaucratic delays with a grain of salt. “Maybe the shop will open this week or in a month or never,” he says. “We’ll keep living this way regardless.”
According to Rebecca Shahaf, who served from 2008 to 2013 with Meretz as an elected member of the Givatayim Municipality, bureaucracy is the greatest obstacle. “You need permission for everything,” she says. “And there is no public awareness. First you need to invest in reaching out to people.”
Shahaf came to Israel in 1972 with a Zionist youth movement, and lived on a kibbutz before raising her family in Givatayim. During her time in office, she co-founded Givatayim’s first residential compost program and its second community garden, called The Pirate Garden. Just one year old, The Pirate Garden has around 30 active members and a mailing list of 250 neighbors who visit periodically.
“We waited years and I had to be very persistent,” says Shahaf.
“I’m disappointed with Israel today. I have less faith in the government and Israeli organizations.”
She thinks the groups spreading across Israel’s urban center are one way to reconnect with Israel’s founding values.
“Zionism, for me, is about equality and making this space a healthy place for everyone,” she says. “We are returning to our roots.”