The plan for Israel’s first urban wildlife preserve and park is about to become reality after a long campaign by local nature-lovers.
By June Barsky
The story of the Gazelle Urban Nature Park in Jerusalem is one that will no doubt be told for years to come, as the 64-acre tract of land near the center of Jerusalem develops into Israel’s first urban wildlife preserve and park.
An urban wildlife preserve is open acreage inside a city in which animals are free to roam on land that is their natural habitat. In the case of Jerusalem, that land — an undeveloped, relatively flat area surrounded by residential hills — is located on the edge of the Givat Mordechai neighborhood in the city’s southwest, opposite the busy Patt Intersection.
A resident of Gazelle Valley with the backdrop
of the Givat Mordechai neighborhood.
Photo by Amir Balaban.
Long called Gazelle Valley for the small flock of wild mountain gazelle that live there, it is the largest open space left in the heart of Israel’s capital. About the size of the Old City, until recently it was the object of a decades-long battle that pitted a coalition of environmentalists and local residents against real estate developers.
In March 2012, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled against the developers, paving the way for a park that will preserve and protect the plant and wildlife that live in Gazelle Valley, and also will create a boundary along which people and gazelles can meet.
“Until the establishment of the state of Israel, this area was outside of town,” says Amir Balaban, wildlife expert, photographer and cameraman at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). He was a leading advocate in the fight against the developers.
Housing or reserve?
“During and after the War of Independence, when food was scarce in Jerusalem, this land was given to two kibbutzim, Ma’ale HaHamisha and Kiryat Anavim, to develop orchards and grow fruit for the city, which they did through the 1980s when the agricultural economy in this country declined. At that point, these kibbutzim wanted to sell off the land to entrepreneurs who had come up with a plan to build 1,400 housing units in the valley,” Balaban explains.
The kibbutzim’s push for city approval of the plan led Naomi Tsur, now deputy mayor for planning and environment but then director of the SPNI Jerusalem chapter, to form a coalition to oppose the project, and the fight was on.
“We were a group comprised of local residents worried about the project’s impact on their neighborhoods, activists intent on saving the gazelles — the herd was being killed off by cars, jackals, and wild dogs — and environmentalists who were anticipating the essential need for a ‘green lung’ as the area grew more dense,” Tsur says.
Their hard-fought campaign, waged over nearly 10 years and funded by the Beracha Foundation, convinced the Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee to reject the developers’ plan — a victory Tsur calls “history-making.”
In 2008, the committee approved her plan for an urban nature park, conceived with coalition partners to stave off future developers.
Last March, a court judgment finally cleared the way for work to begin on the park in January 2013. It will be open free to the public during all phases of construction.
A park for people and gazelles
“The park will be divided into three sections,” Balaban explains. “The smallest, about 50 dunams [12 acres], will be used strictly by the gazelles as their natural habitat. Another section, about 130 dunams, is designated as the area where people can have picnics and enjoy themselves. Another 60 dunams will act as a buffer zone between the other two sections and that’s where a visitors’ center will be built and people will be able to get close — but not too close — to the gazelles.”
All this will happen in stages over the course of about 10 years, Balaban says. The first stage is slated for completion by August 2013 and will include new plantings, increasing the gazelle herd and building the first of two promenades.
The second stage will focus on two streams that run through the tract. Plans call for creating five water ponds that will be accessible to both gazelles and humans and also act as a barrier between them.
Stage three will see the building of the visitors’ center and other structures, while the two final stages call for a second promenade with street-level observation points, and the construction of a second visitors’ center.
Balaban confirms that the park will be the first urban nature wildlife preserve in Israel, and Tsur identified it as the Legacy Project of Jerusalem’s Local Action for Biodiversity (LAB) program, the forum where Jerusalem and its urban nature initiatives interface with dozens of cities around the world.
Tsur and Balaban call the Gazelle Valley Jerusalem’s star nature site, and anticipate its use by local, national and international visitors, schoolchildren and families. “It will be a park for everyone,” Balaban says.