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Story from Israel

A River Will Run Through It

The Negev Desert blooms and it all starts in Be’er Sheva

Be’er Sheva, known as the capital of the Negev, is home to 200,000 residents. Through it runs Nahal Be’er Sheva (Be’er Sheva River), a muddy trickle of water except on the few days a year when flash floods run down its banks. The city’s image mirrors this landscape. Despite its historical significance and vibrancy, many see Be’er Sheva as culturally and geographically isolated from modern Israel. Jewish National Fund, with its partners, is working to transform Be’er Sheva into a shining example of Jewish ingenuity through a massive water, environment and economic development project.

What Be’er Sheva needs is a renaissance, and JNF, through its Blueprint Negevinitiative, is spearheading the effort. At the centerpiece is the transformation of Nahal Be’er Sheva into a 1,700-acre civic paradise along with the reconstruction of areas of historical significance like the ancient well route where the patriarch Abraham walked. The polluted riverbed that intersects the city from east to west has already been cleaned up, and landscaped promenades are beginning to line its banks. Additional plans include creating a park with an artificial lake filled with recycled water, planting 40,000 trees, building nature trails, hotels, botanical gardens, fruit groves, a 10,000-seat amphitheater for the performing arts and more. 

Nahal Be’er Sheva will be an engine for the city’s rebirth. The promise of a thriving waterfront district is already attracting new businesses and enticing visitors passing through the city to stop, relax, and enjoy a green desert oasis that offers a wealth of cultural possibilities for family recreation, including an art museum and cultural center. Beautiful new homes and apartment buildings oriented toward the park and the river have already sprung up and young families are moving to these exciting new neighborhoods. Nahal Be’er Sheva is the linchpin of the Negev community’s revival, bringing new life to the region and a reason for its residents to remain and prosper.

JNF is using its expertise in water rehabilitation to recycle the city’s water and transport it to a 20-acre lake. The water will be cleaned, stored, and then sent down the dry riverbed year-round as clean water for recreation that will bring renewed life to downtown Be’er Sheva. The riverbanks will be home to 1,700 acres of new parks, spanning five miles. JNF has already begun to build some parks along the river, and renovate historical sites including Beit Eshel and the Turkish Bridge.

The goal is to increase the population of Be’er Sheva to 400,000. Through Nahal Be’er Sheva, Be’er Sheva’s image is being transformed into that of a green and vibrant modern city, truly the capital of the Negev.

How is this being accomplished?

The very same engineering team that revitalized San Antonio, Texas, with the creation of the Riverwalk, is helping to do just that in Be’er Sheva. Their focus is the waterfront, understanding it must have a unique sense of place as well as the right mixture of uses and activities to attract residents on a regular basis. They have learned that a good waterfront project will not only increase tourism and trade, but will create employment opportunities, preserve and restore historic buildings, and truly enhance a city’s image.

“We want to accomplish two main goals with the river project,” said Itai Freeman, project director for the Be’er Sheva River Park management. “We want to enhance the local identity by giving the residents an icon, and, after years of broken promises to the region, to make people believe again that big and long-term projects can be done. We want to make good on the promise. We know it can be done because we spent a lot of time researching it and have taken our inspiration from San Antonio, TX and Phoenix AZ.”

In 1930, San Antonio had 230,000 residents and no visitors. In 2000, 1.5 million people called it their home and it boasted 13 million tourists. It grew from the nation’s 41st largest city to its 7th largest city. All because of the riverfront.

“The water ties the different parts of the city together,” said Edward Garza, a former mayor of San Antonio and principal of the global planning, design, and management firm AECOM, which designed the riverfront. “It offers opportunities to live, work and play.”

“What worked in San Antonio will work in Be’er Sheva,” said Freeman. “The riverfront will transform the city into a desirable place of choice in which to raise a family. It is the most critical project.”

It is already working.

A renewed sense of energy is in the air in Be’er Sheva. Newly built promenades are being used by runners and cyclists alike. An internship sponsored by JNF is successfully matching up Ben Gurion University students with employment opportunities thereby keeping the brains in the Negev rather than losing them to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The Old Turkish City is undergoing a gentrification and there are more families on the waiting list for new homes in surrounding suburbs than ever before.

But back to the park. “This park has to meet the needs of a diverse population,” said Freeman, “which includes students, Orthodox and Bedouin alike for whom modesty is an issue, mothers with many children and a small budget, and families playing ball. It has to be a park for everyone.

“Water will be the lure, the attraction,” he continued. “Using only recycled water that will be pumped up and sent back, it will give the illusion of flowing water. The challenge, like they faced in San Antonio, is developing a park within a flood plain, which Be’er Sheva is. Everything in its path has to be considered and that’s what we are doing. But the finished part of the promenade – about two miles out of the total five – has already created the ‘wow’ factor. The local community has begun to get excited about what’s going on and they are starting to get involved. This coming Hanukkah thousands of teens, family, soldiers, and school children will celebrate here as part of JNF’s ‘Illuminating the Negev’ project. And that is what it’s all about.”

JNF is of course not working alone, and plans for revitalizing the Negev are not focused on Be’er Sheva alone. With a goal of growing the Negev’s population, closing economic and educational gaps, reducing the unemployment rate, creating quality of life for all residents, and building a stronger Israel, the plan includes a government investment of over $4 billion, non-profit investment of $600 million, and private investment of $2.5 billion. Blueprint Negev includes infrastructure; housing loans and incentives; education; employment opportunities; tourism; partnerships; bolstering existing towns; greening military bases; building new communities; working with the Bedouin councils; protecting the environment; and discovering and protecting water resources.

It was David Ben Gurion’s dream to make the Negev Desert bloom. It is finally becoming a reality. As the Israeli newspaper Yediot Hanegev wrote in a recent article: “Go take a short trip to the Be’er Sheva River, and you’ll come back encouraged and with a lot of faith in your heart.”


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