Friday will mark the end of the 30-day mourning period for Amit Shapira, a long-time senior official at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and later one of the country’s leading environmental planners. The story of Shapira’s professional life - he died at age 54 - reflects the interesting change the nature protection movement has undergone. From being primarily an activist movement, it has changed into one that emphasizes professional planning activity – a development that not infrequently turned environmental activists into partners in the institutional planning process.
I met Shapira for the first time 21 years ago. He told me his worries about plans by the nature preservation authority (today the Israel Nature and Parks Authority) to develop various sites located in nature reserves. He viewed this as harmful to nature, especially in areas like the Negev hills and Eilat hills, where Shapira worked as a guide and director of the field school.
Later, from 1994-2002, Shapira headed SPNI’s Environmental Protection Department. Under his leadership, the department became SPNI’s principal engine of activism.
It’s no accident that many veterans of this department have over the years joined government offices or entered the private sector, just as Shapira himself did. SPNI understood that it’s not enough to raise an outcry over damage to nature; it’s better to become part of the planning system and propose alternatives for places where it believes development should be prevented. The first and most prominent example of this approach – which was spearheaded by, among others, senior SPNI official Yoav Sagi – was the alternative route SPNI proposed for a road that could have caused serious damage to natural landscapes in the Tefen region of the Galilee.
Even before Shapira began running SPNI’s Environmental Protection Department, but even more so during his tenure, the department turned itself into a professional planning organization with great influence over both the governmental planning bureaucracy and public battles to protect nature. It engaged in numerous campaigns to preserve beaches and coastal areas.
Department staffers submitted environmental impact statements and analyses of the ecological sensitivity of areas earmarked for construction, using a method later adopted by other organizations. And the department’s environmental protection coordinators served as observers on behalf of Life & Environment, an umbrella organization of green groups, on regional planning committees. A few years ago, they were granted full membership on these committees.
Another change was the expansion of SPNI’s activity to urban areas. This in turn made SPNI more aware of and more involved in social issues, due to its engagement with issues such as high-rise construction and the development of public transportation. Shapira and one of the department’s planners, Iris Hahn, published detailed guidelines for planning open spaces in urban areas.
Moving to the private sector
After leaving SPNI, Shapira worked as an environmental planner in the private sector. Even though in the past he had worked for a green organization that opposed many development plans, he became a key figure in drafting the country’s national master plans and served as a consultant to regional planning councils. Shapira earned this position thanks to both his professional knowledge and his personality, but it also constituted a kind of acknowledgement by the establishment of the fact that the planning approach he represented enabled it to balance complex development issues with the need to preserve nature and open spaces.
Becoming involved in government planning created an interesting challenge for people like Shapira, whose primary interest was protecting nature. They found themselves serving as advisers to government offices that were promoting construction or mining in sensitive areas, and at meetings of the regional planning committees, they often found themselves sitting opposite their friends from environmental organizations.
“As a planner, Amit continued serving the need to integrate and strike a balance between vital development and protecting nature and the landscape,” Sagi said in a eulogy delivered at Shapira’s funeral. “He did this while preserving an exceptional and awe-inspiring integrity and complete loyalty to the issues dear to his heart.”
One example of the complex challenges Shapira faced was the master plan for the area around the Dead Sea, which he participated in preparing together with Lerman Architects. The planners, who prepared their program at the request of the Interior Ministry, warned of the severe harm that industrial activity around the Dead Sea would cause the landscape and environment, and therefore defined a key region near the beaches as one in which protecting nature should have priority over industrial activity. But in the end, the Interior Ministry shelved their plan.
Shapira died at a critical moment in the planning and construction industry. Recently, government proposals to shorten the planning process and ease limitations on construction in open areas near cities have sprung up repeatedly. Without Shapira, the planning community will be weakened in its ability to present a firm, well-grounded worldview that favors maintaining a balance between development and preservation in this small, crowded country.