Tall, arching ficus trees line a busy boulevard in Tel Aviv.
Ficus trees on Jaffa's Jerusalem Boulevard. Naomi Zeveloff

Construction of a new light-rail system could uproot trees that activists say help define the Israeli city.

Israel is in the midst of an ambitious mass-transit project, a new light-rail network serving the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, where 44 percent of Israelis live. The system is expected to provide half a million trips a day and save hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon emissions annually.

But the project has drawn the ire of environmentalists, who say it threatens a precious resource: Tel Aviv’s towering, glossy-leafed ficus trees. Planted decades ago along the city’s wide boulevards, these trees are an iconic part of the streetscape, central to the city’s early identity as a European-style settlement in the Middle East.

In a 1974 photo, men relax in the shade of a ficus tree in Jaffa. (Moshe Milner/Israeli Government Press Office)

For three years, environmental groups, residents, and Tel Aviv University students rallied to save the ficus trees lining Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa, the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Tel Aviv. A Facebook group called “Save The Trees on Jerusalem Boulevard,” with more than 700 members, served as a hub for strategizing and communication. An online petition to “cancel the death sentence” of the trees garnered 2,172 signatures. The movement received frequent coverage in the Israeli press.

In one act of protest, activists pinned traditional Hebrew mourning notices to the trees, alerting passersby to the “untimely death of the street ficus.” (In Israel, such activism has precedent: In the 1930s Tel Aviv poet Yehuda Karni published eulogies for every tree removed by the municipality, according to a book by the late Israeli historian Natan Dunevich.)

Roughly 12,000 trees of different varieties (including ficus) stand in the path of the four planned light-rail lines. The NTA, the government company that is building the system, cannot say how many it will uproot in total, but thousands are already slated for removal. On the first line, the Red Line, which will connect Tel Aviv and four other small neighboring cities and is scheduled to open in 2021, the NTA has been authorized by the Israeli government to take down 3,000 trees. In their place, 6,000 new trees will be planted.

But environmental groups are against the policy of replacing existing trees with new ones, saying that it fails to take into account the historical value of the ficus trees. They also contend that the new trees will never match the scale of the originals, which, planted when Tel Aviv was a less-developed city, had ample room to spread roots. The substitute trees will be hemmed in by urban density, unable, as one activist put it, to “express their potential.” (The NTA counters this claim. A spokesperson, Galit Porat, said that in 10 to 20 years the new trees will match the height of the originals.)

The conservation group Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel says that Tel Aviv doesn’t do enough prioritize its trees. According to data SPNI acquired from the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, in 2017 the city cut down more than three times the number of trees it planted (around 1,750 versus 500).

“You cannot pretend you are doing sustainable development and planning if you cut all the trees,” said Philippe Brandes, an Israeli urban planner involved in the effort to save ficus trees. “That is the thing you start with; you preserve the green heritage.”

Brandes was instrumental in what the environmentalists are calling their first win: the salvaging of 26 ficus trees on Jaffa’s Jerusalem Boulevard. According to Vered Navon, a photographer working on a book about the boulevard, the trees were planted in the 1950s, likely part of a bid to make Jaffa—once a Palestinian cultural center that was largely depopulated around Israel’s founding—look more like Tel Aviv. Navon’s forthcoming book includes a 1957 photo of Jerusalem Boulevard with the then-diminutive ficus trees. Those same trees are now four stories tall, covering the street in a rich, green canopy.

After environmentalists learned that the NTA planned to remove the 26 trees, Brandes created an alternative plan showing that they could be saved by moving three stations a few dozen yards each. In early October, ahead of municipal elections in which the trees threatened to become a major campaign issue, the NTA said that, while it wasn’t adopting Brandes’s proposal, it would no longer need to uproot the trees to build the light rail.

The NTA rejects the idea that it caved to activist pressure. In an interview near a work site, where a large panel with a cartoon beaver in a hard hat (the company’s mascot) shielded the construction from the street, spokesperson Porat said that the NTA’s plans on Jerusalem Boulevard “never changed.” In her version of the story, the NTA realized it could spare the trees as part of its process of refining plans ahead of construction.

But Tel Aviv environmentalists are claiming victory, and hope to replicate their success elsewhere along the transit lines. In late December, construction started on the first section of the Purple Line along Arlozorov Street, another ficus-lined thoroughfare in central Tel Aviv. This time, activists have taken their campaign all the way to the Israeli government’s forestry department, which provides the authorization for tree removal.

It appears to be working: According to a planner with the department, just days ago it ordered the NTA to spare 28 of the 77 trees it wanted removed on the initial section of the Purple Line. (Like the NTA, the forestry department denies that it yielded to pressure.)

When asked if the NTA will do anything different to accommodate residents’ concerns about trees after the Jerusalem Boulevard fight, Porat said: “We are very happy with the positive dialogue and will be happy to continue [it].”

A Tel Aviv bridge was demolished in a controlled explosion in 2015 to make way for the city's light rail. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

The fight over the trees is a reflection of the complexity of the project. While cities in other countries incorporated mass transit early on, Israel failed to implement previous plans, leaving the NTA with the unenviable task of fitting a light rail and future subway into the fully built area of Tel Aviv and its environs. Porat called the planned system—which promises to double the use of public transit in the Tel Aviv area, from 20 to 40 percent—a way for Israel to “catch up with the rest of the world.”

Galia Hanoch-Roe, the director of the Tel Aviv branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, sees the mass-transit system as a “very important environmental solution.” But she believes it doesn’t have to come at the expense of Tel Aviv’s ecological heritage.

Her advice to the NTA? “Look at the trees as infrastructure.”

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