Protesters say strong lighting and other features will harm the local hedgehogs and other animals, while busloads of tourists will show up. But the city wants to improve security after dark

Nir Hasson May. 5, 2021

Charles Clore Hill Gardens in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Charles Clore Hill Gardens in Jerusalem on Tuesday.Credit: Emil Salman

Two weeks ago, bulldozers entering the Charles Clore Hill Gardens in Jerusalem enraged the locals – thousands of people signed a petition to save the natural beauty of the nearby Valley of the Cross, named after an 11th-century monastery. Some protesters even met with the mayor.

The plan to improve the park raises questions about the clash between development and accessibility on one side and the preservation of natural urban spaces on the other. But another question is whether the protest is an example of nimbyism – the “not in my back yard” phenomenon. Do the residents fear having a tourist attraction in their neighborhood?

The Charles Clore Hill Gardens, a wild park around a third of a mile long running north-south, sits between the upscale Rehavia neighborhood in the east and the Valley of the Cross in the West. Its long, narrow shape stems from the construction of Haim Hazaz Boulevard, which bisects the valley, in the 1970s. The fight against the road’s construction was one of the first public battles to preserve Jerusalem’s open spaces – one that didn’t succeed.

The park’s trees were planted after the road was built. Since then, they have grown into a wood, providing a refuge in the heart of the city for animals including hedgehogs, porcupines and birds.

The park's trees were planted in the 1970s.
The park’s trees were planted in the 1970s.Credit: Emil Salman

The plan to improve the park, drawn up by the municipality and the Jerusalem Foundation, includes widening the paths and building a promenade, a lookout platform, bathrooms and a kiosk. Also, more lighting and planters will be added.

The planners believe the project will be good for both the neighborhood and the city, turning the park, which also looks out over the Knesset to the west, into a key route for pedestrians and cyclists, and a popular leisure spot. The lighting, for instance, would boost security for people who use the park at night.

Most of the development work is being done on existing paths. The new promenade is essentially an expansion of the park’s uppermost path. The paths are used by students who walk or bicycle to Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus, families en route to Sacher Park to the north and tourists strolling to the Israel Museum to the west.

Two weeks ago the park was fenced off and the bulldozers arrived; within days, more than 3,000 people had signed a petition calling for the work to stop.

Fencing at the park; the signs says 'Tree to be preserved.'
Fencing at the park; the signs says ‘Tree to be preserved.’ Credit: Emil Salman

The petitioners protested the damage to the park’s natural vegetation, the addition of the new planters, and the strong lighting, which they said would harm the animals. They said overdevelopment would turn the park into a wedding site, while busloads of tourists would visit the quiet area.

“The Valley of the Cross is a unique public asset that needs minimal care,” the petition said. “Don’t uproot trees and shrubs! Don’t expand or build paths, don’t turn terraces into stone plazas! … Mayor of Jerusalem, don’t touch the valley! This is the final moment to stop the plan!”

Natalie Goral, one of the protest leaders, added: “They want to make the park more accessible to tourists, so it will be more esthetically pleasing. But the whole character of the place will change. Instead of forest trees and wild flora there will be planters. Today people wander around the woods and pick plants for food. The planters will divide the paths from the flora.”

The project’s chief planner, architect Rachelle Wiener, has a lot of experience in preserving and developing Jerusalem’s natural greenery. She planned the Moon Grove near the Jerusalem Theater and the Gazelle Valley Park, considered the largest and most important nature site in an Israeli city. She regrets the protests.

Rocks at the park that were put up in the 1970s and aren't actually natural terraces.
Rocks at the park that were put up in the 1970s and aren’t actually natural terraces.Credit: Emil Salman

“We’re promoting urban nature, but you have to recognize that the nature isn’t really nature and the urban isn’t really urban,” she said. “For instance, the rocks that opponents depict as natural terraces were built in the 1970s to expand the road. In reality, this is planned nature, and we’re intervening there only at a few points.”

Wiener notes that urban nature encourages walking.

“Encouraging walking often exacts a price, because beyond the experience of walking through a landscape you need a sense of security after dark,” she said. “These are the built-in dilemmas of urban nature, especially when it’s at the heart of the urban fabric rather than at its margins. We tried our best to give them answers.”

Wiener and the plan’s opponents agree on two things. She agrees that the added lighting will harm the animals. Under the original plan, lights would only go along the paths, but the final plan calls for strong lighting flooding the entire area; new negotiations with local residents on this issue are underway.

Mounds of gravel for the refurbishing of the park.
Mounds of gravel for the refurbishing of the park.Credit: Emil Salman

She also agrees that the work could have been done with less harm to the vegetation and without the use of heavy vehicles.

“The way they embarked on work in the park was rife with mistakes,” said Shaike Elami, director of the Ginot Ha’ir neighborhood’s community administration, which is mediating between residents and the municipality. “They brought in heavy bulldozers, with no signposting, and started work quickly.”

Jerusalem is very proud of its urban nature – half-forgotten corners of the city where nature can survive and sometimes even thrive. But according to local activists, the desire for development and regulation is destroying these corners.

On the other hand, a year and a half ago, another development project in the area was completed – the expansion of a bike path and the addition of lighting in the Valley of the Cross. Then, too, accusations were hurled of overdevelopment, but the project actually led to greater use of the path, which is now crowded with bicyclists and pedestrians all day.

In response to residents’ claims, the municipality said, “This is a project designed above all to benefit the residents by cultivating and renewing one of the city’s first parks, with maximum recognition of the park’s importance and of preserving its existing natural value. The project was planned after fully involving the public and in dialogue with the community administration.”