Global Urban Sustainability Trend Reaches Israeli Cities

After Seoul and Amsterdam, an urban sustainability project in Israel aims to encourage shared use of various resources, starting carpools and baby toys.

A young girl and a young boy sit by an ecological pool in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

Many residents of Holon’s Kiryat Ben-Gurion neighborhood become full-time drivers in the afternoon, ferrying their children to afterschool activities at a municipal center. They were recently offered a different option: carpools that would significantly reducing their driving time. But some were reluctant to trust their children to parents they didn’t know.

At the moment, the carpool proposal is purely theoretical: It was presented by researchers from the Sustainability Research Center at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. One of the main goals of the center’s urban sustainability project is to encourage shared use of various resources.

The researchers, Yoav Egozi and Sharon Band-Hevroni, also asked Holon parents about pooling used baby toys. But here, too, parents were skeptical; some didn’t feel their children would want used toys.

“People trust drivers from transportation firms, but it’s hard for them to trust other parents whom they don’t know,” Egozi said at a meeting at JIIS this week to present the project’s findings. “This can be dealt with by building trust through parents’ meetings. The transition from distrust to trust can be quite rapid.”

Another difficulty that must be overcome is the view of possessions as an important determinant of social status. That is one factor that makes parents reluctant to borrow toys rather than buy them.

These problems haven’t discouraged the JIIS researchers. “The starting point of our approach is that there is widespread, ongoing damage to ecosystems and the environment,” explained the center’s director, Tami Gavrieli. “Technological developments and consciousness raising aren’t bringing the necessary change. We need a substantial change in lifestyles, and the key to change lies in the city.”

A few years ago, pooling was largely the province of a handful of environmental activists. But major cities like Seoul and Amsterdam have now adopted long-term plans for a sharing economy, including car- and bike-rental projects and programs to recycle toys and tools. Seoul, for instance, has more than 30 “libraries” of products that people have donated, and which any resident can borrow.

Now, it seems the trend has reached Israel. The Holon municipality has a sustainability department, while a project in Ashdod surveyed residents and city officials to see whether they would be willing to participate in a sharing economy.

The JIIS team also studied existing projects in various cities, like the sustainable neighborhood project in Tel Aviv’s Batzron-Ramat Israel neighborhood, to see whether they were having a real impact, or were mere window dressing.

The conclusion, said Dr. Orly Ronen of Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies, was that some of the pioneers usually moved on to other activities at some point, and those who remained often needed shoring up. “Additionally, we saw that there still isn’t a critical mass of activists, and the view of sustainability is still narrow, based mainly on activities like community gardens and recycling.”

Idit Alhasid, another TAU researcher involved in the sustainability project, examined how Ashdod’s decision to have all residents separate dry and wet waste was working. She concluded that it worked better in single-family homes, “because people knew this was their trash, which they saw with their own eyes, and therefore, they take responsibility for it. In eight-story [apartment] buildings, there’s an attitude of ‘throw it out and walk away,’” which leaves those who did separate their trash “feeling like suckers compared to those who didn’t.”

Alhasid advocated more educational activity, but said it must be tailored to specific groups: In the ultra-Orthodox community, for instance, the focus should be on women.

Despite the difficulties, there have been some successes. For instance, several neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have developed community gardens and compost heaps.

In Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, a project to upgrade a public park was launched by second- through fifth-graders at a local school.

“The children learned about the subject and also thought up various ideas to upgrade the park — from lighting to benches — and they presented the ideas to 30 neighborhood residents and municipal officials,” recalled Yoni Shaked, father of one of the children. “After the city officials saw the plan, they decided to increase the project’s budget. The city is supposed to choose a landscape architect who will plan the park according to the children’s ideas.”

Ronen said it was essential to raise municipal officials’ awareness. But even in cities like Holon, with its sustainability department and willingness to support sustainability projects, many residents have trouble grasping the logic.

In the next stage of the urban sustainability project, researchers will draft policy recommendations. But it’s already clear that any effective policy will require giving people incentives to change their lifestyles. Education and consciousness raising alone won’t be enough.