In a recent trip to Bethlehem, landscape architect Simon Watkins visited Osh Grab park – a green space providing relief and hope for families in a troubled region
After the crumbling infrastructure of Bethlehem, it comes as a surprise to arrive at a smart and new, if modest, public open space outside the neighbouring town of Beit Sahour. Osh Grab is a park built on a former Ottoman military base in 2007 by the Mayor of Beit Sahour, after years of futile attempts to gain planning consent for other forms of development from the occupying authorities. It’s currently well used – quite a new situation, as not long after it was first opened, locals using the park experienced significant negative pressure from nearby Israeli settlers. However, as with many localised flashpoints in the West Bank, tensions have slipped beneath the surface for the time being and something resembling a normal park is emerging.
I arrived in the early evening of a balmy spring day, when the playground was active with runabout games, groups of teenagers gathered under wooden shelters and play equipment was noisily occupied by joyful youngsters.
This is not an expensive piece of landscape: there is no money for trimmings in the West Bank. Surfacing is informal or concrete, concrete walls are decorated with simple artwork, play equipment is basic, planting sparse. One spectacular feature draws the eye: a huge timber climbing tower, provided by US NGO Paidia. The smart toilet block was funded by UK charity the Amos Trust. Sports courts, a bar and events room complete the offer.
However, simple as it is, the value of Osh Grab is intensified in comparison to equivalent open spaces in less pressured parts of the world. During the past decade, green space around and within Bethlehem has become increasingly inaccessible to the indigenous population, being taken for settlement building or being lassoed by the route of the “separation barrier” that runs through the West Bank. Movement around the surrounding countryside is now so heavily controlled, a generation is growing without the possibility of significant interaction with their traditional landscape.
As a well maintained, active and relatively safe space, Osh Grab provides relief and hope for local families: a place where for the time being children can run around, play, talk and grow.
By Simon J Watkins BSc(Hons) and Msc(Eng)