‘Clean air and city life go hand in hand’

An activist is trying to compel the powers that be to address Haifa’s ongoing industrial pollution – and rehabilitate the city.

Industrialized Haifa Bay, the potential ‘Israeli Riviera,’ seen from the lower slopes of Hadar (photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
Industrialized Haifa Bay, the potential ‘Israeli Riviera,’ seen from the lower slopes of Hadar
(photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
While the industrial pollution in Haifa’s bayside has recently hit the headlines, this is not a new phenomenon for the residents of this northern city.
Over 40 years ago, studies conducted by Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center – about lead in the bloodstreams of children living near local industries – showed far higher levels in those living in the bayside suburbs and on the eastern side of the Carmel overlooking these industries. It was significant that these neighborhoods were among the less expensive ones and therefore more likely to be inhabited by young families with small children. (The medical center’s maternity department found no evidence of another reported phenomenon, however – that babies born in this area have smaller heads.) Plans to monitor the air, clear the effluent and clean the installations at these offending industries have led to little improvement, with citizens also aware of the potential hazards of the fuel and chemical storage facilities – which are vulnerable to natural disasters as well as acts of terror.
At the same time, residents are concerned about the neglect of the city center. As Haifa spreads out into suburbia and the megastores and shopping malls develop on the outer fringes, the city center is dying. The once elegant shopping streets in the Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood are indistinguishable from the market, with their open, bazaar-like displays of cheap clothing and plastic toys. The Bauhaus architectural gems are hidden by huge billboards or have been defaced with asbestos roofs and plastic and aluminum shutters.
No less a fate has befallen the lower level of the town, where the old stone buildings on Jaffa Road have been neglected or vandalized by building extensions, so that the once-charming wooden shutters are teetering off their hinges, the alleys are strewn with garbage and the air is polluted by the heavy traffic.
DR. EINAT Kalisch Rotem, an architect specializing in urban planning who has her own office in Haifa, declares that the two problems are connected.
“As long as the extension of industry in the bayside with its resulting pollution is ignored, the small clean industries and the people who work in them will look elsewhere, thereby destroying the cultural and economic development of the city,” she says.
Kalisch Rotem, a full-time working mother of two teenage sons whose husband is fully employed in hi-tech, heads the opposition municipal party Haim b’Haifa. She and a dedicated team of activists work entirely voluntarily to lobby the government and municipality and inform the public about their passion for the “most beautiful city in Israel.”
Born in Haifa and educated at the Alliance High School, she graduated from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s faculty of architecture, earning her master’s in urban design and development of industrial cities; she worked for her doctorate on city development in Zurich and won an award for a renewal program in Amsterdam.
She is chairwoman of the Haifa Architects Association.
Kalisch Rotem is preparing to present her research on population data, habits, work, travel requirements, cultural needs and what is necessary to run a city to suit those needs at an expo in Venice that will be attended by architects from all over the world.
There is an adage that “Jerusalem studies, Tel Aviv dances and Haifa works,” but Kalisch Rotem is convinced that industry should not destroy a city.
On February 28 Globes published a national survey of ratings of satisfaction with local municipalities in terms of value for their arnona (property tax) and satisfaction with urban planning, parking spaces, public transportation, cleanliness, education, gardens and parks, culture and attention to the needs of the town’s businesses. Haifa was at next to the bottom of the scale, with Ramat Hasharon taking the very last place.
Kalisch Rotem says her revelations of the government’s plans for expanding Haifa Port, the Oil Refineries and the facilities for storing and processing fuels and crude oils show a blatant denial of the effects of pollution on the health and lives of residents of the northern coastal neighborhoods. Beaches as far as Kiryat Haim and Kiryat Yam, today desirable and pleasant suburbs, will be destroyed and the resulting pollution will endanger the entire population of Haifa Bay, she warns.
“This is Israel’s only bayside; it should be our Riviera,” she asserts.
Even Haifa Airport is threatened with closure, as the Transportation Ministry is more interested in expansion of the port than in potential tourism generated by air transport.
“The airport needs only another 300 meters added to its runway and it can accommodate aircraft flying to Europe,” says Kalisch Rotem. “The Galilee and the North are our Provence, and one can imagine the increase in tourism if there were direct flights to the north of Israel.”
“It was suggested that the airport could be relocated to the Jezreel Valley, but the existing site of the airport is the only environmental option, as it is in an area that is already industrialized and flights take off directly over the sea, reducing noise and pollution on land,” she continues.
Kalisch Rotem claims that Haifa Port today is working at far less than maximum capacity, so there is no benefit to the economy to expanding the port and the polluting industries.
“Forty-seven percent of the money from exporting oil goes to Turkey,” she states. “Fifty-one percent of the income of the Oil Refineries goes abroad.”
And as for the employment opportunities offered by these industries, she maintains: “Looking at it dunam for dunam, the sprawling and polluting Oil Refineries employ only 1,500 workers, while Matam, the compact, clean and landscaped hi-tech campus on the southern approach to Haifa, employs many thousands. Twenty-five percent of polluting industries in Israel are concentrated in Haifa, and while that continues it is impossible to develop and rehabilitate the city.”
The architect is disappointed by the apathy of Haifa residents. “People say that there is nothing to do against the great industrial giants. That’s how it is in Israel.” But she claims that the more citizens lobby and protest, the more successful will be the recovery of the city and its surroundings.
“I have seen far worse industrial cities that have been transformed by determination, vision and imagination.”
THE FIRST stage is to stop the expansion of the port and the petrochemical industries, enforce the laws on existing industries or close them, Kalisch Rotem opines.
“We have to examine how much these industries are actually needed and what is their effect on Israel’s economy. These polluting industries put wealth in the pockets of their owners and managers, not of their workers. These industries need to be distanced from residential areas,” she says.
The second stage is to clean up the devastation caused by these industries.
“Having visited a waste disposal infrastructure in the heart of Vienna and a power station in Copenhagen, there is no doubt that industry can be clean.”
The third stage is the rehabilitation of the land that has been contaminated by hazardous materials over the decades.
She cites Amsterdam as an example of a project in which she was professionally involved. The Westergasfabriek was built at the end of the 18th century and was obsolete by the latter part of the 20th century. The 72 hectares on which it stood was so contaminated and polluted that during its recovery period visitors and workers had to wear protective clothing. The project began in the 1990s and was concluded in 2003, first with an intensive cleaning of the earth, removal of hazardous structures and the building of a leisure and conference campus situated in an idyllic riverside park; ultimately, it was awarded the European Golden Pyramid prize.
Living in Haifa all her life, the architect is passionate about the beauty of the city. “This is not the third city, as it is often called because of its size.
There are many modern, less beautiful towns that have a far better cultural and business life than Haifa. But when one considers the natural beauty of the city, the forested slopes of the Carmel, the beaches, the bayside, as well as the excellent schools, its university and the Technion, it is definitely No. 2 after Jerusalem.”
Although Tel Aviv has restored its historic buildings, Haifa has many more architectural icons in the Bauhaus or International style. “It is hard to believe that the Talpiot shuk on the Hadar was considered the most beautiful Bauhaus building in the world,” says Kalisch Rotem.
Looking at its crumbling facade, rusty external pipes and staircase, that history seems like a fantasy. Today the working market is situated in a noisy dark basement and the rest of the building is closed off. But although the structure has been neglected for decades, this writer does remember that in the ’70s there were stalls on the ground floor with a view of tiers of galleries reaching to the roof, potentially the Galeries Lafayette of Haifa.
“Look at the renovated markets in Budapest and in Barcelona,” Kalisch Rotem recommends.
Wandering around the East End of London a few years ago, I was witness to the Save Spitalfields lobby, a successful campaign to save the old Huguenot homes and a magnificent Victorian steel-and-glass market from destruction as the Greater London Council planned to replace them with modern high-rise buildings.
In recent years there has been some attempt to rejuvenate the Haifa Port area. The streets running adjacent to the main thoroughfare, Ha’atzma’ut Street, once called Kingsway, have been cleaned of their urine-drenched dead-end roads, and with the establishment of a campus of the University of Haifa there were hopes of bringing life to this neglected part of the town.
However, according to Kalisch Rotem, it is not sufficient to make cosmetic changes.
“Downtown is still uninspiring with its shuttered shops and businesses. Bank Street is our Wall Street,” she says. “Where in the world is the hub of the business neighborhood so empty?” She describes meeting a group of tourists just off a cruise ship who were searching in vain for a bustling city center.
A logistical problem in Haifa, not easily solved, is that the port, built during the British Mandate, cuts the town off from its beaches. In addition, the railway line runs through the town close to the waterfront so that even if part of the port is opened to leisure and water activities, the railway prevents easy access.
“Plans to hide the railway underground have been abandoned,” says Kalisch Rotem.
While having successfully fought the municipality’s plans to build a marina and ugly high-rise apartment blocks disguised as hotels in Bat Galim, one has to admire the renovation of the German Colony. The restoration of the original Templer buildings and the popularity of the coffee shops and bars along Ben-Gurion Boulevard have resulted in a vibrant nightlife in this beautiful neighborhood in the heart of the city. All that is missing, although long discussed, is an extension of the boulevard into the port, which has ample room to be transformed into a leisure center as are so many working ports in Europe.
“We do need a marina,” notes the architect, “but not at the location originally planned.”
In Barcelona, where industries and slum dwellings were moved from the beach areas to less populated inland regions, there is now a glorious waterfront, with all boulevards leading to the port, which, apart from being a departure point for shipping, provides a wealth of galleries, museums and restaurants.
Haifa can certainly boast clean and beautiful beaches with a promenade that has now extended from Shikmona to the southern beach. Shikmona, the site of a Phoenician port, was not long ago a rubbish dump. Now it is cleaned up, revealing its historic ruins and wild rocky beach.
“But the town center needs to be European, with the aroma of the Mediterranean,” Kalisch Rotem comments.
“If a power station on the south bank of the Thames can be converted into the Tate Modern, so we have our own potential in the Dagon Silo, which is a magnificent building by the port.”
At recent meetings of concerned residents in the Naveh Sha’anan neighborhood, as well as of English-speaking members of ESRA and Hadassah, Kalisch Rotem asserted: “Repaving the streets on the Hadar has not restored the original Bauhaus buildings to their former glory or given Herzl Street a name for high fashion.”
On the other hand, many of the bus routes have been rerouted from Hadar – so that in spite of the much-publicized Metronit (bus rapid transit system), residents of the bayside suburbs need to take more than one mode of transportation to reach the Hadar area.
The renovation of the central municipal library adjacent to the theater was long overdue for Haifa residents, who had long lamented the poorly lit and ventilated public library. Finally, the interior of the library was renovated, the low ceiling raised to the level of the mezzanine floor, providing light and space. Incidentally, there is an excellent collection of English-language books at this library and the staff are helpful and friendly.
But the renovation stopped at the door of the library space. The entrance hall and stairway still have their torn black rubber floor and dirty walls, while the toilets are a travesty of public health regulations.
Discussing the needs of residents, Kalisch Rotem says: “Cities should be perceived as having their own life cycle – old neighborhoods need to be rejuvenated.”
She is in favor of the Tama 38 program and other urban renewal projects that bring residents back to the city centers, as old, dilapidated buildings are reinforced and renovated, but not at the expense of the existing populations.
“A city needs diversity, and the luxury housing projects sprouting up on the periphery of the town only attract the wealthy. Therefore urban renewal in the older neighborhoods, while upgrading the properties, should provide accommodation for varied socioeconomic groups and not push out the poorer and older residents.”
One hopes that this architect, with her vision for a healthier future for the city she loves, will gather sufficient supporters to implement her ideology.
For more information on Haim b’Haifa: www.bhaifa.org or info@bhaifa.org.