One of the inhabitants of Gazelle Valley. (Photo: Amir Balaban)
One of the inhabitants of Gazelle Valley. (Photo: Amir Balaban)

Braving a biting late spring wind, hundreds of people turned out for the March 30 grand opening of the city’s new urban nature park at Gazelle Valley – the only one of its kind in Israel.

Bordered on all sides by major traffic thoroughfares and dense residential housing, Gazelle Valley (“Emek HaTzvaim” in Hebrew) stretches over 62 acres. A herd of wild gazelles has long made its home in this unlikely refuge in southwest Jerusalem as the surrounding development effectively penned in the gentle beasts.

The newly opened nature reserve – with certain off-limits areas devoted to the revitalized herd — has five natural and manmade ponds, walking trails and bicycle paths, two flowing streams, bird and rodent watching stations, an arbor, a manmade island accessed via wooden bridges, and signposts describing its many plant and animal inhabitants.

A visitor center with a “green roof” offers binoculars, mats and deck chairs on loan, and visitors can sign up for guided group nature tours. In the future, the center will sell ready-to-eat picnic baskets as well.

Music filled the air on opening day, and concerts are planned regularly for Gazelle Park. That’s the Holyland apartment complex in the distance. (Photo: Abigail Klein Leichman)
Music filled the air on opening day, and concerts are planned regularly for Gazelle Park. That’s the Holyland apartment complex in the distance. (Photo: Abigail Klein Leichman)

All this is the result of a 20-year battle by local residents,with the help of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and other environmentalists, to keep the green valley out of the hands of high-rise developers. Six years ago, the city pledged to infuse NIS 22 million to ready the park for the public without endangering the gazelles for which it is famed and named.

Another NIS 70 million will be invested over the next few yearsto revitalize an old fruit orchard and build a farm pond and an educational center devoted to the mountain gazelle native to this part of the Middle East.

The valley’s bicycle paths will be linked to existing bike paths running along Sacher Park and Mesila Park; and a wooden promenade will be built above the valley,giving access to the park from the surrounding neighborhoods.Gazelle Valley also will be home to the Jerusalem Center for Urban Nature.

Why you’ll want to visit Gazelle Valley

It’s safe to assume that the many children frolicking around the natural expanse on opening day were oblivious to the history of Gazelle Valley, also known as Deer Valley.

Clad in freebie logo t-shirts and caps given to the first few hundred entrants, kids enjoyed hands-on guided activities such as planting in beverage bottles, building birdhouses, upcycling egg cartons into creepy-crawlies and exploring a beehive (without the bees).

Adults browsed informational booths on ecological topics such as composting, while a dance troupe, a musical ensemble, and entertainers dressed as trees and gazelles completed the picture.

 Visitors picked up pointers about urban gardening at Gazelle Valley’s opening day. (Photo: Abigail Klein Leichman)
Visitors picked up pointers about urban gardening at Gazelle Valley’s opening day. (Photo: Abigail Klein Leichman)

However, even if you missed opening day there are plenty of good reasons to head to Gazelle Valley, open free of charge seven days a week and accessible to people with mobility challenges. Despite some rocky terrain, ISRAEL21c saw plenty of visitors navigating the park in wheelchairs and strollers.

One advantage of being located in a busy part of town is that several bus lines pass near Gazelle Valley. There is also a parking lot next to a children’s play area leading to the park. Strategically placed stone water fountains throughout the park assure that nobody will go thirsty.

On weekdays, Gazelle Valley will be filled with schoolchildren learning about environmentalism and sustainability. Chamber music concerts are planned as a regular offering, while communal Friday evening Sabbath services will be held here as well.

The site is an example of an innovative urban approach to open spaces such as Central Park in New York, Hampstead Heath in London and Parc St. Jacques in France. This approach stresses the importance of creating a space for greenery,wild animals and birds capable of coexisting in an urban environment, to be enjoyed by city residents and visitors.

Kids had hands-on activities such as planting in old soda bottles. (Photo: Abigail Klein Leichman)
Kids had hands-on activities such as planting in old soda bottles. (Photo: Abigail Klein Leichman)

“The park’s guiding principle is revolutionary in terms of Israeli urban public spaces – a nature reserve in the middle of Jerusalem,” said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

The city already has an urban birding station, the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, near the Knesset and Supreme Court government complex.

“For us, the Gazelle Valley project represents the direction in which we want to take the city: Developing Jerusalem’s green spaces together and in partnership with the community and with the backing of many municipal entities working to enhance the environment and protect Jerusalem’s natural assets,” concluded Barkat.

The park is being built by the Jerusalem municipality with help from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Jerusalem Foundation.

A signpost describes the trees along the Orchard Trail. (Photo: Abigail Klein Leichman)
A signpost describes the trees along the Orchard Trail. (Photo: Abigail Klein Leichman)

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