I’m talking to Shay Levi, and he’s animated. The head of Ariel Sharon Park’s Environmental Planning and Ecology Department is explaining to me, a representative of Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds, how a massive landfill once referred to as “trash mountain,” among other disparaging names, could become a global model of sustainability, and a welcome oasis of green serenity for Israelis living in the Greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

This, he says enthusiastically, “is something Israel can be proud of.”

He’s right. As we explored the park last month, with its tranquil waters, walking and biking trails and impressive vistas of the Tel Aviv skyline, it was hard to imagine that for decades, this was a site of noxious fumes, spontaneous combustion and methane explosions.

The huge landfill contained so much trash — more than 565 cubic feet of unsorted garbage at its notorious peak — that it eventually rose to a height of nearly 200 feet, making it an unsightly landmark visible for miles around.

If all that weren’t bad enough, the hundreds of thousands of birds swooping in to feast on the garbage posed a serious danger to flights in and out of nearby Ben Gurion Airport.

And so, in 1998, 54 years after it opened during the period of the British Mandate, the landfill was closed. That, however, was not the end of the saga. The colossal trash mound continued to be an eyesore and ecological hazard, bringing the next issue to the forefront: now what?

A “Green Lung”

Because the site was government land, an initial proposal was to build apartments. Discussions dragged on for nearly seven years until then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided the area, encompassing 2,000 acres, would be designated as a “green lung” that, according to Levi, more than doubled the amount of green space in Tel Aviv.

With the decision made, plans to develop what Levi proudly calls “one of the biggest environmental projects in the world” were underway. The first step was to hold a design competition for an advanced ecological park. Israeli and international landscape architects submitted their respective visions for the makeover, with the winning design coming from Germany’s Peter Latz.

Aerial view of the expanse of Ariel Sharon Park, with the rehabilitated “trash mountain” in the background (Albatross)

Aerial view of the expanse of Ariel Sharon Park, with the rehabilitated “trash mountain” in the background (Albatross)

An integral part of the plan was not to conceal the former “trash mountain,” but instead, says Levi, to highlight it as “a symbol of sustainability.” Four objectives were determined: the park would be multifunctional; it would be modern; it would be sustainable; and finally, Ariel Sharon Park would be a model of environmental healing.

Surmounting Challenges

Obviously, turning a massive trash dump into a haven of green was not without considerable challenges, including the intertwined risks of pollution, health and safety issues. The first step was to extract the combustible methane gases from the mountain via a series of perforated pipes. In keeping with the project’s focus on sustainability, the collected gas was utilized as a source of green energy. Levi explains that everything involved in creating and maintaining the park “is part of an ecosystem.”

Once the site of noxious fumes, spontaneous combustion and methane explosions, today, Ariel Sharon Park is the perfect place for a hike (Ariel Sharon Park)

Once the site of noxious fumes, spontaneous combustion and methane explosions, today, Ariel Sharon Park is the perfect place for a hike
(Ariel Sharon Park)

Protections were then put into place to monitor methane emissions, check mountain movement and maintain slope integrity to ensure the safety of visitors.

Then, the award-winning designs created by Latz — an artificial body of water dubbed “the mountain oasis,” a shaded pavilion overlooking Tel Aviv, and terraces made of thousands of cubic feet of recycled concrete — were shifted from blueprints to reality.

The park's tranquil lake, complete with floating lily pads and a border built from recycled concrete, is a far cry from the waters of the former landfill, once caustically referred to as “garbage juice” (James S. Galfund)

The park’s tranquil lake, complete with floating lily pads and a border built from recycled concrete, is a far cry from the waters of the former landfill, once caustically referred to as “garbage juice” (James S. Galfund)

In 2014, the first phase of the park, the rehabilitated “trash mountain,” opened to the public. Thousands of Israelis have subsequently flocked to the park to take advantage of its network of hiking trails and bike paths, stroll along artificial river banks, enjoy the shade provided by groves of trees and partake in the many leisure and recreational activities offered by the park.

And it’s not only for the benefit of people. Levi says “animals that had disappeared for decades” have reappeared to enjoy the region’s only wide expanse of green. Numerous four-legged, aquatic and winged species can all be spotted throughout the park.

Welcoming Visitors

On any given day, Ariel Sharon Park welcomes visitors of all kinds. They include Israelis seeking a respite from the pressures of everyday life, student groups, and international representatives from countries including China, Sri Lanka and Mexico seeking to benefit from yet another example of Israeli ingenuity.

There are also the thousands who attend Ariel Sharon Park’s annual Skyline Music Festival, held against the glittering backdrop of the nightlights of Tel Aviv.

A spectacular view of the glittering Tel Aviv skyline, as seen from the park's pavilion (Niv Mosman)

A spectacular view of the glittering Tel Aviv skyline, as seen from the park’s pavilion (Niv Mosman)

The project, says Levi, remains ongoing. With the mountain transformed, plans for the next phase are equally ambitious: a promenade along an artificial lake, an open-air theater with a 30,000-person capacity, a biodiversity center and more. Levi even speaks excitedly of a pedestrian bridge linking the park with Tel Aviv, enabling visitors to arrive on foot or by bike.

The catch to all this is that government funding is drying up, so Levi says the park will be turning to outside funding and sponsorships to help keep the ambitious project on track.

When complete, Levi notes Ariel Sharon Park will be twice the size of New York’s Central Park. It will be, he says, “something to give to future generations,” adding, “We’re doing good for the public. Everyone is coming and enjoying the park. This,” he states emphatically, “is the most important thing.”

As Levi says this, I look around and see a group of visiting Israeli Arab schoolkids hopping up and down in excitement. Seems like he’s onto something.

James Galfund is National Director of Marketing & Communications for Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds. He is a regular visitor to Israel, where he’s always on the lookout for an amazing and unexpected experience.