It Ain’t Easy Being Green: No Room for Parks in Overcrowded Bnei Brak

Recent cabinet decision to reduce open public spaces coupled with existing planning practices make goals of providing residents with parkland, open spaces and quality of life hard to achieve.

Bnei Brak
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For years, a small park with a few dozen trees was one of Bnei Brak residents’ only refuges from overcrowding in their city. Despite the objections of people living near the park, the city cut down some of the trees and built kindergartens instead.

This is far from a unique occurrence. In coming years, cities in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area will have to provide for the needs of an increasing population. These cities’ goals include providing residents with parkland (“green lungs”), open spaces and quality of life. However, the recent cabinet decision to reduce open public spaces — especially in new and rehabilitated neighborhoods — coupled with existing planning practices, make these goals even harder to achieve.

A new report released by Tel Aviv Urban Community’s Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel examines the long-term plans for Israel’s most densely populated region. The environmental group analyzed the master plans of four cities in the region (Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Or Yehuda and Herzliya), focusing on environmental issues such as open public spaces, bike lanes, tree protection and transportation.

Not surprisingly, the report gave Tel Aviv, with its ample resources and strong planning division, top marks. Tel Aviv’s master plan consists of a network of green routes: streets with shrubbery and a link to gardens and parks.

The plan calls for expanding the city’s bike lanes, and preserving trees and over 50 nature sites like winter ponds and a sand cliff.

Under the plan, the city will provide 13.9 square meters (150 square feet) of open space per capita, more than the 10-square-meter space required by the government.

However, the report criticizes the city’s policy regarding environmental preservation and bike lanes. Landscape architects pointed out that construction work in the city doesn’t spare old trees, and that the city failed to separate bike lanes from the pedestrian area on the sidewalks, the report says.

The report also notes the inequality in the amount of open space in various parts of the city. While in the north some neighborhoods have more than 30 square meters of open space per person (in addition to large parks), in the south there’s only 3 to 9 square meters per person.

“We plan on expanding the bike lanes, but we can’t build them separately everywhere,” said Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Meital Lehavi. “Building bike lanes separately is very expensive, so on some streets the lanes will continue to be marked on the sidewalk or on the road.”

The green routes are expected to play an important role in increasing the use of bicycles. Lehavi said the city recently approved a plan to build a central route from the Jaffa beach to Ariel Sharon Park in the east, via southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods.

“The route will pass through existing open areas as much as possible, and provide uninterrupted walking or cycling,” said Lehavi, adding, “The city is clogging up and we must create infrastructures for alternative ways of getting around.”

Despite their faults, the green routes planned in Tel Aviv are still better than those planned in Herzliya, the report says. This city’s master plan doesn’t provide for a network of green routes or address urban nature sites. On the upside, even with a considerable population growth, Herzliya’s open spaces will still be quite large – 13.7 square meters per person. Here, too, these spaces will mostly serve residents of the newer, more prestigious neighborhoods.

Although its master plan is relatively modest, Or Yehuda’s plan nonetheless consists of a network of green routes for its 35,000 residents, and stipulates detailed steps for preserving trees and nature sites.

Bnei Brak, which is four times more densely populated than Or Yehuda, is in the most complicated situation, since its small area doesn’t allow for developing new green spaces.

“With the planned increase in population, the city will be one of the most crowded in the world by 2035 — the year the plan is to be implemented,” the report says.

The city’s master plan calls for planting trees and improving the links between the streets and parks. But the planners couldn’t provide residents with any more open spaces. Currently, a mere 230 dunams (57 acres) serve as parks in Bnei Brak. Together with an area that is planned to be a park near the Yarkon River, the open space quota per person will total a mere 1.75 square meters.

The municipality is trying to compensate for that by planting trees in the yards of public institutions and turning the ends of alleys into public plazas.

“The city is trying to deal with the lack of open spaces, but what’s missing in Bnei Brak is infrastructure for bike lanes,” said environmental planner Idan Amit, of SPNI’s Tel Aviv Urban Community. “Cycling could be a good transportation alternative for this city, whose residents are predominantly poor.”

Other cities in the area are also making plans to deal with problems of transportation and overcrowding, and to preserve open spaces. Ramat Hasharon recently completed a comprehensive plan for bike lanes. At the same time, however, it’s considering building a school at the expense of a green area, in a neighborhood park.

The neighborhood’s residents have launched a public campaign to save the park, which they see as vital to their quality of life.