Jerusalem: The city creates new habitats for rare birds.
Jerusalem: The city creates new habitats for rare birds. Photo by Eyal Warshavsky
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In recent years, environmental protection organizations, planners, and landscape architects have been discovering the importance of preserving nature in urban areas. The issue will take center stage next week at the tenth annual convention of the Israeli Association of Landscape Architects, to be held at the Begin Center in Jerusalem.

No city in Israel is better suited to discussion of the importance of urban nature than Jerusalem. It is the first city whose leaders have addressed the issue seriously. It was the first city to conduct a comprehensive, professional mapping of nature sites within its borders. At the convention next week, projects from Jerusalem will be presented which include the preservation of nature sites, such as the creation of a green belt around the city based on two major city parks.

About a year ago, the Jerusalem Municipality submitted a request to join a global network of cities in which activities for the preservation of biological diversity are conducted. In addition, the municipality cooperates with a research station of the Society for the Preservation of Nature, devoted to the preservation of local nature. In recent years, the municipality has founded a department for sustainable planning and development headed by Architect Yael Hamerman-Soler, who will participate in the convention and speak of the relation between urban nature and societal and community bonds.

Urban nature is a complex mosaic of flora and fauna, part of which inhabits the urban structures themselves, or the "green lungs" in the heart of the city. Another part is made up of areas belonging to the city's jurisdiction but located on the margins of the heavily developed center.

Urban development does away with natural habitats in favor of construction for residential purposes and infrastructure. According to a new report on the effect of cities, recently released by the United Nations, in 29 ecoregions (areas of high ecological importance around the globe ), a third of the area has already been exploited for urban construction. These areas are home to 12 percent of the world's land animal species.

The report's worrisome prognosis is that in the upcoming two decades, every day throughout the world will be witness to the construction of urban areas equal to 42 thousand soccer fields. In Israel, several cities are located near ecoregions, and their spread will cause major damage to these areas. Haifa is located near Mount Carmel, Ashdod is adjacent to a dune area, and Jerusalem is adjacent to important woods and forests.

Yet, nature does not completely disappear from urban areas. The city creates new places of hiding and diverse food sources for wild species such as songbirds. In Jerusalem, lesser kestrels (a rare species of falcon ) nest in attics in the Musrara neighborhood, finding nourishment in the open spaces outside the city. Sometimes wild animals find themselves trapped inside an urban area. A famous example from Jerusalem is the Gazelle Valley, home to a small population of gazelles.

Sometimes, green lungs connect the open territories that surround cities and the heart of the urban area. Such is the Railway Park Project, founded in the city in recent years and also to be presented at the convention by landscape architects Shlomi Ze'evi and Yair Avigdor. The park connects the heart of the city with the open, comparatively natural area of Wadi Refaim in the city's south.

Behind the extensive activity in Jerusalem intended to preserve natural areas there is a complex reality of compromises which compels the municipality to renounce numerous green areas, sometimes in direct contrast with the official preservation policy. This reality has to do with the ongoing growth of the city's population and the need to build tens of thousands of housing units and new employment facilities in order to meet increased needs in coming years.

In recent years, environment protection organizations, with the help of the municipality, have succeeded in ensuring the preservation of open spaces adjoining the city on its west side. In return, the municipality was obliged to renounce a number of open areas inside the city, where it approved development plans.

One of the prominent examples of this tendency is the Mitzpe Naftoah Hill near the Ramot neighborhood. The area is considered one of the most important sites of urban nature, as confirmed in a survey prepared by the municipality. It features a particularly rich collection of wild flora and fauna, including gazelles, foxes, and hyenas. The municipality agreed to the construction of 1,700 housing units on this hill. A fight by the residents of Ramot against construction has not caused the municipality to change its position. There are other areas in the city, such as Malha and Masua, where open areas have been sacrificed to development. In the Ein Karem neighborhood as well, open spaces with an impressive concentration of wild flora are threatened by development plans.

One of the city's important challenges in preserving urban nature is in East Jerusalem, especially in the basin of the Kidron River, where unpurified sewage of the East city's neighborhoods flows. The municipality has succeeded in allotting extensive areas in the east of the city for the construction of Jewish neighborhoods. However, it has yet to solve the problems of severe environmental pollution in the Kidron area.

Despite the pitfalls and compromises, the Jerusalem Municipality has undoubtedly made major advances since the days when it was interested mostly in construction plans and much less in the preservation of open spaces. In some cases it seems clear why it compromised on areas within the city in favor of the preservation of an important length of woodland on Jerusalem's Western border.

In light of the uniqueness of areas such as Mitzpe Naftoah and Kidron Valley, the municipality should rethink ways of saving at least some of the natural spaces in these areas. In the case of the Kidron River, the issue is mostly the speedy implementation of a plan for preventing the flow of sewage, and cleaning up the rogue dump sites in the area.

As for Mitzpe Naftoah, it is important to remember that the area gained even more ecological importance after the construction of the Wall of Separation in the area and infrastructure such as a high-speed highway and a railway track in nearby territories. The construction of the Wall reduced further the sequence of open spaces and turned Mitzpe Naftoah into a vital center for the preservation of the many natural values that managed to survive in the confines of the growing city.