The garden paradise set to be built on the Masada of refuse tips

By Eric Silver, April 11, 2008

For nearly 50 years people driving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv knew they were getting close when they were overpowered by the stench of the Hiriya, where Tel Aviv and neighbouring municipalities dumped 3,000 tons of household waste every day.

When it was closed nine years ago, the landfill of 16 million putrid tons had soared to a height of 60 metres above the plain, a Masada of the 20th century. Hundreds of seagulls and storks, feeding on the rotting kitchen slops, endangered flights into Ben-Gurion airport 5km away.

The first thing a visitor notices today is that the smell has vanished and, with it, the birds. Engineers have drilled 65 wells 30 metres down into the waste to extract 30,000 cubic metres of biogas every day. It is piped five kilometers to fuel a textile factory that employs 250 workers and was threatened with closure because its oil-burning machines were polluting the atmosphere.

The Hiriya is being transformed into the core of a 2,000-acre park — farmland and streams, lakes and trees, cycle and hiking trails. The hill, with panoramic views of the Mediterranean to the west and mountains to the east, will be made safe.

It is a joint venture of the Israeli Government, 18 local authorities, environmental campaigners and foreign donors, led by the Beracha Foundation. They have named it after former premier, Ariel Sharon.

The government has promised 10 million shekels a year for the next five years, if planners can raise an equal sum. The American Beracha Foundation has put in 20 million shekels and committed to another 30 million.

Standing on the mountaintop this week, Tzipi Iser-Itzik, executive director of the Israel Union of Environment Defence, said: “This is going to be a green lung where people can come and enjoy themselves. It will remind future generations that we can do things differently.”

The park will be open free to the public. Danny Sternberg, its chief executive, explained: “We want to give the hundreds of thousands of people who live around here in poor neighbourhoods and have suffered from the terrible smell and aerial pollution something better. They deserve it.”

A first segment is due to open in three years, but a visitors’ centre is already receiving 3,000 schoolchildren a month.

Recycling is the order of the day. The centre is housed in an abandoned compost treatment plant, with seats sculpted from old tyres. Outside, builders’ rubble is being ground into aggregate to shore up the steep slopes of the Hiriya. Garden waste is being chopped into wood chips and mulch for the flower beds.

The park was the brainchild of Martyn Weyl, a former director of the Israel Museum who now runs the Beracha Foundation. He invited 20 local and foreign artists to suggest solutions. Peter Latz, a leading German landscape architect, was hired to head the design team.

“It always bothered me,” Dr Weyl said, “that in the most central part of the country there was such a symbol of neglect and bad management, that when people flew into Israel, they entered via a garbage dump. I made it my goal to transform it from a negative to a positive icon.”

Only contractors, who want to build a new town on the site, could stop him. The politicians and the courts have held them at bay. So far.

Last updated: 4:38pm, September 23 2009