From Eyesore to Oasis: Israel Turning City Blights Into Urban Retreats

An abandoned Jerusalem railway and a former landfill site in Jaffa have been transformed into lush parks - and there is no shortage of other urban blights in need of similar treatment.

Raz Smolsky
Raz Smolsky
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Raz Smolsky
Raz Smolsky

Urban eyesores like junkyards, refuse dumps and deserted train tracks deter people from living close by - but when sites like these are turned into city oases, they can draw people instead and help revitalize surrounding neighborhoods.

Efforts are under way in Israel and around the globe to turn abandoned sites into welcoming urban retreats. This is one of the themes that will feature later this week in Jerusalem at the 10th annual conference of the Israeli Association of Landscape Architects - an event dubbed "B'hutsot Ha'ir" ("out around town").

One example of such a project is Jerusalem's Railway Park: A ribbon of train tracks that went out of service 15 years ago blighted the landscape of the south-central part of the city, cutting through the neighborhoods of the German Colony, Baka and Katamonim, all the way to Beit Safafa, but no more - the route is now being transformed into a flourishing community park.

"The more people feel a sense of belonging to where they live and the community, the more they'll want to contribute to and strengthen them, rather than escape," explains architect Yair Avigdor, who had a hand in restoring the tracks. "Neglect sets in when people live for years without this connection and when most of the population would be happier living elsewhere. But when there is a good relationship with the neighbors, shared activities and a sense of value, then there is a sense of belonging."

In the past three years, the train tracks have been undergoing a transformation, becoming a greenway with the help of local residents and city hall. "The residents of both well-to-do and less well-off neighborhoods along the tracks understood the potential and started holding community activities and get-togethers there to show that, with some investment, it could become a nicer place," according to Avigdor. "The municipality then caught on to the potential.

"As awareness is generated in a site, more of it turns green and it becomes central in residents' lives," he continues. "In parts where rehabilitation has been completed, the park has become part of the scene for the people living nearby. A large group has begun using it for sporting activities thanks to its becoming accessible for training, and when the park is completed it will draw people from all over the city."

The project envelops a six-kilometer-long artery, with two sections opened last year, another section to be completed in six months, and the fourth slated for completion in a year. The Katamonim neighborhood council manages the park.

The beauty of the project is that everyone benefits. The residents enjoy having a nearby once-abandoned site taken care of and turned into a park, with the secondary effect of urban renewal and rising property prices. Landscape development is no less capable of restoring vibrancy to a worn-out neighborhood than complicated long-term projects like those for reinforcing old housing against earthquakes under National Master Plan 38 or tearing down of old tenement blocks to replace them with modern buildings.

"Residents of all the neighborhoods can be seen meeting there these days," says Avigdor. "You can see the effect of renewal on buildings undergoing renovation - particularly in Baka, which the route that's been opened runs through. The process is just starting in the area of Katamonim because the housing projects there are harder to restore. I don't know what effect it will have there. Studies show that, as soon as there's a beneficial urban focal point, it raises surrounding property values. Katamonim is being repopulated by young families and I think part of this is happening because of the renewal."

Elevated trains in many cities across the world are being abandoned for subways, leaving behind neglected tracks on aerial structures. This was the fate of a section of the New York Central Railroad that wove through the buildings along its path from 1934 until being shut down in 1980. The shutdown brought quiet to the neighborhood, but also neglect. In 2009, one section was opened as a park, known as the High Line, after three years of rehabilitation, and last year a second section of the park was completed. Since then it has become the site of community activities, bicycle races and artistic events, while cafes have opened along its length.

Rising property prices

"A park brings about change," says Alisa Braudo of the firm Braudo-Maoz Landscape Architecture, which designed the Jaffa Seaside Park. "It makes people want to live in the neighborhood, property prices rise and new buildings go up. Last month I saw with my own eyes the change at the High Line. All the back lots were upgraded, building facades facing the promenade are being renovated, and it's drawing others who want to live there. High-rises overlooking the park are being built. It's become a desirable area, a pleasant place to live and for commerce, and it's also attracting tourists.

"The idea is to take an area that's marginal or not in use and turn it into a public space that people can enjoy," continues Braudo. "Abandoned sites foster a fear for personal safety, but after the transformation this changes, and it's a pleasure to hang out in these places in the evening too. This is true for a promenade, a city boulevard, or an area that was closed to the public like the Reading Power Station [in north Tel Aviv], the landfill site that was converted into Jaffa Seaside Park, or the Hiriya garbage dump [which is being turned into a park]. These improve the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods."

Braudo says the mountain of landfill debris where the park in Jaffa was subsequently built, next to the Ajami neighborhood, was an oceanfront eyesore. "Its restoration included a lengthy process of clearing and recycling the debris," she explains. "It was transformed into a green park and coastline promenade for the benefit of the residents. Projects at the city fringes like Reading and Jaffa Seaside don't have the immediate impact of a boulevard in the heart of the city, but they make nearby neighborhoods more desirable. There is also an element that extends beyond the area: It upgrades the entire city."

There is no shortage of sites deserving attention. Braudo would like to rehabilitate Tel Aviv's old central bus station. "There is great potential there for urban upgrading," she says. "Right now it's an open space. The Minshar art school will be built there, but the remaining open area could be transformed into a public compound that would make itself felt throughout the Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood. I think part of the open parking lots could be parks - a sort of green roofing. It could be an underground garage with greenery on top, like at the [recently rebuilt] Habima Theater."

Jerusalem's Railway Park.Credit: Yael Engelhart
The abandoned railway in Jerusalem before the renovation.Credit: Tichnun Nof
Tel Aviv's Old Bus Station area.Credit: Moti Milrod



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