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November 28, 2016updated 15 Jul 2021 4:34pm

Israel: like a “living laboratory for the study and preservation of urban wildlife”

By Amir Balaban

There is a common misconception that nature’s place is far away, well outside the boundaries of our cities and towns, to be enjoyed only during vacation. Fortunately for our animal friends, quite the opposite is true.

In fact, when reviewing the living patterns of wildlife over the past couple of decades, we have noticed that they don’t simply survive in urban areas, but are actually thriving. This doesn’t always come about naturally, though: if we hope to continue to enjoy living side by side with our local wildlife, we need to develop sanctuaries in urban settings.

Like any other ecological system, urban environments develop according to the type of habitat it produces. A bridge or a building edifice might be nothing more than a concrete structure for humans; but a bird will see the similarities to a cliff face and may decide that it is the ideal place to build its nest.

And so, all urban developers must be mindful enough to begin the landscaping and construction process by figuring out how their new structures will fit within a given ecological system – specifically how the local wildlife will react to and even benefit from them.

Israel’s urban landscapes are unique in that they are some of the oldest in the world, enabling us to examine how animals have been reacting to these environments over thousands of years. Wherever you look, whether in Jerusalem, Jericho, or on the coast in Caesarea, you find ancient cities that have provided a home for a wide array of Israeli wildlife, successfully integrating many species into their historic structures and spaces. Israel is like a living laboratory for the study and preservation of urban wildlife.

The Gazelle Valley Park, Jerusalem. Image: SPNI.

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Adaptation in action

In the country’s ancient and modern cities alike, it is always fascinating to note how the local wildlife has changed to adapt to its newfound environments. Urban areas now boast fewer large animals – but smaller ones have adapted in ingenious ways.

Over the years, we have observed certain species actually surpassing their natural abilities to survive in the wild with the introduction of cities into their habitats. With a more readily available food supply, thanks to trash thrown out by humans, and the decrease of natural predators in cities, certain species can grow unimpeded.

In order to ensure the continued survival of nature and wildlife within Israel, the urban conservation plan spearheaded by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) employs both the mapping and maintenance of local nature hotspots in cities throughout the country. These surveys supply the data needed for policy reforms that focus on creating tools for sustainable development.

Until recently, every weed in Tel Aviv was killed using harmful herbicides. Upon reviewing the data, SPNI realized that this was incredibly harmful to the local animal population. Together with several local activists groups, SPNI managed to persuade the municipality to change its method of operation. Now, all weeds are mowed to safeguard the local animals.

The Jerusalem Bird Observatory. Image: SPNI.

This example highlights the need for public intervention in the preservation of nature, especially when it comes to public policy. SPNI’s newest public policy campaign surrounds the design of new public building. We are urging the Knesset to implement legislation that would call for architects and urban developers to integrate spaces on roofs, entrances and walls that could serve as shelter for local wildlife, thereby mitigating the negative environmental impact of these structures on the surrounding natural habitats. Hopefully, this effort will be successful, and Israel will lead the way toward green building practices, fortifying nature’s place within or society.

With Israel’s population on the rise, continued urban development is guaranteed. As such, conservations activists across the country will have their work cut out for them in the years to come. With every city expansion, we see great opportunities to implement change. However, the activists simply cannot do it alone.

Living within nature, side by side with local wildlife, is part and parcel of life. We may take it for granted, but it would impact us tremendously if it all slipped away. It’s time for individuals to speak out and insist that their local government officials implement pro-environmental policies and become fully aware of the impact of urban development on the local environment. At this crucial stage, it’s all about safeguarding the survival of nature itself – the future of which is firmly rooted within every city and town.

Amir Balaban is the urban nature coordinator at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). He also serves as the co-director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and has worked on the renovation of the Gazelle Valley Park in Jerusalem.

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