Successive Israeli governments have built an abundance of infrastructure, communities, malls and commercial centers but along the way, they systematically erased the cultural landscape that made Israel diverse and gave its residents a sense of identity and belonging. This change is sometimes most noticeable to foreign visitors who have observed the country over the years.
Last week, Prof. Carl Steinitz, a world-renowned expert in landscape architecture, visited Israel. For years, he has been studying various places around the world that have cultural landscapes combining human activity with a natural setting. Steinitz has a deep and long-standing acquaintance with Israel; he has been coming here for years to teach at the Technion. This time, he arrived as the guest of the Israel Green Building Council and lectured at the opening ceremony of its School of Green Building.
Steinitz said that as time passes, it has become harder and harder for him to identify the cultural landscapes that once characterized Israel. For example, it is hard to find agricultural land without a road or some infrastructure facility on it. It is also hard to spot landscapes that recall Biblical times or to look at Mount Carmel without the view being spoiled by an acoustic wall or a highway crash barrier.
His conclusion is reinforced by studies such as one by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's Open Landscape Institute, which showed that open spaces with no construction or infrastructure are becoming few and far between.
"This raises a question: What is an Israeli landscape today and how is it connected to national identity?" Steinitz said. "After all, whatever has been built here is very similar to other places around the world. There are people in Israel who understand the importance of disappearing open spaces, especially as these become rarer. But it is still a small group of people who don't have enough influence."
What is happening in Israel is familiar from other places as well. Steinitz said Israel could learn from the experience of Spain's Valencia Province, an area about the same size as Israel with approximately the same-sized population. Provincial leaders, who in Spain have autonomy over planning, were informed by the European Union that development and construction were turning the province into an ugly place. Since the European Union funds many development projects in Valencia, and since Spain is a signatory to a European convention to preserve open spaces, they took the letter seriously and consulted Steinitz.
With the help of his students, Steinitz took a survey of Valencia residents: He showed them photographs of different landscapes, and they rated the landscapes' visual value. He then compared the findings with the province's existing landscapes.
His conclusion was that many landscapes in Valencia are protected and well-preserved. But in the coastal area where most people live, the landscapes that residents deemed most important were gradually disappearing.
"If the development pressure continues, this will result in urban sprawl along the coast area," Steinitz warned Valencia's leaders. "The result will be bad for residents and their sense of pride in their region."
Steinitz suggested two main strategies for preserving the province's landscapes. One was to repair what had already been damaged - for example, by removing fences and rehabilitating abandoned areas, or removing roadside billboards that conceal the landscape. This is obviously a very relevant proposal for Israel, which is filled with billboards that intrude on the public space.
The other was to afford greater protection to open spaces that had not yet been built up. While that presents a difficult challenge, Steinitz told the provincial leaders, the window of opportunity for doing so was closing.
Mapping open spaces
Here in Israel, there have recently been assorted efforts to promote landscape preservation. A year and a half ago, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority completed a comprehensive effort to map the country's open spaces, rank them by their importance and make recommendations for preserving them.
Additionally, an Interior Ministry planning team recently suggested expanding the amount of territory designated as "special landscape areas" in the national master plan. These are areas where limitations are imposed on development and construction to protect their unique landscapes. For example, the committee recommended designating agricultural areas in the Sharon region as special landscape areas. "The open spaces and buildings in these agricultural communities reflect the lifestyle of a farmer during the Zionist settlement effort," the planning team explained.
Steinitz argued that it is not enough to designate large tracts for preservation. Today, he said, GIS (Geographic Information System ) technology should be used to analyze small plots of land in detail, and decisions that preserve the visual quality of the space should be made based on that analysis.
Landscape architect Tamar Darel-Fossfeld, who accompanied Steinitz during his visit, offered an example of the small but important changes that are needed: Israel Railways service buildings should be located in low areas concealed by vegetation, so that they don't affect the open feel of the landscape.
She was involved in landscaping areas along the Trans-Israel Highway in a way that recreated the original terrain.
"I know it's a landscape illusion," she said. "But I still think it was right to do."
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