It's Not Easy Staying Green

Planning authorities may be entrusted with protecting natural treasures in urban areas, but they don't always do their job, environmentalists claim

Natural "oases" in the midst of congested urban areas were, until lately, defended mainly by environmental activists and neighborhood residents fighting for these treasured areas. Now, however, local planning institutions have come on board, having recognized the importance of conserving these spots and joining the struggle by demanding certain modifications to building plans.

A case in point is the controversy surrounding a grove of Washingtonia Robusta palm trees along Haifa's Rothschild Boulevard. Developers wanted to demolish an old structure adjacent to the trees, and replace it with a six-unit apartment building. The local planning and building committee didn't exactly ignore the grove, but determined that its preservation be dealt with within the framework of the building's overall development scheme.

Palm grove in Haifa,
Courtesy of SPNI

This did not satisfy neighborhood residents, however, or the Haifa branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel: They appealed the committee's decision, concerned that developers wouldn't do enough to preserve the palms. They argued that the panel was unaware of the condition of the trees and of the steps necessary to preserve them, and had in effect passed a "death sentence" on the grove.

In the appeal the SPNI noted that the grove is an important part of Israel's scenic and aesthetic heritage, and quoted comments by Israel Galon, the Agriculture Ministry's national forestry clerk, about the need to preserve the mature trees: "Trees, including old ones suffer abuse and destruction. They are uprooted and transferred from site to site out of real estate considerations. They can be cut down quickly, and the grating sound of the chain saw will testify to hasty and very poor judgment."

In its review of the case, the Haifa district appeals panel determined that, although the site is not included in any conservation program per se, one of the local planning committee's most important responsibilities is taking into consideration the conservation the natural environment. Noting special planning procedures set down recently regarding the preservation of trees, the appeals panel determined that the committee should have ruled to conserve the palms.

Specifically, the development plan for the building in question had called for keeping five trees and relocating three others, but the appeals committee decided such stipulations didn't establish a balance between the need to preserve the trees and the development required at the site.

"This is a unique grove, comprising mature trees in good condition, constituting an important characteristic feature of the street and the entire area," the appeals panel noted in its decision. "This is not a case of an insignificant or random tree, but a cluster of tall palms of a special type. Groves like this form a well-known scenic pattern in Israel - one prominent example being the trees lining the road leading into Atlit, planted by [agronomist and Zionist activist] Aaron Aaronsohn."

"If preserving the trees would prevent construction, they could not be protected because of the harm to private property," noted the committee. "In this case, however, the trees were to be uprooted to allow for construction of stairs at the edge of the plot, so the decision is that the grove should be kept and integrated into the planning of the stairs. This might require a special effort in terms of planning and execution, but the effort is justified to preserve the palms and their character."

Endangered sites

One SPNI complaint against the Haifa planning and building committee's decision was that it had previously not concerned itself with devising and promoting an overall plan for mapping natural urban locations slated for preservation - especially those with trees. Such plans are being formulated in other cities, however, including Jerusalem.

The 2011 municipal budget in the capital includes funding to preparing a master plan for preserving and developing urban greenery. This plan will be based on a comprehensive survey of local natural sites, conducted by the city in cooperation with the SPNI and the Environmental Protection Ministry, and it will rate the sites identified by the survey based on importance. It will also set guidelines to be taken under consideration by planning committees for conserving and developing the sites when the time comes for discussing construction plans.

While progress has been made in Jerusalem and Haifa in terms of recognizing the importance of conserving areas of natural beauty, one shouldn't forget that the cities still work to promote large-scale construction projects that may cause serious harm to these sites. These include the Neder stream on Haifa's outskirts, where planned construction of hotels and a commercial center will severely damage the city's "green lungs," according to Green Course, an environmental organization.

Jerusalem's City Hall, for its part, is supporting plans to build thousands of housing units in the Mitzpe Naftoah forest, one of the most beautiful natural sites within the city and one of the last remaining places with a deer population. To allow construction on this site, furthermore, the government recently removed it from its list of protected forested areas. An appeal filed against the decision, on behalf of the agriculture minister, is still pending.

Efforts to conserve urban nature, especially trees, are rooted in a long-standing Land of Israel tradition, as evidenced by an exhibition about the early 20th-century British military governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs; the show has been curated by Nirit Shalev-Khalifa and is now on at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. One of the exhibits is a notice disseminated by the governor in February 1919 banning, the cutting down of olive, pistacia and carob trees, even if it was needed by the British army, and imposing up to six months' imprisonment and a fine on violators. Shouldn't this legacy be preserved?