Urban Sprawl Threatens Israel's Open Spaces

Trend of development picks up steam, while citizens are kept away from planning processes.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel released this week its annual report regarding threats posed to open spaces in the country. As in past years, there has been an increase in such threats. Alongside an abundance of local projects, what is particularly threatening is the continuing trend of keeping the public away from planning procedures, as well as continued efforts to undermine regulations that protect open spaces.

According to the SPNI report, in 2012 119 threats were posed to open spaces in various regions. This list of threats includes several plans to establish new communities and clear the way for the establishment of farms. These trends are at variance with the justifiable goal of efficiently using open spaces and focusing construction work on existing communities.

Another conspicuous trend is the phenomenon of "urban sprawl," meaning the spread of built-up areas beyond the municipal boundaries of existing communities, and its spillage into open spaces. This often involves the construction of residential homes in a fashion that appropriates considerable land reserves. This phenomenon is manifest in towns such as Yokneam and Modi'in; in these examples, the sprawl damages open spaces of considerable ecological sensitivity. The trend is also in evidence in Israel's central regions, close to cities such as Rehovot and Rishon Letzion.

Trends of development detrimental to open spaces are reinforced by various procedural mechanisms whose operation keeps the public removed from decision-making processes. For instance, the Agriculture Ministry has a "programs committee" which issues recommendations for the addition of land space to agricultural communities to the detriment of green areas - public representatives are nowhere to be found on this committee.

The Israel Lands Administration and the Tourism Ministry operate a "dual committee" which, SPNI claims, promotes tourism projects that waste green open spaces.

Another example in this context are the national housing committees, which authorize large construction plans. Such committees have fashioned procedures that significantly restrict the public's ability to appeal a decision to authorize a particular construction project. One particularly worrisome trend is a new policy adopted by the Interior Ministry's planning administration, which expedites ways of promoting development detrimental to open spaces.

Another major measure that the planning administration tried to promote recently is a change in national master plan 35 (the master blueprint which stipulates where construction can take place in Israel ). Under the proposed change, expanded construction will become possible in the central district, in areas which up to now have been defined as agricultural areas. Also, the proposed changes would expand authorization for construction in regions defined as "metropolitan vacation areas." These are land areas, such as the stretch of land between Rishon Letzion and Nes Tziona, which up to now have been slated under master plans for recreation and vacation needs.

Planning administration officials claim that the main goal of the changes to master plan 35 that relate to the central district is to streamline mandatory statutory processes, and allow district planning committees to approve development projects with municipal areas, while also restricting the dimensions of development projects. Such explanations, however, overlook the fact that the ILA has explicitly proposed authorizing construction on agricultural and vacation lands. Such lands are included in what master plan 35 has defined as "urban areas" - but clearly the original intention was not to allow construction in such areas.

The drafting of master plan 35 reflects a widespread approach deployed by the planning administration, a body which persistently acts to uphold targets cited by the government for the development of infrastructure and expansion of residential construction. The approach can be seen in the ILA's promotion of a railroad line to Eilat, a project whose prestige and quick authorization the government has sought.

The promotion of transportation networks and the establishment of residential neighborhoods are, of course, important, vital goals. But the paramount question is how does the promotion of these ends jibe with another strategic goal, namely to protect open spaces for the benefit of Israel's citizens?

And there is another goal, one that does not pertain solely to the benefit people who live here can draw from open spaces: the imperative of leaving space for flora and fauna in lands in the state of Israel.

Earlier this week the planning administration released a derisive response to the SPNI report, casting doubt on whether the report really represents the public interest. However, a senior ILA official, Ruth Yosef, who is responsible for the central district, has cast doubt about procedures promoted by the planning administration. In a letter she sent two weeks ago to members of the National Planning and Building Council Yosef claimed that changes to master plan 35 have been instituted without serious review. She suggested that there are sufficient reserves of land suited to construction in existing towns and communities; the actual effect of the planning administration proposal, she added, would be construction in river and forest areas.

Yosef also warned that the release of agricultural land for construction would aggravate trends of land speculation. She wrote: "Agricultural land speculation artificially drives up land values in this district, and thereby contributes to the rise in the district's real estate prices."

Relying on conclusions reached by a staff of experts who reviewed master plan 35 in the past, she added: "The error inherent in converting open spaces for construction - instead of renewing existing built-up spaces - will be costly. [The damage] will include the loss of open spaces and the neglect and deterioration of existing, built-up areas. This sort of mistake is irreversible."

Ofer Vaknin