Tel Aviv's Central Shopping Mall Is Now an Amusement Park for Environmentalists

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Tel Aviv's skyline is seen through the hydroponic greenhouse on the Dizengoff Center roof.
Tel Aviv's skyline is seen through the hydroponic greenhouse on the Dizengoff Center roof.Credit: Moti Milrod
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin

Dizengoff Center is unique. Israel’s first shopping mall, nearly 45 years old, it has become a symbol of Tel Aviv culture as much as it is a milestone in the tale of American capitalism in Israel. Its spiral maze of a structure, with subterranean passageways and upper-story skyways, plays havoc with one’s sense of direction to the point where it could shatter the self-confidence of a NASA navigator. And in fact, the design was inspired by Rockefeller Center in New York as a direct continuation of Dizengoff Street, in an attempt to infuse “Dizengoffers” with the experience of an urban excursion.

Dizengoff Center, Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s also unique because of its plethora of offbeat and old-school shops, such as the stamps store, Tomer’s poster shop and Bruriya’s costumerie, a disproportionate quantity of shops offering tattoos and tarot readings, sex toys and manga graphic novels; on top of the fact that the history of the mall is part and parcel of the coming-of-age story of an entire generation of Israelis, starting with the Electric Cave Club that operated in the parking lot, through that deadly suicide bombing in 1996, to the nighttime visit of one Michael Jackson, an event that in retrospect makes me hope they kept him away from the mall’s children. Yet another socio-cultural phenomenon that one doubts could be found in Herzliya’s Arena Mall.

Dizengoff Center is a heterotopic zone, a spatial construct of contrasts that manages to simultaneously contain the mainstream of Israeli society and undermine it. It juxtaposes in the same time and place Zara and a Carolina Lemke sunglasses kiosk with the offices of the independent online news outlet ”The Hottest Place in Hell” and of Elifelet, an NGO that provides aid to the children of refugees; as well as the communities of metal and emo kids, and to the trim pilates women from the Holmes Place gym, armed in their Stella McCartney tights.

In October, Dizengoff Center promoted the arrival of a new resident – a 10-meter, four-ton worm-like monster. It is a gargantuan composting machine that breathes and snorts and flips over down in the parking levels as if it were some sandworm on Arrakis, ingesting hundreds of kilograms of organic waste each day from the mall’s Mega in the City supermarket. The compostor turns it into high-quality organic fertilizer that is made available to all comers, in the hopes that it will eventually find its way to community gardens throughout the city. The biggest profit gained in this whole story – aside from Earth’s atmosphere, which is spared the methane emissions – is made by the Tel Aviv Municipality, which saves the cost of transporting hundreds of tons of garbage to landfills somewhere in the Negev.

Hydroponically grown plants inside a railing at Dizengoff Center.Credit: Moti Milrod

The largest municipal composting machine in Israel is only the latest trailblazing environmental project undertaken by Dizengoff Center management, which according to the mall’s website has “raised the banner of the value of community involvement, social openness and sustainability.” From the composting monster in the basement to the urban sustainability center on the roof, it is practically impossible to take a step in the mall without coming across a green initiative of some kind. It is a veritable playground for tree huggers.

Tea and popcorn from biogas

There’s no danger of greenwashing here. Dizengoff Center has championed social and environmental initiatives for years, and serves as a lodestar for businesses and local governments around Israel that are trekking to the site to see how it’s done. As early as 2014, management began voluntarily reporting to the Environmental Protection Ministry on greenhouse gas emissions – a pioneering action that was being carried out by almost no other commercial project in Israel – and over the past decade, it has succeeded in reducing the mall’s carbon footprint by more than half. The site also partially offsets emissions by planting trees. Over the past eight years, hundreds of Tel Aviv schoolchildren have come each year to plant saplings on the rooftop, which are subsequently donated for the purpose of planting throughout the country.

On the rooftop is an urban sustainability school and a greenhouse for growing hydroponic vegetables, complete with impressive rows of lettuce and basil, a layered “living roof” that collects rainwater, and a home biogas system for the production of natural gas, which for now at least is being used for making tea and popcorn.

Israeli Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg checks out the composting machine which is ingesting hundreds of kilograms of organic waste each day from the mall’s supermarket.Credit: Rafi Delouya

Hanging on the walls of the mall is a series of environmental and social infographic posters that explain the importance of energy efficiency, recycling of electronic waste and direct employment. It seems as if there is almost no aspect that doesn’t involve considerations about how to promote social and environmental awareness. For example, one of the most impressive on-site projects encourages reuse of cardboard boxes: instead of throwing away hundreds of perfectly good boxes every day, the cleaners tie them in bundles of 10, which they then sell for 30 shekels to any takers. The proceeds are added to the cleaners’ salaries.

The mall also serves as an unofficial hothouse for the development of new environmental projects. At the moment, for instance, they are at work on a new invention – the prototype of a self-shading hydroponic system for benches.

And then there is the urban wildlife. What other shopping center in the world looks after the fruit bats living in its cellar, operates a center for urban beekeeping and a hotel for insects, distributes nesting boxes for birds, and happily welcomes four-legged pets into its confines?

A more successful economic model

Dan Pilz, the co-owner and co-CEO of Dizengoff Center, stresses that there is nothing new going on at the mall. “We have been involved in these spheres for a long time,” he says. “Direct employment of cleaners and security guards has been going on here for 11 years. That is a major, conspicuous aspect of what we’re doing. But we also engage in small, minuscule businesses, fairs, exhibitions, support for the arts – these are not new things at the center; we’ve always had them.”

Rows of produce in the hydroponic greenhouse on the Dizengoff Center roof.Credit: Moti Milrod

What is new, he says, is the concept of sustainability and the understanding of what the hell it means. “Eight years ago, Alon [Pilz, his brother and co-owner of the mall] attended a course at the Heschel Center for Sustainability and when he came back he said, ‘Let’s set up a sustainability department.’ It took us a few months to even understand what that meant, and then we got started. It isn’t anything structured or well arranged in advance. We were saying, ‘Okay, now we are putting on the sustainability glasses and every action that we used to view through the lenses of profit and loss, we are now examining how to reduce environmental damage and how to bring benefits to society, to the community, to human beings.’ It is a process of internalization, organization and management that takes a lot of time.”

So your supreme goal is no longer to make a profit?

“You can look at it as a case of ‘tree huggers’ or ‘philanthropists’ or ‘good people’ or whatever, but the more time goes by, the clearer it becomes that it is indeed a much more successful economic model. I no longer believe in philanthropy – it is not very effective and it shifts responsibility away from the state. Companies and extremely wealthy individuals spend their entire lives improperly managed. By that I mean, why push your employees, your suppliers, your partners, to screw the whole world and its wife in order to be able to donate some money at the end? What the f***? Pay a fair wage to your workers from the get-go. What’s the good of following this entire route just so you can then go backwards? I believe in social businesses. Businesses that have an impact. That is the correct model. The business world can make just as much money if it is managed differently.

“In my opinion, you just have to think differently. That does not mean that you are giving up the money, and that does not mean that you are giving up the management. No. We are making more money. There, I admit it. Increasingly, we are earning more money each year – but in other ways. Sometimes it comes to you through the back door or through the window. For instance, by virtue of greater energy efficiency we have saved a great deal on electricity. With the compost machine, we are hoping to sell the compost to anyone interested in buying it. Accessibility for the disabled will bring us an added 300,000 to 400,000 customers who are not our customers today.”

An ecological activity for kids at the mall.Credit: Yael Tzur

Do you think that waging the struggle against the environmental and climatic disaster is also the responsibility of commercial firms and businesses?

“I think that the business sector has to be the solution and not the problem. There are tons of examples of businesses that are actively proving this, that are prospering economically but are considering and taking account of the environment and society. And I think that this is the model that needs to be adopted.

“You could say, okay, so exactly what have we changed? Big deal, it is just Dizengoff Center, nothing more than from where we are standing to the edge of Dizengoff Street, that’s all. But we are seeing that people are coming here to learn. We have delegations coming in from Osem, Strauss, HP, other shopping mall chains, and hotels. This thing has serious potential. They will be able to go back home and say, okay, we have a food court with 2,000 people – why shouldn’t there be a composting machine in the cellar?

“The next jump forward, after we’ve said, ‘Look, it is feasible,’ is to find a way for the municipality to return the money we saved it. So far, I’ve been doing this in order to blaze a trail, but I will be stubborn and I will tell them, ‘Give the money back to me.’ But I did not ask for it first and only then carry out the program. I said, first I’m doing it, and then I’ll show them what I’ve done: ‘But you are already saving money. So now the time has come to divide it up, for heaven’s sake.’ There is no good reason, if I am saving the Tel Aviv Municipality 500,000 tons of garbage that it would have to haul down to the Negev, that the municipality shouldn’t be giving me a check. Why not? I am saving public money, so they should give me part of it.”

Why even do it? The local authorities are piling up the obstacles, and it seems as if sustainability is the last thing that interests Israeli consumers.

“First of all, it will cause a shift in the way they think. We believe that the consumers will adopt this way of thinking. The young people, for sure. We know them pretty well, and it is common to talk trash about them – but a lot of that attitude is not justified. People do not adequately understand what they are saying. Actually, I think that today’s young people will be very very idealistic, even jihadist. But perhaps I am overly optimistic.”

Dan Pilz, the co-owner and co-CEO of Dizengoff Center.Credit: Yael Tzur

We are sitting in the capital of consumption in Tel Aviv, with a million visitors per month. Isn’t there a contradiction between your aspiration for sustainability and the fact that at the end of the day you are a commercial shopping mall that encourages people to buy?

“It isn’t a contradiction, it’s the crux of the matter. Sustainability isn’t instead of; it’s a different way. I don’t know how to answer the big questions. I do not know if the world will learn to live from renewable energy. Is Dizengoff Center capable of solving its problems and living on renewable energy? Absolutely. Ultimately, will it be possible to arrive at a place where hundreds of tons of cardboard boxes, instead of being thrown into the garbage or being recycled, are sent off to be reused? Certainly. Is it possible for organic waste to be turned into compost and not be shipped to the Negev? Clearly. Can rooftops support urban agriculture, with solar panels, with urban nature? Obviously. So I can’t tell you if all of the problems can be resolved, but I can say that the shopping mall is capable of heading in other directions.”

But at the end of the day you depend on consumerism and you promote consumerism, which is the opposite of sustainability.

“True. But we tweaked the model a bit – already by the middle of the first decade of the 21st century we said, no, we do not want 80 percent fashion like the rest of the shopping malls, we want 50 percent fashion, and that was a conscious decision. We said that we want optical, computer, electronics and gadgets, we want tattoos, we want services, cosmetics and treatments and body care, recreation and entertainment and many other things, besides buying more and more clothes.

“We nurture businesses that are engaged not only in the product, but also in the content. Because when you buy a comic book it isn’t just a product, and ‘Fairies Forest’ is not just a product. Here you learn about tarot cards and about movies. The shopping mall that has four bookstores, plus a magazine store and a comic book store, is more than just Zara. And we are crazy about Zara – it’s a big hit. I can’t say where the retail sector is headed, but it is clear that when people buy on the internet, you need fewer shopping malls. So let’s do something good and beneficial. It might be in the field of sustainability, or education, or services, or the nurturing of communities – here we have a community of sustainability and environment, and manga and anime, and sex shops and tatoo shops. There are seven tattoo parlors here. And a lot more devoted to sport, and more sport, and then more sport.”

Is it economically worthwhile to you?

“Obviously.”

In most of the world they’re eulogizing the shopping malls.

“We are opposed to a eulogy.”

Do you think you’re going to be here in another 20 or 30 years?

“We will be here. I do not know if that is the case for the other shopping malls. I, for example, am investing more into manga than into fashion. This is the geek era. Just recently they put in a store here for soldering robots. It’ll work, why not?”

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