Civic society in Israel received a significant boost last week in its struggle for environmental justice and the protection of natural resources. This occurred in the Interior Ministry building in Jerusalem, where countless building plans have been approved. This time, the National Planning and Construction Board convened and decided by an overwhelming majority not to approve the construction plan in western Jerusalem known as the Safdie Plan.
Environmental destruction, including the pollution of natural resources and wasteful and scattered construction in open spaces, has characterized Israel for many years. A struggle against these trends has grown stronger in recent years, led by social-environmental organizations that advocate a different approach: to strengthen the cities without harming open spaces, to provide the public with full information about building plans and to involve them in the decisions.
The victory in the fight against the Safdie Plan is one of the greatest successes in the history of the environmental movement in Israel. The struggle was led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Coalition for Preserving the Jerusalem Hills, which is largely led by women. They proved that with determination, persistence and environmental planning expertise, it is possible to stand up to mighty political and real estate forces. These forces wanted to continue the regular pattern of sacrificing open spaces as a way of coping with urban problems like housing shortages and the exodus of stronger population groups.
Contrary to the claims of those like the Jerusalem Development Authority, one of the initiators of the Safdie Plan, the fight against the plan was not led by residents of the suburbs who wanted to preserve the green scenery across from their homes. Rather, it was a broad and diverse public that included city residents, students, the secular and the religious. They were joined by economists, planners and experts in various fields, who made an effort to submit well-reasoned objections to the plan.
Their victory serves the interest of the public at large: the preservation of Jerusalem's green lungs and the channeling of investments to the city itself. This is instead of developing another urban branch of the city that sprawls over mountains and hills, accompanied by roads and interchanges costing billions of shekels.
The success in the fight should not make us forget the fact that Jerusalem is indeed in deep trouble. The affluent population is leaving it at a growing rate and it is difficult for the middle class to find affordable housing. In this situation, the relative weight of the poor population - Arab and ultra-Orthodox - is increasing, and this makes it even more difficult to establish a strong economic base for the city.
Supporters of the Safdie Plan, including members of the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Israel Lands Administration, were correct in analyzing the urban problems and in assessing the severity of these problems. But they proposed a solution that would have weakened the existing city even more and certainly would have caused great damage to the green lungs surrounding it, which constitute an important part of the quality of life in Jerusalem.
All of those involved in the city must now think of a diverse basket of solutions for dense construction in the older neighborhoods, for utilizing land appropriate for construction, and for developing urban public transportation infrastructure and employment zones. Above all, Jerusalem must be planned as a city that is pleasant to walk in and around - and not only to reach it from one end to another via highways that carve through its valleys and make walking by foot a depressing experience.
This effort to renew the city, even if very successful, will not be sufficient without a political decision about the future of Jerusalem.
Long-term planning for the city is impossible in a situation of political uncertainty, when it is not clear which Arab neighborhoods will remain within Israel and where Jewish populations will indeed remain in the future.
Despite the great achievement of blocking the Safdie Plan, there is serious concern that the continued decline of Jerusalem into poverty and neglect, with negative migration, alongside political uncertainty - will lead to a return to this plan, which will be presented as an emergency measure to provide housing and stem the demographic growth of the Arab population. It seems that the challenge now awaiting the government, the municipal establishment and the environmental groups is much more complex than the decision on the Safdie Plan.
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