Israel has always stood at the forefront of environmentalism and sustainability. Upon visiting Park Ariel Sharon, it’s hard to believe that this, the largest park in the Middle East (larger in acreage than New York City’s Central Park), was once a trash dump and environmental disaster. Today it stands as the largest eco-rehabilitation and success story the world has ever seen. Situated just to the east of Tel Aviv, since 1952, Hirya was the trash dump for the city and the whole of the Gush Dan region. As the population grew, so did the refuse until it became a towering mountain of garbage. In the heat of summer, the smell wafting into Tel Aviv and surrounding cities was almost unbearable. In 1998, the site was shut down due to toxic waste and environmental concerns. What to do??? A meeting was called with urban planners, scientists, landscape architects, environmental researchers, mayors, artists, social welfare experts, philanthropists and others to brainstorm. Out of these conferences, Park Ariel Sharon was born.
It’s hard to imagine that exactly a week ago, people here were running to bomb shelters as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad lobbed over 1250 missiles into Israel. When we visited yesterday, it was completely serene. John and I got there very early afternoon and had the place almost to ourselves. At the foot of the ‘mountain range’ standing over 200 feet tall, are various buildings:a recycling center is at one end; museums and classrooms where groups can come and learn about recycling and the environment at the other.
The drive up the mountain is beautifully lined with Eucalyptus trees. What was once dubbed ‘Trash Mountain’ is now an absolutely gorgeous multipurpose park. Expansive swaths of green fields, hiking and biking trails lead to a large green picnic area shaded by trees. The grass is watered using desalinated and gray water, all recycled. A visitor center, natural food cafe and large terrace with ample seating area invites one to sit and relax. The terraces have been landscaped into islands connected by pathways surrounded by natural ponds and watercourses filled with fish. Papyrus, lilies, lotus, and water lettuces float gently. Each pond is bordered by repurposed concrete salvaged from the old dump. These newly formed blocks act as barrier reefs for the fish to take shade and to spawn.
Rubbers tires were repurposed as mulch. Concrete construction barriers were sorted out to create retaining walls lining pathways and actually forming the mountain. It is actually quite beautiful. All the materials here were pulled from the dump and transformed to new purposes. Native trees- carob, olive, date palm, eucalyptus, cedar- have been planted. Metal was sorted out, recycled, reused and some turned into lamp posts, benches, and sculpture. The entire park has a been built over the old dumping grounds. Dangerous biogases are one of the main products that develop within landfills (mostly organic household waste). Their decomposition create polluting greenhouse gases and methane. To combat this, dozens of wells were drilled inside the mountain. The gas is collected and pumped into pipes which flows to nearby industry in the form of steam energy. The gases are constantly monitored to ensure that none escapes into the atmosphere. The amount will decrease over the years, but as more additions are made to the area of landfill surrounding, safe, cheap and efficient energy will be piped to companies into the next several decades.
Everything has been so carefully thought out to the very last detail. Grassy small ‘amphitheaters’ have been placed in strategic areas for school groups, tour groups, outdoor meeting areas and Shakespeare in the Park in the summer months. At the far end of one ridge is a 50,000 seat concert venue. Spectacular covered terraces and outlooks offer sweeping panoramas of Tel Aviv, the Mediterranean, the Shefela Valley below and the Judaean hills in the distance. The trash heaps have been covered with volcanic gravel and concrete, layers of thick clay, straw, more clay and garden soil. Flowering vines clamber over wooden trellises and gardens from around the world are featured in each area. There are natural playgrounds for children with rope courses; things to climb over and on; musical instrument sculptures from recycled materials; brain games and interactive play areas. Disability compliant and equipped with many bathrooms and mothering stations, nothing has been left to chance.
There is a native herb garden with sages and lavenders and scented geraniums where the air is perfumed and heady. We strolled through desert gardens of sand, succulents and cacti. In each section are benches, pathways, and picnic areas. Park Ariel Sharon is definitely now a green lung in the country’s most densely populated urban area. It is a place that is open to all, free of charge (except for concerts and special events). It is a great place for wedding photography – we saw two wedding parties there. This once polluted, neglected dump is now a flourishing metropolitan park. Guided tours can be arranged in advance. At the bottom is the Mikva Yisrael agricultural school where classes are held on sustainability and organic farming. Israel is an amazing country in its innovation and is a leader in environmental issues.