Unprecedented Environmental Victory in Jaffa Saves Historic Trees, Highlights the Power of Activism

Jerusalem Avenue, Jaffa. Photo Vered Navon

By Galia Limor-Sagiv and Aya Tager

The magnificent Ficus (weeping fig) trees along Jerusalem Avenue in Jaffa are a trademark of the historic main road and an important asset to the city, the residents, and the urban environment.  Still, their crucial role was initially disregarded by NTA, the company hired to construct the light rail in the Tel-Aviv Metropolitan area, and the 26 mature trees, between 70 and 100 years old, were slated for destruction, destined to join the dozens of trees that had already been removed along the route of the mass transit system since the project was launched in August 2015.

The dire need for efficient and sustainable public transportation in the most crowded area in Israel is obvious, but infrastructure projects of this size and scope should be shared with the public and open for review.  Unfortunately, that was not the case for the light rail, whose plans were hardly accessible and only partially open to the public.

Trees at Jerusalem Avenue, Jaffa. Photo Vered Navon

Early on, SPNI’s Tel Aviv Branch recognized the importance of addressing this issue and worked together with residents, other organizations, and local professionals to initiate a multi-layered campaign that called for an inclusive dialogue and an open discussion of the plans with all relevant parties, including the Tel Aviv municipality, residents, professional planners, environmental organizations, and others.

Phillipe Brandes, an architect and urban planner, who is also a Jaffa resident, joined the effort and drafted an alternative professional plan that would save the trees while allowing the rail construction to continue.  Other professionals also lent their expertise to support the campaign, including experts from Tel-Aviv University; the Tel Aviv Municipality, led by Reuven Ladianski, Head of the Environmental Portfolio; Oded Gvuli, the city's Engineer; Yoav David, the city's Chief Architect; and Hagai Yaron, Head of the Light Rail Directorate.

There were significant obstacles and many hurdles in persuading NTA to start listening to the public, especially after so many trees had been cut down without consideration of the public's interest and needs.  Eventually, however, thanks to the persistent work of the coalition spearheaded by SPNI, a change began to manifest.

In early October, as a result of a dedicated struggle that lasted three years, the construction company agreed to alter the route’s original plans in order to preserve the 26 Ficus trees.

"We wholeheartedly welcome this change of perception and acknowledgment as to the importance of public participation in the process.  This is the first time a serious discussion was held regarding alternative plans presented by the residents, and knowledgeable public representatives were involved in the planning process. We congratulate NTA, the city engineer, and the municipality representatives for their great open-mindedness and fruitful cooperation, which led to the ideal plan – one that combines the light rail and public space with the green and historical avenues,” said Galia Hanoch-Roe, Director of SPNI’S Tel Aviv Branch.

A tour with local residents by SPNI Tel-Aviv Branch. Photo Galia Limor-Sagiv

“This is the only avenue in Jaffa boasting so many lush trees, and we hope the coming phases of the construction plan will preserve them and safeguard this asset as promised.  We see this as a sign for the future, in which trees will be considered an integral part of the infrastructure, and the option of significant tree planting, including appropriate habitats, will be secured in urban planning practice.”