50 Shades of Graze: Gazelles Get Their Own Nature Park in Jerusalem

Activists fought long battle against plan to build a new neighborhood on site, near the Holyland development.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Gazelle in the new Gazelle Valley Nature Park in Jerusalem, March 22, 2015.
Gazelle in the new Gazelle Valley Nature Park in Jerusalem, March 22, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Jerusalem’s Gazelle Valley Nature Park will be opening to the public next Monday, a victory for local activists who conducted an unprecedented campaign against the construction of a neighborhood on the site.

Although the original gazelles in the valley – an area of some 250 dunams (62 acres) between the Katamonim, Givat Mordechai, and Holyland neighborhoods – did not survive, a new flock is establishing itself there.

The site had originally been leased to kibbutzim outside Jerusalem, which maintained fruit orchards there. Around 20 years ago, the kibbutzim, with the help of real-estate mogul Shraga Biran, submitted a plan to build a large residential neighborhood.

The plan galvanized a unique coalition, which included social justice activists, neighborhood organizers and environmental groups. They argued that the valley had to be preserved for the city’s residents and the small flock of some 20 gazelles that had been left there, trapped, after the construction of the surrounding neighborhoods and roads.

The coalition was strongly opposed by then-Mayor Ehud Olmert. “We fought in every way to stop it, and the municipality made every effort to block us,” says Tal Perry, one of the leaders of the struggle.

In 2002, the Jerusalem District Planning Committee struck down the residential plan, but the protesters were then confronted by another, smaller plan to build a commercial strip at the edge of the valley as a condition for establishing the park. After the coalition managed to get that plan nixed, then-district planning committee chairman Binat Schwartz told them, “Until now you’ve said what not to build. Now tell us what can be built.”

Consequently, locals initiated an unprecedented process of “residents’ planning.” At numerous meetings attended by hundreds of area residents and facilitated by the group Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, a plan was drawn up to establish an urban nature park that would preserve the valley and allow the gazelles to reestablish themselves there.

After Mayor Nir Barkat was elected in 2008, he helped advance the plan. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel was assigned the project, with urban nature department head Amir Balaban leading it. The plan was subsequently drawn up by Rahel Weiner and Gil Vaadia, and involved minimal intervention in the space. Half the park’s area was left nearly untouched, to allow the gazelles a large living area free of disturbance. On the other half, a structure was erected with vegetation on the roof and walls that are animal- and plant-friendly. Walkways, sitting areas and several observation points were built. The major work was the excavating of five ponds and a drainage channel to hold the water runoff. The water is pumped, cleaned and returned for use at the park.

“As architects, our natural tendency is to build,” said Vaadia. “But this park is the result of objection to construction, and our challenge was how to do something that is the opposite of architecture.”

Of course, the highlight of the park is the gazelles. The original flock was almost totally destroyed by roaming packs of dogs. Only one survived, and she is known as Madame X because of her crossed horns. Another male and female were brought from zoos, and they have produced two fawns. The plan now is to let the small flock reproduce on its own. The park is also home to porcupines, hedgehogs and moles, several species of snakes, some 200 species of bird and many insects.

“It’s not a park for picnics; this is a place making a statement that there’s a place for nature alongside urban development,” said Barkat yesterday, during a tour of the site. As if to prove his point, in the waters of the large lake in the lower part of the park, one can see the reflection of the controversial Holyland towers.

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