Dozens of nature spots in Haifa are at risk of yielding to development or are inaccessible to residents because they lack hiking trails, according to experts who have been surveying the streambeds and slopes of the Carmel area over the past two years.
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The detailed survey of 37 sites in the city conducted by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel found a rich world of flora and fauna in the area, including dozens of species of bats and butterflies, wild boars, coyotes and endangered plant species. But according to the survey’s authors, most of these areas have construction plans prepared for them, while others have no paths that would allow residents to hike through spots adjacent to their homes. These spots are all located within Haifa city limits. The survey, which was funded by the Beracha Foundation, was conducted in conjunction with the Haifa municipality and the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Ornithologists, ecologists, and experts in butterflies and plants scoured the areas and documented the flora and fauna, using a remote sensor system for analyses. They also used automated cameras to document the paths of wildlife movement.
Among the discoveries were nearly 40 kinds of butterflies. “This is a relatively high number, given that this is a large urban area, part of which has heavy industry,” says the report. One of the experts’ recommendations is to plant host plants in various places on which female butterflies can lay their eggs. The survey recommends that one species, the buckthorn lime butterfly, be chosen as the “municipal butterfly” of Haifa.
Jackals, wild boars and hares were observed in the streambeds and at other sites, as were badgers, a rarer species of predator. Also identified were eight species of bats, including three species of horseshoe bats, which have nearly disappeared from the Carmel in recent years. Nine species of endangered reptiles and amphibians were also spotted in the city.
One of the key findings of the survey was locating 40 species of endangered plants, the most prominent among them being the tree spurge, which exists only in the Haifa area and whose bloom is particularly evident on the Stella Maris ridge in the western part of the city. Haifa is also one of the few places in Israel where the species allium tardiflorum (shum stavi in Hebrew) can be found. Most of the rare species were found in the few surviving natural areas near the Kishon River.
“This is a city with the richest diversity of natural habitats in Israel,” says Amir Balaban, the SPNI’s urban nature coordinator. “There are, inter alia, a coastal environment of sand and rocks, swamps, springs and Mediterranean forests. It's fun to go to a place like Nahal Siah and see rabbits and boars skipping along the slopes. We also found the remains of things that were and will probably be no more. For example the hyena, a remnant of the large predators which are only found today far from the city, or a rare species of amphibian, the triton, which was found at a site already seriously damaged.”
This impressive nature inventory is at risk because of construction plans slated for many of the sites.
“The Carmel slopes in the areas of the Azov and Ahuza streams are virtually all slated for construction,” says Ella Alexandri, the SPNI community director in Haifa. “The plan is to construct high walls that will ruin the landscape. In the future, anyone looking at the view of the Carmel from the Coastal Road will see a Chinese Wall.”
The lovely Nahal Ovadia canyon is also endangered by a road meant to run through it. “The plan was frozen by the city after it invited public participation in the planning process,” says Alexandri. “But it has not been canceled and the danger still exists.”
She added that while other places are not threatened by construction they remain inaccessible to the public, particularly the sites of steep streambeds. Other sites are neglected and suffer from the lack of enforcement against illegal construction or waste disposal.
Alexandri hopes the city will use the new survey to reassess its building schemes.
“For the first time, accurate information has been gathered that enables us to know what’s in each place and what we stand to lose,” she says. “We do not categorically oppose construction everywhere. But we don’t believe that at sites like Nahal Azov and Nahal Ahuza we can rely on building plans approved 40 years ago. There’s a need to insert changes that would allow more consideration of the landscape.”
“Urban nature should be integrated into urban planning to avoid conflicts between nature and the built-up environment,” says Balaban. “There has to be a buffer at the edge of Mount Carmel, with a thinning of vegetation to prevent the spread of fires. Garbage facilities must be designed so that wild animals cannot dig into them, which now leads to the spread of animals like coyotes and undesirable friction with residents. In the case of wild boars there is a need to see where they cross roads and inform residents to avoid a safety hazard.”
Another challenge to the preservation of open spaces in Haifa is the high proportion of privately owned land in several areas of the city. Important nature areas like Nahal Ovadia, the slopes of the Denya neighborhood and Nahal Nadar have a number of plots like that, whose owners are pressuring to be able to utilize their construction rights. There are other publicly owned sites that the survey suggests be offered in exchange, so that construction can take place in areas with fewer natural riches.
But the primary recommendation of the survey is addressed to the municipality, which is being asked to immediately formulate a plan to manage the natural areas, based on the survey’s findings. Such a plan, the researchers say, would increase the chances that future development will take into account the many creatures that live next door to city residents.
The Haifa municipality said in response: “The survey of nature sites prepared by us in cooperation with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel reflects the importance the municipality assigns to conserving nature in general and the streambeds in particular. The survey was presented to the municipal Environment Committee and is a milestone in information-gathering on flora and fauna, its preservation and nurturing. It supplements other research initiatives the municipality is encouraging to expand the information available to city planners, so that every planning decision will be based on the knowledge required to preserve nature and the landscape.
“The importance the municipality ascribes to preserving green spaces is also reflected in the city’s new master plan, which calls for the streams to remain in their natural landscape. This plan is designed to ensure that no planning initiatives will be allowed to harm natural assets, which is why municipal Engineering Administration initiated the survey.”