An Urban Makeover That Covers Up Both Trash and History

The Hiriya landfill, an eyesore that sits between Ben-Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv, is being transformed into a vast urban park that will ultimately mask both its smelly past and its pre-1948 history.

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Overlooking the freeway that runs from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Tel Aviv is a barren mesa. The mass is one of the first sights that visitors to Israel see.

 Archeology buffs mistake it for one of the country's famed "telim,” the historical mounds that mark the sites of ancient settlements. But it isn't a tel. It's a former landfill, and future park planned to be three times the size of Manhattan's Central Park.

The mound of Hiriya, as it was previously known, is at least ten times the size of your typical “tel” and only dates back to the latter half of the 20th century. Someday, future archeologists may excavate the place for smelly clues to our current times, but the mount is now primarily of interest to gardening and landscaping enthusiasts, music lovers and urban explorers. A planned park on the site, though far from being a fait accompli, is now open to the public in some areas.

As the sun set last week over Hiriya, the first notes of Chopin's nocturne Op. 9 No.1 filled the air, played by masterful Israeli balladeer Shlomi Shaban to open the site's first musical concert.

"Welcome to Ariel Sharon Park, previously known as Hiriya," Shaban announced, and then sardonically added: "So much sex appeal in a single phrase."

Hiriya stopped serving as an active landfill in 1998. A plan to establish a sprawling  park here, on the southern outskirts of the city, commenced five years later.  In 2004, Peter Latz, a German expert on reclamation and conversion of former industrialized landscapes, won the competition to give the site a new identity.  

Eight years later, the site reveals only partial progress. The hill's western slope now boasts an open air theater, an observation deck and a garden of edible herbs, all of which make for an attractive, if odd, destination. On the eastern slope, however, a recycling plant is still active, emitting a pungent smell. In between the two is a thorny plateau of dirt piled over decades' worth of trash. A lonesome visitor center sits isolated in its midst, among black pipes that empty methane gas from the mount's core.

Esti Appelbaum, chairwoman of the Ariel Sharon Park Company, explains that the plateau will eventually be covered with a "Mediterranean garden” but emphasizes that the company’s intention is to allow the site’s grimy past to serve as a model for how reclamation of contaminated lands can serve as a useful tool of urban renewal.  In order to get that message though, some of the area’s former purpose needs to remain visible.

"We want people to see that it used to be dump,” Appelbaum says. The history shall not be lost even when the land is adorned with ponds, palm trees and a strip of garden cafes.

Once it was good

Some of its history, however, is lost already.

The name Hiriya, derived from the Arabic word "Kheir", meaning "good,” was the name of an Arab village that stood on the site until it was destroyed in the war of 1948 and its residents expelled. The landfill was established soon thereafter, in 1952.

Very few Israelis know the source of Hiriya's name, a name that has since become synonymous with pollution and bad smells. By replacing the name with that of Israel's Prime Minister during the Second Intifada, a last living link to the village is lost. When asked whether the village should be somehow commemorated on the site, Appelbaum replies: "I have no personal objection, but a world war would erupt were this question brought up, and in the current climate it seems unlikely that a memorial plaque would eventually be placed."

The view to Tel Aviv's skyline is splendid, and the summer breeze enchanting. Between the mount and the city stretches a surprisingly vast stretch of open land. Nearly 2000 acres were designated for agricultural use during the British Mandate and thus salvaged from Tel Aviv's sprawl. They are all set to be included in the completed park, which will ultimately be three times the size of Central Park, and therefore will be one of the largest urban parks on earth.  

But it’s not there yet. After the project dragged on for so long, the park seems to be open partially and prematurely merely to avoid further public criticism. But now may be actually the most interesting time to visit, when its history is still visible and its future full of possibility.

Hiriya at night. That isn't a tel. It's a garbage dump being turned into a huge park.Credit: Alon Ron
A peek into the revitalization of the Hiriya landfill, now named Ariel Sharon Park, which is planned to be three times bigger than New York's Central Park.Credit: Alon Ron
A landfill near Tel Aviv.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz