Putting the Public in Public Park

Residents agitated for a neighborhood park, and Tel Aviv responded, with a space innovative in both its design and its amount of public participation

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

Very rarely does a public struggle by a group of citizens cause a total about face in the decisions and policies of a local governing body. And nonetheless, Kiryat Sefer park in Tel Aviv proves that with unrelenting and stubborn pressure, you can not only fight city hall, but win too.

In three months, work is expected to begin on the park, known as the Kiryat Sefer Gardens. In this nearly parkless corner of the city (.4 square meters per person in contrast to the 7 square meters recommendation of the Interior Ministry ), rife with plans for new residential buildings, the gardens are expected to become a major leisure center for those living near and far.

The planned park (illustrative)

The site for the park spreads over 20 dunams between Yehuda Halevi, Amram Gaon, Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln Streets.

A mandate-era building housing the Israel Mapping Center sits on the southern end of the site, while most of the rest of the area served both the army and police vehicle workshops for many years.

In the mid-1990s a group of citizens demanded that the city transform part of the site into a public park. In 2000, Mayor Ron Huldai promised to do so, but when the police finally vacated the site seven years later, the land was turned over to a private concern, Zukit Real Estate, which erected a temporary parking lot.

In complete violation of its promises, the municipality and Israel Lands Administration then began to advance an intensive building plan, with a much smaller park next to two large residential towers.

One of the many popular events organized to show the city the need for the park.

In response, residents again began a struggle over the future of the site. They enlisted followers, filed for and received an injunction on building work, and began to hold community events of various types in the area.

"Area residents are in the negative when it comes to open spaces," says Lahav Zohar, one of the leaders of the residents' action committee. "It was clear to us that Kiryat Sefer wanted a public park and we decided to conduct activities there - the ones in whose name we are conducting our struggle - and in this way to embarrass the authorities."

Guerrilla gardening

Zohar and his associates became guerrilla park users, organizing a weekly community picnic which attracted a large audience to the parking lot, and after that, story hours, volleyball and backgammon championships, recycling workshops and even the planting of a community garden that has been bulldozed several times so far by the Zukit company and the municipality.

Over time the events have succeeded in drawing large numbers of people from longer distances and sharpened the need for the establishment of a park.

Zohar was formerly the manager of the Monika Sex Band and lives with his family in the neighborhood south of the planned park, home to current and former rockers and bohemians.

"It is a very special place in Tel Aviv: a neighborhood but also very urban. There are many families with children, and also religious and ultra-Orthodox families. It is like the East Village in New York City," he says. "Why kick up dust when you can spread love?"

This message has reached the hallways of power. Eighteen months ago, the city began the planning process for a public park on 13 dunams inside the site (the rest remains in the hands of the mapping body ).

The plan, revealed here for the first time, arouses many hopes. It is the only park of its type in Tel Aviv and if the plan is fully executed, will serve as a new model for planning with public participation. The municipality entrusted the plans in the hands of landscape architect Ram Eisenberg, the recent winner of the Rokach Prize for his work on the city's Haskalah Boulevard and because of his experience in working with the public.

"The planning process we conducted was based on meetings with all building owners, alongside discussions that included residents and also representatives of the relevant municipal departments," Eisenberg says. "It was important to us that the people who in the end are responsible for maintenance also take part, because then they also have an interest."

The meetings led to a series of agreements about the nature of the elements included in the project. And so, for example, the residents expressed desire for a garden rather than a park, and explained that this was like the difference between a grocery shop and a supermarket.

"This means a garden with a few choice elements. [Like the difference between] a supermarket which carries all name brands, and a grocery shop which sells one home-style brand. The significance for design is in simple lines without a visual overload. There are many elements in the park, but they are organized in a simple way."

The residents spoke as well about an "ecological and democratic" park, a pair of words meaning an open space honoring nature and the landscape. In addition they requested avoiding the typical design of plastic playground equipment combined with brick pavers, and to replace it with natural materials and imaginative, informal play areas.

Eisenberg translated these desires into a multi-purpose park with a few unique elements. In the entrance square facing Yehuda Halevi Street, he placed a pool with a giant pergola overhead that will eventually be covered by vines. In the center of the park there will be a stream of saline water gently bubbling over concrete steps, in and around which children can create their own, independent games.

Further to the south there will be an additional water system of fresh water pools to attract animals and create a small slice of urban nature. They are also exploring the possibility of drawing water from the shore aquifer and purifying it with bio-filters in the park itself. In addition, a dog run, fitness equipment, a community garden and stage are also being planned.

The park is expected to operate most hours of the day, although residents have expressed concern about commercialization and its becoming like Rothschild Boulevard. Among other things, discussions are ongoing about how to deal with "problematic" night visitors, in Eisenberg's words, because of the park's proximity to areas where bars and clubs are frequented.

Despite the promising plans, Zohar is not completely convinced about the park's future.

"Land in the center of Tel Aviv is expensive and I'm not sure that we won't wake up one day with a tower overhead and a park that is smaller than planned," he says.

At the same time, he agrees that the process of public participation "was much greater than the city was used to," and so it may be that the final results will be particularly relevant for residents of the area.

The Kiryat Sefer project and its unique planning process are on display at the national planners' union conference taking place now at Ben-Gurion University.

Eisenberg is representing the project together with his colleague Amitai Harlev of Modus, the project's adviser for public participation.