Jerusalem's New Zoning Plan Protects Urban Nature Sites

Greater awareness of the environment has increased the realization that natural sites inside and outside cities are just as important as planned parks.

Jeruslam's Valley of the Cross.
Moshe Gilad

The master plan for urban nature sites in Jerusalem covers 151 sites, including small groves, stream beds and ridges, but also includes residential areas in which houses and attics have become nesting sites for rare birds. It aims to protect local flora and fauna, and its approval last month by the local committee for development and construction in Jerusalem was the first time a local authority in Israel has backed such an overall plan.

Although the new plan does not supersede existing ones, it does improve the protection afforded to nature sites. Any planning authority dealing with one of the sites included in the plan will have to account for the ecological and landscape aspects of a project before a building permit is granted. “This plan increases the number of such sites three-fold, compared to an earlier municipal plan,” notes Ofer Gredinger, manager of Jerusalem’s planning division. "Following its ratification, protection of these sites will no longer be voluntary, as was the case up to now.”

Master plans are usually technical documents written in a language decipherable only to experts in the field. In this case, however, the document opens with a poetic quote by literature professor Ariel Hirschfeld, who wrote in Haaretz ten years ago that “Jerusalem, despite its massive construction, still retains some unique open spaces that exhibit some of its primeval landscape.” The writer mentioned spots such as the Kidron Valley and the Valley of the Cross, as well as a wood in the Talbieh neighborhood. “These are more important than any park and their wilderness should not be touched. They contain the locale's flora and fauna, keeping a living umbilical cord between the present city and a past that precedes its existence.”

In the past, urban nature in Jerusalem and other cities was neglected by local authorities and by organizations such as the Nature and Parks Authority. Greater awareness of the environment and heightened activity by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel within urban areas have increased the realization that remaining natural sites inside and outside cities are just as important as planned parks and gardens.

The plan, prepared by the Planning Division and the Department of Sustainable Development at the Jerusalem municipality, is expected to be approved by the regional committee.

With the master plan in place, no construction will be approved before a detailed nature survey is conducted in a designated area, accompanied by an ecologist. The survey’s findings and recommendations will determine the extent of construction and development that can be approved. “Up to now there was no pre-planning for such surveys and this interfered with plans,” says Gredinger, “since in some cases there were construction plans in place but then they had to be adapted in order to comply with preservation requirements.”

Previous plans have slated several nature sites for construction, covering a combined area of 1,980 acres. “We won’t cancel these plans but will approve them after they take into consideration these issues,” says Gredinger. “We’ve already done this in one such location, which contains a wooded area which has now been protected.”

Some nature sites are on the eastern side of the city, where it’s more difficult to obtain public cooperation. “Residents worry that these sites aren’t intended to improve their quality of life but are meant to prevent construction there,” says Gredinger. “We try to convince them that this is not the case.”

SPNI conducted its first city survey of natural urban infrastructure in Jerusalem. It was executed together with the municipality, the Ministry for Environmental Protection and with the support of the Beracha Foundation. A number of sites that had been the focus of prolonged public struggles against construction were mapped and included in the master plan.

The list of urban nature sites that will now be protected includes all the large and well-known parks in the city, including Gazelle Valley, Mitzpeh Neftoah, Refa’im Stream, Sacher Park and others. There are also dozens of smaller nature sites which remain within the city, such as a small park in the middle of the Ramat Denya neighborhood. It was included in the list since it contains burrows in which a community of porcupines live. It turns out that at least six porcupines live there, including two rare albino ones. Another location is a small rocky field, the remnant of a wide field that disappeared under Ramat Beit Hakerem in the late 1990s. Even though it covers barely two acres and is surrounded by buildings, at least 15 species of birds, two species of reptiles and some hedgehogs have been spotted there. The area is the last one containing a unique rock formation that is home to many thriving wild plants. The Musrara neighborhood was added to the list due to a group of red falcons nesting on its rooftops. These birds have become the emblem of nature in Jerusalem but their prospects are dismal with the shrinking of hunting territory. Its population has dwindled to a handful of pairs.

The walled Old City is on the list due to a unique ecology that developed there over the centuries. This includes ancient trees, nesting sites and vegetation that thrives on walls. A recent survey showed no fewer than 55 bird species which nest there or pass through. Nature thrives in several cemeteries.

Not all such sites are respected by the city. For example, the Kidron Valley is polluted with sewage and the city has approved construction on the Lavan ridge, one of the most important ecological and landscape locations just outside the city. In contrast, the city is joining the campaign against construction in Mitzpeh Neftoah, one of the most impressive sites in the city in terms of flora and fauna diversity.

“So many sites disappeared due to development in the '70s and '80s, in Malha, Gilo and Neve Yaakov,” says Amir Balaban from the SPNI. “The master plan ensures that future operations will take ecology into account, somewhat protecting these areas. We don’t know if nature will continue to sustain local flora and fauna that are unique to Jerusalem and whether invading species such as wild boars and coyotes will arrive and disrupt what is left.”