Living near public parks and playgrounds is usually seen as an advantage, especially in densely populated areas. But during the coronavirus crisis – the lockdowns, social distancing rules and worries about indoor leisure activities – that advantage became greater than ever. In the shadow of the pandemic, and again now that talk of another lockdown is in the air, the lack of public parks in Israeli-Arab communities has become an urgent issue.
Reports by the state comptroller and other research over the years has pointed time after time to the lack of open public space in Arab towns, and parks and playgrounds in particular.
For example, a 2006 Knesset study found that 43 percent of Arab local governments had no reserves of land designated for public buildings or public open areas. Another study from 2008 found that “in Arab towns there’s a shortage of public spaces and parks for leisure activities, promenades and green areas along roadsides or as a buffer between neighborhoods.”
However, there’s been no significant undertaking to change that.
The Central Bureau of Statistics 2019 Social Survey found that 16 percent of Arab respondents were satisfied with the amount of green space in the places they live, compared with 69 percent for Jewish Israelis. That was a lower rate than the 28 percent who said roads and sidewalks in their neighborhoods were satisfactory.
In 2013, Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson revealed that the Construction and Housing Ministry had instructed architects to design smaller parks and open areas in Arab and ultra-Orthodox towns than for the rest of the public. The directives published at the time stated that in a “regular” Israeli city, parks should be planned based on 15 square meters per person, while in Arab and Haredi towns, the basis should be 10 square meters.
The directive also asserted that Arab and Haredi communities don’t need dog runs. “Among the minority population, it has become clear that there is no demand for small gardens,” it said.
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Nowhere that's green
Hasson Jaber, a 36-year-old father of three from Nazareth, is one of many who belie this claim. He said the lack of parks and gardens in his city where he can spend time with his children is very noticeable.
“It’s unlikely that there’s a large park or public parks here other than small playgrounds,” he says. “There’s no place to walk with the family or have a picnic near the house.”
Nazar Sapuri, 33, also from Nazareth, added: “As a father, why should I have to go to another town so my children can play in the park? It negatively affects the whole family and especially the children, who don’t have a place to release energy. And even if there were parks here, who would maintain and clean them?”
“We need parks in the community and it stood out a great deal during coronavirus period,” said Gris Azar, 40, a father of two young children from Ilabun in the Galilee. “This shortage has a day-to-day effect. I can’t go out for a walk with the family or renew energy and am also forced to drive at least half an hour to exercise in the open air.”
“This shortage limits the possibilities of exercising, hiking and spending time in green areas,” said Hazar Badin, 27, from Acre. “Especially in the old city, where the cars control the public space.” Yusuf, 28, from Turan, thinks the issue is being neglected. “I want gardens and parks in the town where I live to do sport and spend time in nature.”
No parks or recreations
Haneen Abulil, 34, lives today in the Har Yona neighborhood of Nof Hagalil. When she went back to Ein Mahel, the town she was born in, after she gave birth, she felt the difference: “I felt how hard it was for me to provide the children a place near the house to play, spend time and develop. I felt helpless. It’s hard to compare the housing situation in the village to where I live now.”
The shortage of parks in residential areas forces many Arab residents to look for green space in nearby Jewish communities, which sometimes leads to racist incidents. For example, residents of Nazareth who in the past went to a park in neighboring Nof Hagalil were kicked out by a security guard after they were heard speaking in Arabic. The courts were forced to intervene when the city of Afula decided to close its municipal park to people from outside the city.
Experts say a lack of green open space near homes has an effect on physical and mental health. Studies indicate that such spaces contribute to reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Having parks near home also has been credited with positively influencing moods and having beneficial cognitive effects.
“This issue demonstrates how much the issues of the environment, planning, health, society, economy and community are related to each other. Up-to-date research, some of which was conducted during the period of the coronavirus crisis too, shows the relationship between exposure to green areas in the town and better health, including decreased mortality,” said Jameela Hardal Wakim, an attorney who is the director of the Citizens for the Environment nonprofit group.
Prof. Rassem Khamaisi of Haifa University has noted a number of obstacles in his research on urban geography and planning concerning the public space and appearance of Arab communities in Israel: a lack of funding, a lack of available land in the Arab community, much of which is privately owned, and planning issues that make it difficult to allocate and develop public spaces, as well as obstacles of awareness and behavior, such as vandalism and poor supervision.
Possible solutions for some of these problems were proposed in January in a new study on urban renewal in Arab communities in Israel. The research, written in cooperation between the Sikkuy nonprofit organization, the Israel Affordable Housing Center and the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, found that 62 percent of urban planning professionals and 75 percent of the residents asked described the lack of open public spaces as “the most important physical challenge in Arab communities.”
The study proposes tools for renewing the older fabric of Arab communities, said Noga Shani, an urban planner at Sikkuy. Some examples are having local governments lease private land for public needs, swapping built-up or not built-up private property for public land, urban renewal of housing and the temporary use of open private land for gardening or parking, she said.
The mayor of Sakhnin, Dr. Safuat Abu Riya, who is also the chairman of the environmental association of cities and the deputy chairman of the committee of Arab mayors, decided recently to change this situation by building two new public parks with playgrounds in the city. Other such parks are in the planning and development processes, he said.
“In addition to the economic obstacles in Arab society, and especially after the coronavirus period, which imposed challenges and difficulties on us, officials in the Arab community do not see this problem as a significant and important issue,” said Riya. “The time has come to prioritize the matter. In my opinion, we also need to take collective responsibility for improving the quality of life in the Arab community.”
Another man who recently decided to take matters into his own hands is Hitham Zarini, a social activist from Turan, who this year established a project called Khakura (حاكورة) whose goal is to encourage the building of community gardens in Arab towns. “Building public parks and gardens will benefit mental health in addition to the feeling of belonging of the city’s residents,” he added.
“The project wants to return some of the unique landscape to Arab society and communities and encourage young people to nurture small neighborhood gardens in abandoned spaces in the villages. The building density in the Arab community has significantly reduced the green spaces and the land between houses, which has significantly damaged the village landscape, the feeling of green, the younger generation’s connection to the land, agriculture and environment,” said Zarini.
Maria Rashad is a participant in Haaretz 21, a new project aimed at amplifying underrepresented voices and stories of Arab communities in Israel.