Groundswell: Alon Eliran on Forest Cities

Environment, Israel, Latest
Alon Eliran of CityTree, an ecolab in Tel Aviv.

Alon Eliran is a doctor of environmental sciences and member of CityTree, a Tel Aviv-based eco-social business, knowledge center, and residential collective focused on urban ecology and climate resilience. CityTree was founded in 2006 by Eliran’s partner, artist and former NYC-businesswoman Tami Zori, who built the first “CityTree” website as a blog to share information about healthy nutrition, composting, and other aspects of an ecologically sound urban lifestyle. In 2008 CityTree began evolving into a physical space—a sequence of apartments in Tel Aviv’s Bialik Square that put these insights into practice.

What do you see as your role in confronting the climate crisis?

CityTree links the little daily things we do to the wide perspective of the climate crisis. One aspect of our work is freeing ourselves from the many system constraints that most people have. Living as we would like to live, here and now, while also protesting against the things that limit the way we can live the utopia. We deal with everything in an ecological household—for instance food: where does it come from? What is good for us? Where does it go when it becomes waste? And composting of course, and different ways to process food so as to preserve it, to take more advantage of what we have.

Adapting to climate change means changing how we do everything: cleaning and taking care of our health, water, laundry, and gardening and foraging. So we lead workshops and publish a lot of writing about these topics, and we offer guided tours and community events. Whatever we do as part of our life is the basis for what we teach. CityTree has also published a detailed vision for turning Tel Aviv into an ecological forest city, which can be adapted for other cities as well.

The forest city is a vision nowadays shared in the world and in Israel, and we’re trying to promote it. We’re models for this vision in our home. It has to do with the way cities are built and run: maintaining vegetation and trees, and letting them grow even in the face of lots of development pressure. It also connects to the issue of runoff water, which is a very serious issue in Tel Aviv and in urbanized places, because the more ground is covered by concrete and asphalt, the less room we have for water to infiltrate in the soil and the more flooding we get along with the intensification of rain patterns because of climate change. So we try to really bring the agenda of having more and more soil, free soil, soil that is taken care of properly, to really let water infiltrate so that the grass can grow and we can grow food in the city. The vision centers on honoring the trees as sacred partners. If we honor urban trees, the rest of the vision can come into reality around them.

What is one way the climate emergency has directly impacted your life?

Though it might not sound very dramatic, there have been changes in fruit patterns, in what grows in a season and what doesn’t grow. It’s not only fruits we grow personally, but what we hear from our suppliers and places we forage, in Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

What tools or practices for processing the enormity of the climate crisis have you found within the Jewish tradition? 

Yehuda Ashlag (1885-1954), a Lodz-born Jewish kabbalist also called the Baal HaSulam, wrote that the goal in our lives should be to enrich the world around us and connect to what the land we live in enriches us with. But also, just connecting to Jewish places and what they symbolize. In Israel we’re very deeply connected to the time of the year and its natural dynamics. It’s deeply linked to the Jewish holidays. One thing that is extremely important is local knowledge, and we as Israelis can find a lot of this knowledge in the Jewish tradition, such as the seasons and how they relate to the natural world and the agricultural world.

What other traditions and lineages do you draw upon?

Any information about species of vegetables and seeds, and ways to work with soil and water, is precious. Palestinians in Israel and in Palestine still use a lot of that knowledge, on the one hand, and on the other hand, a lot of it is getting lost. We’ve learned about species they grow and have grown here for generations that are not always known to the general public. We’ve also learned, for instance, from farmers in the north of Israel, where they have a lot of rain, methods to retain that rain so that they don’t need to water the entire summer, because the soil holds so much of the water from the winter. And in the south, it’s the same issue but with very little rain, even in winter, when it comes in bunches because it’s the desert. And Palestinians have their methods to channel that water and use it most effectively and reduce much of the need for watering.

In the lead-up to COP26, what have you been doing and feeling?

We mainly follow the development in climate journalism, which has been very impressive recently, in Israel and in the world. We have several friends who are journalists, and we share their work with our audience. One important journalist is Shani Ashkenazi. She was maybe the first to make a big issue out of the climate crisis. She’s also going to COP26, she writes in Globes, an Israeli paper. Another one, Lee Yaron, writes at Haaretz. She recently arranged a course for journalists about climate change at Tel Aviv University to promote this issue in journalism.

What aspects of the climate emergency do you think deserve more urgent attention?

For us, the big vision is the forest city. How do you make people live off of what supports life, rather than by what extinguishes life? How do you help people, for instance, make their living from urban agriculture, and promote more people being able to work near where they’re living? Today, urban farming is something that people do in their free time voluntarily, while they spend most of their time somewhere in some distant office, doing something that’s irrelevant to the climate crisis, and in most cases, adding to it.

How do you find meaning and hope as you navigate the climate crisis?

In dreaming. Letting yourself dream and make your dream real, even on a small scale, helps you see what is possible. At CityTree we know that it’s not for us to operate on the big scale, but making small changes does mean that at least we, and anyone adopting this way of living, has a better chance to survive and even live well under changing conditions.

Click here to see more installments of Moment‘s Groundswell series.

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