Modiin expansion plan divides green organizations from residential groups

While a national environmental organization focuses on preserving a wildlife ecological corridor, locals want to save more open space and for the city to prepare for climate change

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Ripe fruit and a view of the modern city of Modiin seen from the Givat Titora archaeological garden. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ripe fruit and a view of the modern city of Modiin seen from the Givat Titora archaeological garden. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

After a victorious campaign to preserve the southern hills of Modiin in central Israel and have them earmarked for a national park, city activists are now trying to protect additional land from the bulldozers by demanding changes to a masterplan aimed at expanding the city’s population from 90,000 to 250,000.

Eighteen local organizations belonging to Modiin’s Coalition for Sustainability have appealed to the Central District Planning Committee to build more densely inside the city in order to conserve as much as possible of the two and a half acres (10,000 dunams) of open space to the north that have been zoned for construction.

They are backed by several Knesset members; 5,000 people have signed a petition.

Modiin was designed by the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie following a government decision to create a new city between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Construction began in the 1990s and in 2003 the nearby communities of Maccabim and Reut were absorbed into the same municipality.

The city, a large number of whose residents commute elsewhere for work, is home to a large number of single-story red-roofed homes and mainly low apartment buildings, wide boulevards traversed mainly by private cars, and plenty of parkland and green space.

The original regional plan for the period up to 2020 saw a second stage of building that would expand Modiin to the south and the north. But following a lengthy campaign by environmental and civil society groups, the planners agreed earlier this year to turn the southern hills into a national park.

A springtime walk in the hills south of Modiin which have now been earmarked for a national park. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The revised regional plan for the period to 2040, to which objections could be lodged until September 9, concentrates almost the entire second stage of building in the northern part of the city and in and around a large commercial center (called Ligad) to the far north.

The plan has the backing of the the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority had not finalized its position at time of publication.

Moshe Perelmuter, who has represented the SPNI in Israel’s central region since 1997, is happy with the plan because it preserves as open space the main part of the ecological corridor that runs to the west of Modiin’s existing built-up area.

Gazelles need ecological corridors through which to roam. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Bassem18/Wikipedia)

Countrywide, these corridors are pieces of open space that connect “core areas” of nature reserves and national parks and are critical to ensuring that wildlife retains a high degree of mobility and genetic diversity — a key to health and resilience, proper functioning of the web of life, and the long-term survival of species.

Modiin already occupies a chunk of the corridor through which animals such as gazelles, hyenas, foxes, jackals and porcupines roam between the Ben Shemen Forest, the Ayalon plain and the Jerusalem hills. It forms part of a larger corridor that stretches from the Carmel mountains near Haifa, in northern Israel, down to the northern Negev.

Perelmuter applauded the planners, saying that they had agreed to shift facilities originally planned for the middle of the corridor, to cancel a road intended to cut through the corridor, to build four ecological overpasses to enable wildlife to safely cross the roads that do remain, and to give legal protection to a section of open space around the Ishpro commercial center built in the corridor in the 1990s in a way that has created a bottleneck for roaming animals.

The plans for Modiin. (Courtesy of Google Earth)

The 2040 plan was the best of its kind that he had seen to date, Perelmuter said. “We’ve set the [city’s] boundaries, once and for all,” he added.

But the plan’s opponents believe that Perelmuter and others did not fight hard enough.

According to a document that one of the groups, Residents with Influence, Modiin, prepared for submission to the planning committee, there is plenty of room for additional construction within the existing city both on top of existing buildings and in expanses of open land, and this should be given priority.

Aerial view of the Hanahalim neighborhood, Modi’in, July 5, 2017. (Gidi Avinary/FLASH90)

By adding density of building in this way, some of the open areas zoned for construction could instead be used to widen the ecological corridor, and any construction that was necessary could be restricted to open space that is less environmentally sensitive.

Contrary to Perelmuter, who takes a strong line against highly inflammable pine trees, the group argues that it is unacceptable to uproot some 6,000 trees as part of the plan given their ability to absorb globe-warming carbon dioxide.

The other main plank of the group’s opposition relates to the fact that the issue of climate change and the need to protect the city against its consequences do not appear anywhere in the plans.

Among their demands are that all new buildings be built in accordance with the strictest green building standards and that the existing city be upgraded to make it more resilient to climate change.

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