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Winning Israeli idea helps urban agriculture take root

The Forest City initiative is taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis by encouraging urban agriculture while Israelis stay home and garden.
An Israeli girl picks Ranunculus flowers in a cultivated field in the southern Israeli Kibbutz of Nir Yitzhak, located along the Israeli-Gaza Strip border, on April 20, 2015. The flower bulbs will be mostly exported to Europe. AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA        (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel and Minister for Community Empowerment and Advancement Orly Levi-Abekasis announced July 18 that their respective ministries will advance plans to promote urban agriculture across Israel. The announcement was hailed by many environmental activists and groups.

Israel is currently experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But for some Israelis, the pandemic also represents an opportunity for change. The Radical group is made up of such people and its Idea Lab promotes groundbreaking, innovative initiatives. A few weeks ago, the group launched a competition for globe-changing ideas. There were 700 ideas submitted to Radical, which promised to present the winning idea to the relevant authorities and work toward real, concrete results. The contest led directly to Gamliel and Levy-Abekasis’ announcement.

"Minister Gamliel sees great importance in developing urban agriculture — a significant and relevant issue especially in the corona period," her office told the press. The winning idea "implements the objectives of the environment protection ministry while adding an angle of innovation."

Tel Aviv University professor Alon Eliran and activist Tami Zori were the ones to propose the winning idea. Their Forest City vision offers holistic, radical answers to the needs of our modern cities, designed for cars instead of people.

The Forest City concept is simple: planting trees and other plants across the urban setting so that vegetation covers much of the asphalt and cement landscape, producing a harmonious and multi-purpose environment. Eliran and Zori proposed a new urban concept in which nature becomes an integral component of the city habitat. Their plan calls for municipalities to encourage residents to cultivate all sorts of vegetation, including edible plants and medicinal herbs, plants that promise to contribute to residents' nutritional needs. Residents who take part in the project are to receive funding. Organic waste will not be discarded but used as fertilizer, to minimize environmental impact. Municipalities will take measures to encourage urban landscaping, such as subsidizing water expenses for buildings with gardens or reducing taxes.

Eliran explained to Al-Monitor that Forest City was born out of a local Tel Aviv study conducted by a group called TreeCity Zori headed for several years. "Our idea developed out of a long academic and practical study conducted at the Bialik Square neighborhood, and it incorporates several layers of thinking. On one end of the scale, we have the simple, straightforward action of planting every plot we can put our hands on, intimately familiarizing ourselves with the new environment created. On the other hand, we have the big picture. Bialik Square in particular, with its history of Tel Aviv’s creation, and the White City vision of Tel Aviv in general … Above these layers we have the vision of bringing the trees back to the city and protecting our old trees from the dangers they continuously face. Zooming out even more, we have the principle of saving our cities from the climate and ecological crisis our generation is facing, while offering an alternative economic model."

During the first wave of the coronavirus in Israel, many of those who stayed home engaged in gardening. People living in apartments took to gardening on their balconies. Israeli architects now estimate that new post-corona buildings will be designed with larger balconies than before.

A March 15 Facebook post by the Papirusgan digital magazine clearly illustrated this trend. "Let’s make good use of this free time to learn, take care of our gardens and prepare for the next season. … We are inviting you all, gardeners, talented amateurs, gardening companies, landscape designers to share with us ideas and tips on how to help plants grow and flourish, how to prepare our gardens, prepare our watering systems at home, outside or on rooftops."

Eliran and Zori are optimistic. They said that they received a multitude of encouraging messages and invitations from several public offices to discuss their idea. They noted that Radical is committed to turning their vision into concrete plans. On July 26, Zori posted on Facebook that she and her friends were on their way to a formal presentation of their vision to ministry officials. Zori posted the first page of her PowerPoint presentation: "Urban agriculture; from words to deeds."

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