Glints of green through the city smog

Tel Aviv is a metropolis of environmentally conscientious people, but the municipality, activists argue, is stuck in a '20th-century mentality.'

tel aviv street traffic 88 248 (photo credit: Hannah Weitzer)
tel aviv street traffic 88 248
(photo credit: Hannah Weitzer)
Walk along the Promenade in Tel Aviv or in Hayarkon Park. Visit a pocket park in North Tel Aviv or ride a bike along a new trail. Chances are, you'll have a nice time enjoying the outdoors. Now try to inhale on Tel Aviv's streets. Time how long it takes to get through car-choked avenues on the bus. Go to South Tel Aviv and watch the houses creep closer together and the green disappear. Tel Aviv is marking its centennial this year with a year-long celebration. It even took its environmental credentials for a spin with a conference about sustainability in the urban arena not long ago. Yet, local environmental activists see a leadership firmly entrenched in a 20th-century environmental mind-set, unable to fully comprehend the way things should be going. According to Noah Ephron, city council member from the opposition City4all list, there's a great dichotomy between the people of Tel Aviv and its municipal leadership. "If you look at the voting patterns from the recent municipal election in November, parties with strongly environmental platforms took home almost half the votes," he tells The Jerusalem Post. So if you ask whether Tel Aviv is environmentally conscious, "the people are." "I knocked on a thousand doors during the election and people really do care. They care about recycling and urban nature. And especially clean air. When I pressed people to talk about their vision for Tel Aviv 10 years or 100 years from now, environmental issues were high up there. In fact, I think there is more activism and interest here than anywhere else in Israel." Yet, according to Ephron, the political leadership, headed by Mayor Ron Huldai, just doesn't understand true sustainability. "Huldai thinks that if he puts a piazza with a park on top of an underground parking lot, then he is really greening Tel Aviv," the US-born Ephron says with discernible disbelief in his voice. Most local environmental activists agree that there are several main environmental issues and myriad smaller ones which plague the city. First and foremost is transportation. Transportation is one of the major causes of Tel Aviv's extremely poor air quality. For instance, Ephron says that there were six times as many cases of asthma in children than anywhere else in the country. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has calculated that 1,100 people die of air pollution related illnesses each year in the Dan region, of which Tel Aviv is the center. And yet rather than prioritize modes of transportation other than the private car, the city has done just the opposite. "The city has embarked on a policy which places more and more emphasis on private automobiles," Ephron, who also chairs Bar-Ilan University's Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society, says. "They are planning to broaden streets and access roads, and build many more parking lots." The Jerusalem Post was unable to obtain a response from the municipality by press time. TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY'S Green Course chapter has been tracking the city's 2009 budget, which showed a huge allocation for roads and parking lots with nary a mention of public transportation. According to Green Course TA public transportation campaign coordinator Yael Sherill Mohilever, vastly larger sums are devoted to car infrastructure than environmental projects. According to the allocation for long-term projects, NIS 16.1 million has been allocated for parking lots and NIS 30m. for new roads, lanes or junctions. Only NIS 2m. has been allocated for various "environmental" projects and NIS 7m. for building just three new sections of bike trails. No mention is made of public transportation at all. Tel Aviv's major public transportation project, the Red Line subway, has been derailed in recent years because of a variety of issues. In the meantime, the city has been building bike trails and frequently boasts that by the end of the project it will have laid more kilometers of trails (100) than almost any other city in the world. However, there's a catch. "A lot of the trails are really just stencils of bikes painted onto the sidewalk," rather than carving a trail out of part of the street, Ephron says. "Instead of bikes and cars sharing space, pedestrians and bikes must fight for space," Tel Aviv-based Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership executive director Eilon Schwartz tells the Post. "The bike paths are really more like a notion of a bike path, rather than a real thing. It's true only to the degree that you believe it to be," Ephron remarks. "Sidewalks are blocked, people with children can't get by unless they walk in the middle of the street. There is absolutely no enforcement of pedestrian rights," Schwartz adds. Schwartz says the transportation issues had gotten dramatically worse and the municipality had "failed miserably and shockingly" in dealing with them. "Huldai and, I think, even [former mayor Roni] Milo made promises about public transportation 10 years ago. Not only has nothing happened, the situation has gotten dramatically worse," Schwartz says. Another major urban issue combines green spaces with environmental justice. While northern Tel Aviv has Park Hayarkon and many "pocket parks," as Schwartz calls them, he noted that southern Tel Aviv and particularly the Jaffa area were practically barren of green. "A quite dramatic and aggressive campaign is needed [to address the inequalities]," he says, "There's a dramatic difference in quality of life between North and South Tel Aviv, a dramatic difference in the supply of environmental services." Southern Tel Aviv is comprised of much poorer neighborhoods. Frequent beach closures because of water polluted by sewage also decrease residents' abilities to enjoy nature, Ephron says. However, Schwartz noted that the city had done a good job returning the coastline to the city's residents through renovating the Tel Aviv Port, and improving the beaches. Ephron says that the recommended standard was seven square meters of green space per person. In some parts of Tel Aviv, there is close to none, he says. "For instance, in downtown Tel Aviv, some local residents have been fighting for 12 years to get a 19-dunam lot turned into a park. Instead, the municipality wants to sell it to a developer to put up an apartment building on half of it and a lawn for the building on the other half," he related. Ephron gives another example: "The city is repairing the aging infrastructure under Rehov Ibn Gvirol. However, in the process, it's been ripping out 60-year-old trees and either replacing them with new ones or not replacing them at all. Some local residents are up in arms about the issue." But according to both Ephron and Schwartz, the city actively discourages communal and residents' involvement. "There's a deep connection between environmental issues and whether people have a voice. The city needs to encourage people who live here to be responsible and to take responsibility. Instead, it tries to exterminate that sort of feeling. For instance, the people fighting for the Ibn Gvirol trees circulated a petition and got 1,000 signatures. When they tried to bring it to the city, the city said, 'No we won't take it and we won't talk to you.' It's done in such a way that it is especially deflating," Ephron says. Citizen participation has become a mainstay in many cities around the world, according to Schwartz, yet in Tel Aviv that is not the case. "There is still very little community involvement and participation. There's very little role for the citizen and it's not well-defined," he says. Despite the lack of citizen involvement in the municipality, nongovernmental efforts are beginning. One activist has embarked on a path to connect environmental and social issues. Emily Silverman, who founded SPNI's Tel Aviv branch 10 years ago, has recently started to try to convince the environmental movement to take on social issues as well. She gives one example of how the two connect. "Take the Hiriya [Ariel Sharon Park]. It was the Greens versus the Blacks and the greens won. It was a great environmental success. A large amount of area was set aside for a park with no building at all. Yet, pretty soon Tel Aviv will be just for the rich people. The city needs affordable housing. So what I think should have been done was to allocate some of that vast land for high quality affordable housing," the US-born architecture professor at the Technion says. AND EVEN as citizen involvement has been kept to a minimum at the municipality, environmental discussions in the city council have frequently led nowhere, according to SPNI reports. Its Tel Aviv office has established a city council watch. According to a report it released, between 2004 and 2007, no environmental issue brought up for discussion at the council was ever brought up again for a follow-up discussion. Moreover, no discussion resulted in the formulation of any action plan. And yet, while sharp to criticize, both Ephron and Schwartz were clearly very much taken with Tel Aviv. "It's an extraordinary city," Schwartz prefaces his remarks by saying. "In comparison to any other metropolis, including New York, it has nothing to be ashamed of. It has a rich cultural life, social dynamic and urban fabric, and many neighborhoods with character. The sea has been brought back into the city. There are lots of big parks and pocket parks." Ephron notes that recycling of plastic bottles and paper has begun, lots of people are composting privately and environmental education is thriving. "My son comes home with beautiful and profound thinking." Bus technology is improving and the black-cloud-spewing monsters are being taken off the road, he says. Even the lip service toward environmentalism will soon lead to a serious political party taking over in Tel Aviv and making it a reality, Ephron believes. Reading between the lines, Schwartz and Ephron seem to be saying that it is time for another round of environmental victories. It is time for a grassroots-based change. As Tel Aviv finishes its first 100 years and looks toward its next 100, it is time, they seem to be saying, for it to begin acting towards a sustainable, green future. Ephron, for one, says he is actually cautiously optimistic about Tel Aviv's green future: "When my son and daughter are my age, these issues will be addressed with a seriousness that would be unrecognizable today."