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Israel's urban residents do not enjoy an abundance of large parks or readily-available areas of recreation and leisure. Yet even those areas that do exist are in danger, as the melancholy fate of the Jerusalem Forest attests.

The forest was supposed to be the principal "green lung" for the city's residents, thanks to convenient access and its large area. However, construction has cut its area from 4,500 to 1,200 dunams. Even now, after the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has prepared a plan to preserve the wooded area and restore it to its former size in several places, the various authorities continue to encroach on the forest for construction purposes.

Within a few weeks, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee is scheduled to discuss the JNF's plan for preserving the Jerusalem Forest and developing it for recreation and leisure purposes. Among the opponents of the plan are the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Lands Administration (ILA).

One of the ILA's contentions, seconded by the Jerusalem Municipality, is that the proposed plan adversely affects development initiatives that include building for residential and public purposes, and also infringes on an area that is designated for a cemetery. The ILA has also declared that it is out to protect nature and the landscape, maintaining that forestation activities that include spraying and engineering works will harm the flora and fauna in the area. This concern did not stop the ILA from urging the establishment of a new city in the Judean Hills that will result in the loss of extensive tracts of forest and woodland. The Jerusalem Municipality argued that the JNF plan would affect areas that were designated for roads and industrial zones.

There is no doubt that some of the projects cited by the municipality and the ILA are important and will provide essential services and places of residence. In this regard, however, we should take note of remarks by the Committee for Quality of Life in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood that is fighting to preserve the forest. In a document submitted to the District Planning and Building Committee as a counter-argument to the claims put forward by the ILA and the municipality, the residents' committee notes, "Unfortunately, the forest has effectively become a reserve for implementing plans to build infrastructure of many and varied kinds, each of which will cut away only a bit of the forest, but, if taken together, will turn it into a miniature thicket."

The fundamental problem is that governmental and municipal bodies in Israel do not understand the crucial importance of open areas and parks, which, in addition to being essential elements of quality of life and ecological benefit, also have a significant economic aspect.

An economic analysis of the subject was carried out not long ago for the Har Nof committee by Dr. Yaakov Garb. He notes that it is difficult to quantify the economic value of forests and open areas in the same way that value is ascribed to other products. However, in recent years, economists have found ways to calculate benefits, such as an increase in the value of homes that are located near open areas and parks, or public readiness to spend money to visit parks - attesting to demand that has a concrete financial value and also boosts tourism and other industries.

Garb mentions Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York. Justifying the acquisition of the land for the park, Olmsted cited the increase in land values that this would generate that that, in turn, would generate greater tax revenues to pay for the upkeep of the park - as indeed occurred.

Cities like Jerusalem, Garb says, should invest in a forest that constitutes a meaningful green belt because of the strategic interest of developing the city on the basis of quality of life. Enhancement of the quality of life will encourage strong populations to stay in the city and thus create a solid economic base for its growth and development, he notes.

The Jerusalem Forest has not been exploited sufficiently for these purposes. Its expansion will help increase its contribution to the quality of life. In this connection, Garb recalls the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which decided to invest large sums in the development of parks and walking trails as a response to a deep economic crisis and a decline in the quality of life in the city. The mayor explained that when asked why the city was wasting money on trails and parks when schools and roads were in need of repair and more jobs were needed, his reply was that one project did not come at the expense of another.