The Slow, Painful Birth of a Park

The eastern portion of the Yarkon River basin has been earmarked to become one of central Israel's two largest parks. The other park is the Ayalon, which is planned for the area to the south of Tel Aviv.

The eastern portion of the Yarkon River basin has been earmarked to become one of central Israel's two largest parks. The other park is the Ayalon, which is planned for the area to the south of Tel Aviv. However, the slow, painful planning process and birth of the Yarkon Park graphically shows just how difficult it is to supply, even to a minimum degree, the "green lungs" needed by Israel's most densely populated region.

There are thousands of dunams (one dunam is one quarter of an acre) of open stretches of land in the eastern portion of the Yarkon River district - between Petah Tikva in the south and Hod Hasharon in the north. Ministries and local governments in the area have already begun to advance an outline plan intended to turn these open stretches into a park. In the meantime, however, there are serious fears that once the plan gets under way, the park area will be considerably downsized.

The area of the planned park contains large stretches of privately-owned land. Planning agencies and ministries are interested in seeing this park established, however, to incorporate the private lands, they will have to compensate the landowners with either cash or new tracts of lands. As a result, no solution has yet to be found. At the same time, the Israel Lands Administration is interested in authorizing the creation of an industrial zone that would be adjacent to the planned park and would be partially located on lands which could be part of the compensation for landowners.

This is not the only problem. In the park area, there are already a number of large commercial enterprises operating via a permit for the special use of farmland. The courts have recently ruled that some of these enterprises must be shut down by the end of the year because they are not agriculturally related. However, their owners are pressuring authorities in an attempt to keep their businesses open. The district planning and construction committee responsible for Israel's central region, which is also being heavily pressured to keep these businesses open, will have to decide their fate.

Therefore, the park plan, which was supposed to be given high priority in the region for which it had been earmarked, is being forced to compete with the interests of landowners and business owners. There is the distinct possibility that the originally planned area will be steadily reduced in the battle against these interests.

The Yarkon Park story is not an exception to the rule. In the case of the Sharon Park, which was supposed to be built next to Hadera, there was a need to find a solution for privately-owned lands. In the case of other parks, there is a growing tendency to grant construction rights in a portion of the park in order to fund its creation, which, in some cases, can be very expensive.

For example, the cost of creating the Ayalon Park is extremely high because of the need to develop infrastructures for recreational facilities and for rehabilitating the Hiriya garbage dump. Therefore, those involved in the park's planning have suggested that construction rights be granted on the park's fringes.

To a great extent, the dismal standing of Israel's planned parks can be attributed to the government's unwillingness to invest in them. The only exception is the Sharon Park project. To create this park, the government and Hadera municipality created a NIS 20 million fund for compensating private landowners in the event the courts decide they should be compensated for the rezoning of their land in order to create the park.

Compensation payments to landowners is an option available only to the government and to local governments. Unlike in the United States, for example, there are no public organizations in Israel that are capable of providing such compensation.

The Americans have created influential organizations that have a large amount of donated funds at their disposal. In recent years, these organizations, together with local and state authorities, have purchased vast stretches of land and have turned them into nature reserves and parks. Israeli organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) cannot, given their meager resources, follow the American model.

Ministries, especially the Finance Ministry, would, of course, argue that the state has no money to fund the creation of parks and that the most sensible economic option would be to grant construction rights. However, for some reason, this type of argument applies to parks but not to other projects like highway construction. The government has agreed to allocate large sums of money for the current expropriation of lands for the Trans-Israel Highway (TIH). The government has even provided generous guarantees for the paving of the TIH.

Ironically, the TIH passes through an area located north of Ben Shemen which was originally planned as a large metropolitan park intended to cater to residents central Israel. However, this plan appears to have very little future because the TIH divides the land in half and creates large holes in areas containing groves and forests.

If the government thought the creation of large parks was a vital necessity, it would allocate funds for this purpose, just as it does for other projects of national importance. In the case of parks like the Ayalon and the Yarkon, there is no question that they are important. The residents of central Israel have long endured the critical shortage of areas for recreation and leisure. The planned parks would at least partially address this need; however, they would also have several other advantages. They would constitute a natural barrier granting a distinct identity to the communities surrounding the parks and preventing the creation of urban strips. They would serve as areas that would help enrich groundwater resources and would rehabilitate areas that suffer from neglect and environmental pollution. In addition, they would make a significant contribution to values such as nature conservation and landscape preservation. Today, these values are worth very little or nothing in economic terms, because ministries and many local authorities believe the values of nature conservation and landscape preservation are worth nothing.