By Sonti Ramirez

UCL graduate Sonti Ramirez reflects on her time in Jerusalem September 2015. She suggests that grassroots environmental enterprises are vital for creating civic co-operation and reconciling neighbourhoods fractured by geopolitical disputes.

Since 1967 Jerusalem has witnessed dramatic changes to its demographic, political and economic structure. As a city that straddles the fault lines of three major religions and is at the heart of the ethno-nationalist conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, environmental issues pose more of a challenge here than any other city in the world.

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At the same time, Jerusalem is a modern city which has to contend with an ancient infrastructure, multiple cultures, and differing socio-economic levels. Israeli, Palestinian, religious and secular, rich and poor residents share the same spaces and cross boundaries, which can result in negative interactions. The need for more parks and community spaces that foster positive interaction between citizens is an important issue for many community leaders and residents in the city. Some view it as the only way forward to creating a sustainable urban environment[1].

Naomi Tsur, who has pioneered many successful green initiatives to include the ‘Gazelle Valley’ and ‘Railway Park’, believes that our way of thinking about cities needs to be “turned inside out”[2].

Over the last two decades, Tsur and a host of environmental organisations have developed innovative projects to improve access to food resources and transport links for a rapidly expanding population, as well as regenerating abandoned zones in the inner city. For example, the Tzurim Valley Park has over 100 fruit and olive trees available for public consumption. The Clal Centre on Jaffa Road now houses an organic rooftop farm and is in the process of being reconverted into a sustainable living centre. In addition to this, the light railway tram line is currently the fastest and most-eco-friendly form of transport in the city and provides a direct link between East and West Jerusalem.

As an intern for the Jerusalem Green Fund, I had the opportunity to explore how these environmental projects were transforming parts of the city. My main task was to conduct interviews with local residents along the Railway Park to find out how they were interacting with the space. The Jerusalem Railway line – a relic of the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate – runs through the heart of the city, encompassing seven neighbourhoods from East to South Jerusalem. For decades the line had been an eye sore for local residents; neglected and used as dumping ground for rubbish until reconstruction began in 1998. Today the 8km park promenade has been renovated into a wooden walkway and bike path, which incorporates the original line and a history trail for tourists. A testament to smart city planning, the park intended to solve the problems of outer suburban alienation from the city centre and the increasing social detachment of diverse communities along the line[3].

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At the renovated old train station on David Remez Street, I spoke to the stallholders selling jewellery and clothes, and sampled some hearty Middle Eastern street food. Walking down the line to the Emek Refaim area, I passed one of two reading stations; purpose built bus stops with shelves of free books for visitors to take. It was great to see schoolkids and joggers alike exchanging their old books for new ones. Further down into the Arab neighbourhood of Beit Safafa, I met some of the resident young people including a student called Serena who told me that she comes to relax with her family and friends and do sports along the path. For her, the park improved the neighbourhood and enabled her community to have greater interaction with local Jewish residents. For others residents, like Biochemist Asaf, the path is one of the most accessible areas of Jerusalem that connects neighbourhoods together. There were a range of different people along the route – tourists, foreigners living in Jerusalem, parents with their children, students and young professionals. Most residents seemed to be aware of previously neglected railway and were happy with the regeneration. I was keen to find out what park users thought more generally about green public spaces in Jerusalem. Local economist Ben Tamari believed that more green spaces needed to be invested in poorer parts of the city to help improve the living standards. It was refreshing to hear how people of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities were engaged with their city and had different opinions about how to make it more sustainable.

The experience of speaking to local residents has demonstrated to me that whilst the divisions in Jerusalem are pronounced, its citizens are fairly united when it comes to their concern for maintaining a clean and healthy environment. I believe that to attain a sustainable environment in Jerusalem, there needs to be more national investment and international support for local green initiatives. Tourism and Pilgrimages can have a greater role in improving the city and preserving its natural heritage. Thoses visiting Jerusalem from abroad should be encouraged to participate in beautification projects, to work with local commuities and take part in cleaning up or repairing neglected areas. The Jerusalem Green Fund offers adults and young people the opportunity to become city stakeholders where they can participate in educational workshops, support green initiatives in the city, build new projects and work with local government to raise awareness about the environment.


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Sonti Ramirez is a Wyndham Deedes scholar.

[1] Jerusalem in the Future: The Challenge of Transition edited by Shlomo Hasson, The Floersheimer institute for policy studies , 2007, pages 9-37

[2]A New Urban Paradigm: Our way of looking at cities needs to be turned inside-out’ Naomi Tsur, Jerusalem September 2nd 2015

[3] ‘The story of Jerusalem’s railway park: Getting the city back on track economically, environmentally and socially’, Naomi Tsur, Jerusalem, August 18 2014.