Millions of Israelis are experiencing this Passover as a true holiday of liberation, with the lifting of restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19 including bans on travel and family gatherings. Hundreds of thousands are enjoying the country’s national parks, nature reserves, beaches and open spaces in the Galilee, the Negev and the Golan Heights. But unfortunately, they will discover that Israel’s wild open spaces are quickly shrinking, along with the freedom to find a refuge in nature from the urban noise and bustle.
Anyone who has hiked around the country through the years can see the worrisome change. Former natural land or open spaces haves disappeared in favor of often unsightly and irresponsible development – huge roads and interchanges, parking lots, new towns and community expansions, tourist attractions, malls and shopping centers in all directions. During vacation periods these planning mistakes along with the growing population yield a harsh sense of national claustrophobia – a feeling there’s nowhere to get away from it all.
Israel now has nearly nine million residents and an additional four million people live in Palestinian Authority areas, making the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea one of the most densely populated spaces in the world. Anyone wanting their children and grandchildren to be able to go for a hike, enjoy open landscape, the blossoming of spring, or see wildlife in their natural habitat, and not just get stuck in traffic jams, must try to approach planning with a sense of sanctity. Israel must be planned like a densely populated country and not like American suburbs.
The focus must be on strengthening cities and urbanism and to stop encouraging the growth of suburbs, single-family homes and private cars. There simply isn’t any more room for all of that. Moreover, protecting natural lands means safeguarding healthy ecological systems in which a variety of species of flora and fauna can flourish. We must remember that these systems are the most important defense we have against the climate crisis and ecological disaster.
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A new government must change Israel’s planning DNA. Firstly, to invest more in cities to make them more attractive. As is done elsewhere, they should be planned more densely as mixed-use areas, leaving commerce, residences, workplaces and schools within walking or biking distance. Similarly, there must be investment in public transportation, bike paths, and urban parks, while reducing parking spaces and routes for private cars. All this would make Israeli cities good places to live, and leave the remaining open, natural spaces undisturbed, with plenty of places to hike in during future holidays.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.