As Israeli Cities Engulf Nature, Greens Step Up Fight

Nature protection society countering urban building plans throughout the greater Tel Aviv area.

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Between Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer and a nearby army base are about 100 dunams (25 acres) of good hamra (Arabic for "red") soil. More than 200 species of plants flourish on this island surrounded by buildings, along with animals including reptiles such as Schreibner’s fringe-fingered lizard and the spur-thighed tortoise, which are endangered. But like other such urban refuges in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, the future of these plants and animals looks grim, as construction plans supported by the Ramat Gan municipality move ahead toward approval.

In recent years, local authorities in the greater Tel Aviv area and planning institutions have recognized the need not only to protect parks that have lawns, but to do the same for urban pockets of nature, too. A number of cities, including Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, have conducted surveys with the assistance of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel of areas intended for conservation. The Tel Aviv District Planning and Building Committee even initiated a master plan for sites within its purview.

But the master plan, decided on five years ago, has yet to be completed and meanwhile these nature sites are in danger of disappearing. A plan for the area near Tel Hashomer, which the SPNI declared one of Ramat Gan’s most important urban nature sites, has won the support of the municipality for the construction of more than 1,000 housing units.

“If this plan is implemented, the natural area will be reduced by more than 90 percent,” according to Yael Silberstein of the SPNI. “What remains will be worthless and will not allow most of the flora and fauna to survive.” Silberstein says the SPNI wants to see a new plan that allows development of the northern part of the site and keeps the southern part as an urban nature reserve. “The Ramat Gan municipality is responsible for protecting its urban nature sites. Unfortunately the city has in this case approved the destruction of the most important natural site it has,” she said.

The Ramat Gan municipality responded: “We will try to incorporate all the natural values mentioned in the survey, which was carried out by the municipality.”

A similar collision between development and nature seems on the verge of happening in the southern part of Holon, There a construction plan was approved a year ago, leaving only a small area of natural sand dunes in what had been defined as a dune park. Six months ago the municipality petitioned the National Planning and Building Council against a decision by the district planning and building committee to increase the size of the park a little. “There is no justification to further increase the huge size of the intended dune park,” the petition stated, calling the decision incompatible with the current and future needs of Holon.

Another such area is east of Ramat Hasharon, where a plan was recently approved for the construction of thousands of housing units in an area now held by Israel Military Industries. According to environmental groups, construction will do severe damage to natural areas at the site, including a particularly rich variety of wild plants, among them some that are endangered.

In Rishon Letzion, SPNI is fighting to preserve a flood-fed lake near the Superland amusement park, concerned as it is that the Rishon Letzion municipality is moving ahead with development plans that would threaten the lake, which has become an attraction for many species of water birds.

Natural sites in beach areas are also at risk, particularly the last remaining calcareous limestone (kurkar) ridges in Tel Aviv. Objections by the Forum for Environmental Quality and Urban Nature in Tel Aviv to the paving of a road, and construction of underground parking garages in the area of the ridge, were recently rejected. However, the municipality is now conducting an ecological survey in the area to try to protect the valuable natural elements during construction.

The master plan for urban nature in the Tel Aviv district, which the District Planning and Building Committee decided to prepare, should protect such areas. However, five years after the decision was made the plan has yet to be completed, while construction plans are moving ahead.

The Interior Ministry responded that together with the Environmental Protection Ministry, it was “working to move ahead a master plan for urban nature in the Tel Aviv district. The ministry said it has carried out a survey of existing natural elements but due to budgetary restrictions the survey has not been completed. The Environmental Protection Ministry is now working to [find] the necessary resources.”

Tel Baruch beach, north of Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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