Part of the terrace at Muslala in Jerusalem. (Courtesy Muslala)
Part of the terrace at Muslala in Jerusalem. (Courtesy Muslala)

With open space disappearing, Jerusalem city hall looks to give roofs a new purpose

Mayor Moshe Lion takes inspiration from Muslala, a nonprofit organization that wants to see a million square meters of rooftops serving the community and the environment

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The Jerusalem Municipality has embarked on a plan to utilize as many rooftops in the capital as possible for solar energy generation, community activities and green areas that can benefit people, wildlife and the environment.

The process is being led by Tamar Carmon, coordinator of the nonprofit group Muslala’s Irgun Gag (a play on the Hebrew word for roof) department, in conjunction with municipal planners and the city’s community sustainability department, and the Jerusalem Economic Development Company.

The latter, better known by its Hebrew initials as EDEN, is a municipal company that develops economic, cultural and public spaces in the capital.

A year ago, Muslala invited Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion to its second annual Paradise Roof festival and conference at its home in the city center’s Clal Building, near the Mahane Yehuda market.

“He came onto the stage, saw 200 young people, and said ‘What you’re doing, we have to do all over the city,’” recalled Matan Israeli, an artist, co-founder, and manager of Muslala, which operates the multi-purpose community rooftop in downtown Jerusalem. “Two weeks later, we were there [meeting with him] with the entire top echelon of officials. We presented the whole program.”

Miri Reiss, who is responsible for environmental protection at the municipality, confirmed that city policy was now to require all plans for new buildings to show how their roofs could be put to use.

A wide-angle shot of Muslala’s outdoor terrace in Jerusalem. (Smadar Zuk)

To kickstart activities on existing roofs — most Jerusalemites live in apartment buildings, where divided ownership of the roof can be problematic — the EDEN company issued a call for proposals worth NIS 370,000 ($104,500) (in Hebrew) earlier this month to create community roof gardens in the city, offering individual grants of up to NIS 40,000 ($11,300).

“We need to see how the market reacts to our grant offer. We want to take the pulse, and will consider expanding the grants if there’s interest,” said EDEN’s CEO, Ido Hershkovitz.

EDEN has channeled more than a million shekels ($280,000) to the Irgun Gag project over the past 18 months.

In addition to the grants, the cash pays for the salaries of Carmon and another staff member, and the work of an architecture firm, ADMA, to develop planning tools to help push the initiative forward.

Ido Hershkovitz, CEO of the Jerusalem Economic Development Company. (Ronen Horesh)

As part of a plan to ensure Jerusalem can meet its energy needs into the future,  Hershkovitz is mainly concerned with installing solar panels on roofs. He has done this on 130 public buildings to date.

But Reiss pointed out that the city has to prepare for climate change (more extreme heat and heavy downpours that can cause flooding) and protect ecosystems as construction intensifies to keep up with population growth.

“We need social, economic and environmental resilience,” Reiss said. “We want to preserve 38% of our open spaces by building more densely in the city, so we’re thinking how to better use every centimeter of a building.”

“Using the roofs combines the need to give a growing population services while also preserving nature,” she added. “Ecosystems on the ground will be recreated on the roofs.”

Muslala’s 1,650 square meter (17,750 square foot) outdoor roof serves as a laboratory for a variety of uses, including cultural events such as movie screenings, outdoor activities for schoolchildren, growing food, cultivating plants of different kinds both with and without irrigation, attracting pollinators and encouraging biological diversity by planting native species, generating renewable energy, and absorbing rainwater to help prevent flooding.

“Roofs today are essentially deserts of asphalt,” Israeli explained. “As concrete covers the open spaces of our cities, we need to recreate those spaces on the roofs.”

Matan Israeli, co-founder and manager of Muslala. (Hadar Bashari)

These, he went on, were critical for many reasons. Plants help to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide and pollution and produce oxygen. Green roofs provide insulation, keeping buildings cool in summer and warm in winter, and lowering electricity bills.

They provide food for pollinators — and can be used to provide healthy food for the building’s residents and to bring those residents together. And they provide a cool, serene, environment in which people can escape from the heat and noise of the city below.

Israeli would like to see the community use of a million square meters of roofs over the coming decade.

Dr. Noam Austerlitz, a leading green building expert, is designing part of the outdoor roof to house a one-stop shop Lab for Purposeful Roofs. This will serve as a training center and include exhibit stands for companies specializing in everything from plants suitable for roofs, shading, and rainwater run-off systems, to food-growing infrastructure, insulation, drainage equipment, soils and flooring.

The first stage of the Lab project will open during Muslala’s upcoming Paradise Roof festival, scheduled for September 12-14 on rooftops across the capital.

A movie screening under the stars at Muslala in Jerusalem. (Courtesy Muslala)

Originally founded in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem in 2009, Muslala moved to its current location, high above street level, in 2015 and opened to the public in late 2016. It currently attracts around 50,000 visitors annually.

Set up to explore the meeting points between urbanism, creativity and sustainability, and to develop innovative projects that can be replicated elsewhere, it comprises an indoor area for exhibits, meetings, and lectures, and the large open roof, full of fruit trees and other plants.

In addition to Irgun Gag, its portfolio includes Sinsila for East Jerusalem Palestinian beekeepers, a community carpentry workshop where one can learn carpentry or simply use the machinery for home DIY, and Food Rescuers, which collects excess fruit and vegetables from the city’s wholesale market and distributes it to needy families.

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