Groundswell: Naomi Tsur on Solving Cities

Naomi Tsur is the founder and executive chair of the Jerusalem Green Fund, which promotes environmental, social and economic sustainability in Greater Jerusalem. She is a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and also heads the Israel Urban Forum, under the umbrella of UN Habitat.

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

I am the founder and executive chair of the Jerusalem Green Fund (JGF), which promotes environmental, social, and economic sustainability in Greater Jerusalem through the support of grassroots initiatives. I’m based in Jerusalem, in Kiryat Moshe. Since becoming a widow four years ago, my apartment has been the JGF office. Having a smaller footprint has to do with sustainability apart from anything else!

One of the major impacts of climate change is flooding. We have seven dry months in Israel and then floods in the winter. And the floods are not managed properly because no one ever saw them as a real threat. Now they are. The Gazelle Valley Park in Jerusalem was the product of a civil campaign led by the Society for the Preservation of Nature, which I Ied at the time. It is a nature preserve for native, endangered Israeli gazelles and other species in the heart of Jerusalem, and was recently listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as one of 14 possible nature-based solutions to be used in the world because of the way it promotes biodiversity and uses natural processes to adapt to consequences from climate change, in this case flooding.

When I became deputy mayor of Jerusalem in 2008, I spent a lot of my time getting funds for the development of the park. I got the original funds through the Sorek Drainage Authority, which is in charge of the drainage issues in the entire Sorek Basin, which includes two thirds of Jerusalem. The Gazelle Valley Park includes a few lakes, which serve as drainage lakes for the Sorek Valley. It’s been called an urban kidney because it absorbs a quarter of Jerusalem’s drainage water. If we don’t make room for absorption of precipitation in Jerusalem, which comes down harder, faster, and less often than it used to, then you have erosion. Since the creation of the park, flooding in the nearby neighborhoods has stopped.

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

I’m acutely aware of the fact that the summers are hotter than they were, and the weather conditions in the winter can be very, very extreme. In my apartment building, tremendous rain has brought floods to our basement! It happened three to four times last winter. I went out of the house to go to the shuk (local open-air market), and when I got to the elevator to take it down, I heard water running underneath—and opted to take the stairs! That wouldn’t have happened 10 years back. That said, I also can’t say I’m one of the people suffering most acutely from climate impacts.

Where have you found community, allies and connection in your work?

No mechanism will work to preserve and maximize the wonderful natural aspects of this region, which are natural treasures, unless all the parties work together. We have a consortium with the Jerusalem municipality and the Matei Yehuda regional council, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-JNF, JNF-USA Abu Gosh, an Arab-Israeli local council just beside Jerusalem, and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. We, the Jerusalem Green Fund, are the conveners, and we all work together.

Regional thinking is so important. Although the flood basin of the Sorek starts in Jerusalem, it goes through many other localities. We all have to work together to prevent flooding, preserve nature and provide food for everyone in the region.

What tools or practices from Judaism do you draw on for inspiration or motivation in your work? 

I think it’s the secret of life—to find what you can do to make little improvements. I think that’s a very Jewish concept, similar to the concept of tikkun olam.

I remember once, the Lubavitcher Rebbe made an announcement. He said at a certain time on a specific day, everyone has to do something good. He said that if everyone does it all together, the Messiah will come. It’s that concept of getting more people involved in doing little things. That’s the other end of the spectrum as opposed to the so-called big knobs, who are convening and producing all these terrible doomsday reports, which make everyone very depressed.

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

I’m working on the Jerusalem biosphere because we’re heading toward a world of cities, rather than of countries. There are going to be three main groupings in the future as far as I can see: cities, corporations and digital communities.

Cities are becoming focal points both as the problem and, hopefully, as the solution. They’re the most polluted, the most crowded places on earth. Pandemics flourish there, on top of everything else. On the other hand, if you run a city properly, it can be the heart of solving the problem. Israel is 92 percent urban, which means our cities are the solution. They have to be. For us to keep our international climate commitments, it’s going to be done through the cities.

When I go to COP, I will have a badge that says the Jerusalem Green Fund—not the Israel Urban Forum or anything else—because the heart of anything I do is the city of Jerusalem.

What specific/ecological/local/grounded aspects of the climate emergency do you think deserve the most urgent attention?

Food is going to be very central at COP26, but it wasn’t even on the menu of sustainability until a few years ago. People talked about energy, sometimes about water, and nature. But now, people realize that how we produce food has one of the biggest impacts on our footprint [agriculture accounts for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with half of that from livestock and most of the rest from deforestation, for which food production is the main impetus].

Growing food locally is one of the things the Jerusalem Green Fund is already working on. In the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Menachem, we have an edible neighborhood project, and we’re working with the Ethiopian community in order to support a better relationship and more inclusion. We have an Ethiopian garden, and the women of the community will cook Ethiopian food and host. We engage individuals and communities—every single person—on this issue. I think a lot of emphasis—and maybe too much—is being placed on global and national policy vis a vis combating climate change.

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

It’s a question of creating positivity. It’s very important in this state of global depression about climate change. But life in a mode of depression isn’t very functional or productive. I try to hang onto the positive and take great joy when I see little good things and big good things happening in the city—especially more diverse communities coming on board and wanting to do things. You can’t stay depressed when all that is going on!

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