A Neglected Garden Becomes a Community Living Room

The children in Jerusalem's Rassco neighborhood grow tomatoes and spices in the neighborhood garden. Their parents have planted an orchard and built a terrace.

On Lag Ba'omer, they have a neighborhood bonfire there, and they also celebrate their birthdays there.

"Children have started coming to this area, which nobody visited for 20 years," said Elad Persov, a resident of Rassco, where young families have begun to replace the veteran population. "Little by little, around the sandbox, a group of parents started thinking about what could be done to improve the place."

About three years ago, a group of 20 families got together to clean up the neighborhood and urged the municipality to help. When more money was needed, the group approached the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), where they first heard about the concept of community ecological gardening.

The residents prepared a master plan and divided the area into various uses: orchard, playground, vegetable garden, etc. Then they bought a composter. The group set days for planting, hoeing, composting and other tasks. But the activity is about more than ecology.

"This has become our living room," Persov said. "For the kids, it's like a kibbutz has been created here - they come and go from their friends' houses to the park all the time."

Running out of steam

But Persov is worried that the chief activists will run out of steam or become too busy. "It's a trend and it's fun, but I'm afraid it won't be sustainable," he said.

Next week, the Rassco gardeners will present their activities at the first national convention on municipal community gardens, to be held at the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem.

The goal of the meeting is to determine how many such parks there are in the country and create a national network of support and guidance.

Parks began developing along the railroad lines in Europe in the 19th century, along with industrialization and urbanization. The two world wars gave impetus to the phenomenon, as a source of food for families whose breadwinners had been drafted, like the Victory Gardens in London.

Only in more recent decades have such gardens begun to feature social, cultural and ecological aspects, especially after they began to appear in New York, where a special department at city hall is in charge of the activity.

Jerusalem is the most active Israeli city in this field, with about 20 gardens. Some are in ultra-Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods, guided by SPNI activists. A small group of National Service volunteers has been assisting in the project for the past two years.

Dr. Michal Yovel is head of the biology and chemistry department at David Yellin and coordinator of the college's ecological garden.

"There is no connection between the conventional beautiful garden and community gardening," she said. "Each group decides what it wants - fruit, vegetables, a shelter for plants in danger of extinction. And every garden develops at its own rate. They don't bring in landscape gardeners who plant flowers and that's it."

The gardens protect open spaces, but the idea is for "a community or group to adopt a space," Yovel said. Thus such gardens can be found in schools, in apartment house courtyards and on rooftops.

Adiel Shneur of SPNI sees the garden as an important tool for environmental education. Shneur, who is active in Jerusalem's most veteran garden, located between the heavily populated Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menachem neighborhoods, said that such education "usually uses 'the stick' - don't pollute, don't spray. Here, we replace guilt feelings with creative activity."