The sweet smell of a garbage dump transformed
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The sweet smell of a garbage dump transformed

Until 2000, Israel was piling 3,000 tons of stinking household waste here every day. Now Ariel Sharon Park outside Tel Aviv is the country’s largest green space-in-the-making, to include a 50,000-seat amphitheater, picnic grounds and a lake

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • The pergolaed overlook at Ariel Sharon Park (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    The pergolaed overlook at Ariel Sharon Park (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • Identifying each and every building in the Tel Aviv skyline (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    Identifying each and every building in the Tel Aviv skyline (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • Green fields and glittering office towers (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    Green fields and glittering office towers (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • Moats dug to help filter and clean the runoff from the mountain (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    Moats dug to help filter and clean the runoff from the mountain (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

On a clear day, the scenic overlook at the top of Ariel Sharon Park offers a glorious view of the Tel Aviv skyline, a familiar vista of glittering office towers, flat Bauhaus rooftops, and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. Surrounded by verdant fields punctuated by two trickling gullies, it’s difficult to believe we’re standing on top of the Hiriya, the former garbage dump whose stench once marked its location for miles around and whose peak offers one of the highest observation points in the area.

“It’s like the view from Belvedere Castle in Central Park,” said Alex Kaplan, the park’s marketing manager.

It’s no accident that Kaplan frequently invokes Central Park. Planned to be three times the size of the famed New York City garden upon its completion, Ariel Sharon Park will be the premier play space for the greater Tel Aviv area. Conceived as the green lung of the metropolitan region, the largest in a chain of planned public parks, the grounds will include kilometers of extreme bike paths and golf cart tracks, a host of birdwatching opportunities, sports fields, a 50,000-seat amphitheater for summer concerts and performances, a lake, picnic areas and fields with room to romp and frolic, all a rarity in the urban sprawl of Tel Aviv and its environs.

A map of the Park Sharon bike paths (Courtesy Park Ariel Sharon)
A map of the Park Sharon bike paths (Courtesy Park Ariel Sharon)

Right now, much of the planned park comprises bulldozed piles of raw earth. The very top of the former landfill is an exception, holding a pergola-covered overlook and landscaped paths, all designed by German architect Peter Latz and already in use last summer for a series of subsidized concerts. In May, another large swath of bike paths and grass for picnics will be ready. Free tours and guided bike rides are already part of the park’s regular programming.

With an annual construction budget of NIS 100 million (some $28 million) since 2010 provided by the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, and nearby local authorities, the park is an ambitious plan that’s been in the works since 2005, when the government first approved the 8,000-dunam (about 2,000 acres) park.

“We’re going to be the heart of Gush Dan,” said Kaplan, a former ministry staffer who has been working on the project since its inception. “We’re building for the next generation.”

Explanations about the reconstruction at Hiriya are set up throughout the landscaped hilltop (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Explanations about the reconstruction at Hiriya are set up throughout the landscaped hilltop (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Still, it’s taken some time to get a project this massive off the ground.

Once the decision was made back in 2000 to stop using Hiriya as a dump, the question was what to do with it. One of the landfill’s main cheerleaders was Martin Weyl, formerly director of the Israel Museum and now head of the Beracha Foundation, who made the park his mission from the start. He saw Hiriya as a giant eyesore that could potentially become Israel’s Eiffel Tower.

It was the Dutch-born Weyl who offered an initial vision for the land. He got his first glimpses of the area by hitching lifts into the dump on garbage trucks, and later commissioned artists to conceive of what could be done with the reeking mound in an exhibit for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. He ended up writing a book in Hebrew about his efforts, “On Stench and Beauty: The Greening of Israel’s Largest Garbage Dump.”

Typically, however, the process was all about politics.

Though the plan was officially approved while Ariel Sharon was still prime minister (and named for him after he suffered a stroke in 2006), one of the primary holdups was an ongoing battle with next-door neighbor Hazera, the country’s pioneering seed developer and export company. Hazera is controlled by Polar Investments, a local real estate holding company that wanted to build 10,000 residential units on the former agricultural lands earmarked for the park.

It was only last March — seven years after the initial decision to create the park — that an agreement was reached between the Israel Land Administration, the Justice Ministry, and Hazera, giving 1,100 dunams of Hazera land to the park. In return, Hazera was paid NIS 18,000 per dunam, a considerable discount on the price initially demanded by Hazera.

Ariel Sharon, at the age of 20, commanded a brigade that fought on this very turf. Decades later, Sharon was deeply moved by the concept for the park, ultimately garnering the necessary political support for the project.

In the final reckoning, it was one politician who ultimately pushed the project through, and that was Sharon, the man for whom the park is named. Hiriya, as the half-mile-long dump was originally known, bears the appellation of a nearby Arab village that was abandoned during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. As Weyl describes in his book, Ariel Sharon, at the age of 20, commanded a brigade that fought on that very turf. Decades later, Sharon was deeply moved by the concept for the park, ultimately garnering the necessary political support for the project.

But before the reclamation of the seething 50-year-old dump could start, the site had to be stabilized and sanitized. Having reached a height of 60 meters and filled with 16 million cubic meters of rubbish — as a result of receiving 3,000 tons of household waste per day until 2000 — the landfill was plagued by flocks of birds searching for food scraps who created a risk for planes taking off from nearby Ben Gurion International Airport. There was also the environmental hazard from the landfill’s steep slopes, which were in danger of collapsing into the nearby Kishon and Shapirim rivers.

The process, however, was complex, involving stabilizing the hill with recycled construction waste, and then handling the methane, or biogas, produced by the waste and contained inside the dump. As with other reclaimed parks of its kind, the methane is now pumped out and will be used for cheap electricity and steam for the next decade or so by Office Textile, a company in Azor. The surface runoff is drained through clean dirt and moats dug around the mountain — which help to stabilize the hill — and combined with natural and synthetic materials that help block the drainage materials, Kaplan explained.

The park also shored up the underpinnings of the hill with massive cement plates. The top is now used for the park’s offices; a restaurant with an attached interactive center are also imminent.

“It’s the safest bunker in Israel today,” said Kaplan.

At the foot of Mount Hiriya, currently the entrance into the park, there is a massive transfer station for waste and garbage, where some 5,000 tons of household and construction waste from the Dan metropolitan area are brought daily for sorting and recycling.

A glimpse at the recycling center at the base of the former dump (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A glimpse at the recycling center at the base of the former dump (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It’s difficult to avoid the garbage associations with Hiriya, admitted Kaplan. “People who grow up around here think of Hiriya as garbage, as an abomination.”

New York’s Freshkills Park in Staten Island — another park-in-progress, built on the remains of the Fresh Kills dump — has a similar issue. Public perception of a dump being turned into a park is an “ongoing challenge,” according to Jonah Stern, project manager at Freshkills Park. “It’s part of the urban psyche, and Freshkills was a fixture in the landscape,” he said. “We deal with people’s concerns about toxicity. They ask us on a regular basis.”

With an “impressive” infrastructure system in place built along the enclosure of the landfill to deal with methane, it’s a very similar system to the one at Hiriya, said Stern. As the remaining trash decomposes in Freshkills, it is vacuumed through pipes and purifying systems, and heats about 20,000 homes through the national grid system. The whole operation is constantly monitored by New York’s Department of Sanitation.

Freshkills isn’t yet open to the public, said Stern, and the park administration has paid particular attention to its marketing plan, remaining attuned to the fact that people may remain leery at the outset about picnicking on a former landfill.

“We’re thinking about these things all the time,” said Stern. “Our basic conclusion is that transparency is the best course to take and this is something in people’s backyards.”

Kaplan doesn’t scoff at the concept of having to market Ariel Sharon Park to Israelis, but his project doesn’t seem to have experienced the same kind of hesitance from its potential visitors. The relatively small concerts were sold out last summer, and there’s a waiting list for groups looking to tour the site.

Historic workers' cabins once used by Hazera seed company, soon to be refurbished (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Historic workers’ cabins once used by Hazera seed company, soon to be refurbished (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The park plan, said Kaplan, involves thinking ahead for the next 60 years.

“It took 30 years to get Hayarkon Park to where it is now,” he said, referring to Tel Aviv’s main park in the northern end of the city. “You can’t do any shortcuts with this kind of project.”

The park still needs donors, as it requires at least $4 to $5 million in funds to move forward on various elements of the construction and rehabilitation. But now, after waiting so long to receive the go-ahead for the Hazera lands, the park has an ambitious construction schedule and its officials are planning to move into the new offices — formerly Hazera’s offices — next month, as well as refurbishing the company’s workers’ cabins dating from the 1940s, and opening them to the public in time for Batim MiBifnim, the annual Houses from Within tours that take place in May.

“This is all for the public — doing whatever is possible within the realm of possibility, for free, just like in Central Park,” said Kaplan. “It’s urban nature. It’s our natural real estate.”

Free tours of Park Ariel Sharon are available Sunday-Friday, at 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, and 12:00. Tours begin at the lower parking lot, at the park entrance from Route 4. The park is closed on Saturdays, but bikers and walkers can bike or walk the Kishon and Shapirim rivers, entering from Birnat Street in Tel Aviv, from the side of South Park.

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