When the Bough Breaks, the City Will Fall

Urban trees, especially old ones, are in the gun sights of planners, developers and architects; a point of information ahead of Tu Bishvat.

Esther Zandberg
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Esther Zandberg

Get a good look at the trees on the street where you live. Cast a glance at the greenery of the hedges in the yards of apartment buildings. This could be the last time you see them and the other types of vegetation that are an integral part of the urban fabric, as if they were thousands of miniature green lungs. This greenery is not some kind of decoration or luxury to be disposed of - it feeds the air we breathe and also provides a sense of serenity for the mind.

Currently one can live in the city and still get a view of greenery without going to a nature reserve or national park. You don’t even have to go to a neighborhood park. It can still be right under your nose. But the bad news is that unless officials come to their senses, construction and development plans currently in the offing would mean that the day is not distant when most of this will only be a memory. Plans for new high-density construction, essential as they may be, are becoming a real threat to these green lungs, which already show signs of impending disappearance. This can be seen on the ground and the problem was also presented at a recent conference on trees and city planning jointly convened by the Agriculture Ministry and organizations representing architects and city planners at Beit Dagan.

Disturbing ‘reforms’

The conference was held against the backdrop of the threat to laws protecting mature trees by a wave of planning “reforms” designed to expedite construction, the purpose being to boost the supply of homes and lower housing prices. In any case, current legal protection of these trees is weak and limited in scope. The planning changes also pose a threat to other greenery that is part of the country’s urban landscapes. The picture portrayed is disturbing, and confirms what can be seen with one’s own eyes in urban areas.

Despite the decisive contribution of plant life to human welfare and environmental quality in the crowded cities, and despite the recognition - at least in words - from the planning authorities, there is still no unified legislative policy to protect this greenery.

The hearts of many in Israel, including those of architects and planners, do not yearn for plants and trees. Their fingers are quick on the trigger when it comes to cutting down and uprooting them. They will always cut down or excessively prune trees that “bother” their plans, an electrical power line, road, or even a solar-powered water heater - and it will never even occur to them to move infrastructure or move solar-powered water heaters that bother the trees and plants.

A ficus tree in Tel Aviv.
The olive trees outside the Gethsemane Church in Jerusalem.
A ficus tree in Tel Aviv.
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A ficus tree in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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The olive trees outside the Gethsemane Church in Jerusalem.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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A ficus tree in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Given this background, it is no surprise that the representative of the Association of Contractors and Builders in Israel announced at the conference, without batting an eyelid, that “trees are dangerous to health. Trees create garbage. Trees have a negative effect on infrastructure. The cost of preserving trees is astronomical relative to the benefit and any regulation will hit everyone in the pocket.”

A longtime architect and urban planner who participated in the conference candidly added fuel to the fire. Decide what you prefer, said the architectural veteran, urban crowding – which means no room for trees near houses – or trees under your noses, which come at the expense of open areas outside the city. This seemingly professional explanation it’s a cop-out, a foolish excuse to hide incompetence. What is urban planning meant for, if not dealing with challenges like these? What do architects and planners do, if not find ways to make trees viable both within the crowded urban sprawl and outside of it?

The combination of greenery, especially shady trees, within the urban sprawl is a miracle of Israel’s cities. It’s an effective, aesthetic, ecological and cheap alternative to every other pseudo-green solution, and it saves lots of time and resources otherwise spent on “green” construction. A healthy adult tree lowers temperatures in the immediate area by between two and five degrees, greatly reducing the need for air conditioning in the summer. Trees supply oxygen, absorb air pollution, reduce noise pollution and block the sun’s glare. Trees encourage people to walk, and hide unsightly architecture as well, and this is only a partial list of their benefits.

These points and more are included in a proposition from the Urgent Movement for Urban Greenery, founded in 2008 by architect Naama Malis, who also participated in the conference. The information, collected from current scientific studies, only reinforces what all small children during their first stroll through the city with their parents. The movement was founded to stop Israeli urban areas from becoming less and less green. And even as new parks and gardens are being planned, they often contain more architecture and design than trees and shade.

The organization’s proposal, entitled “City Forest,” calls for more trees to be planted in cities, along streets, on traffic islands, in yards, and in parking lots as well. It has been presented before various planning officials, but not much has happened. Or, much has happened, but it’s been primarily negative, and the situation has only become more critical. Malis says efforts are constantly underway to preserve at least a minimal amount of urban greenery, and some requirements have been set. “But almost nothing has come of it,” she says, “and the situation is worse now, even in Israel’s oldest cities.”
Brave new technology

The claim by pro-development camp is that preserving green spaces isn’t so urgent anymore, with the availability of new technology that helps trees thrive over concrete and other “hostile environments.” Such technologies were presented at the conference by landscape architect Shahar Tzur. While its true that such technology has a hefty price tag, the cost justifies itself in the long run due to the benefits the technology provides people and their environment.

Aside from money, Tzur said implementing such technologies requires professional talent, comprehensive knowledge, “respect for roots” and, most importantly, good intentions from everyone involved in the project, from decision makers to the general public.

These goals seem very far off. If well-run cities require special, long-term training to prune the trees that line streets, in Israel all one needs to know is the theory of “topping,” – trimming the treetops. “It’s urban pruning,” I was once told by a gardener as he sawed down a tall, proud tree into a small bonsai, with leaves and branches lining the ground around it.

It’s tough to teach and good intentions. Happy Tu Bishvat. 

Jacaranda trees on a Tel Aviv street.Credit: Dan Keinan