Dame Shirley Porter was a politician and environmental activist in the UK before moving to Israel in 1993. As Leader of Westminster City Council and Lord Mayor of Westminster, she introduced various projects to clean up London.
In Israel she became involved with the Council for a Beautiful Israel and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and she was awarded the prestigious ‘Green Globe’ award in 2009 for her contribution to Israel’s environmental movement.
The Porter Foundation, established by Dame Shirley Porter and her late husband Sir Leslie Porter, supports a number of environmental and philanthropic initiatives in Israel. Its flagship project today is the Porter School of Environmental Studies (PSES) at Tel Aviv University, established in 2000 as Israel’s first multi-disciplinary graduate school dedicated to the research, teaching and dissemination of environmental studies.
Dame Shirley Porter has been actively involved in the design and construction of the new Porter School for Environment Studies, which is one of the first “green buildings” in Israel. Opening in May 2014, it is designed as a living laboratory for students of green building techniques and environmental research.
Robin Cook: Why have you chosen environmentalism as your philanthropic focus?
Dame Shirley Porter: I have always been involved in everything to do with the environment, and in particular cleaning up cities. I believe that if a place is beautiful, you feel better. If it’s clean, you feel better. In London, it started with planting trees and flowers on roundabouts and making the city look more attractive. From that aesthetic point of view I gradually became involved in the theoretical and academic side of the environmental movement.
Robin Cook: Do you think that Israel takes environmental issues seriously enough?
Dame Shirley Porter: When I visited Israel 20 years ago, there was very little awareness of these issues. The first person whom I think made a big difference was Ora Herzog, who started a programme to teach children not to pick wild flowers. Today there is much more global awareness. It has been a bottom-up movement – it came from the people and it is now being taken very seriously by government. The Porter School for Environmental Studies has already trained many people who are entering politics and the civil service. They will have an impact on how Israel’s cities are run and what laws and guidelines are put in place.
Robin Cook: What new legislation would you recommend?
Dame Shirley Porter: Whenever a new apartment block is constructed, the contractors just dig up the pavement and leave it in a mess afterwards. When I was on Westminster Council we started a Considerate Builders scheme, and I would like to see something similar introduced here.
Robin Cook: Do you think that Israelis really care about the environment?
Dame Shirley Porter: I think they do care, but there is an attitude here that you can get away with it because it costs money to clean things up. Caring for your environment is not instinctive – it has to be taught, and as usual it is the children that teach the parents. I’m happy to see much more attention being given to environment issues in Israeli schools.
Dame Shirley believes that Israel can play a leading role in international environmentalism. Because of its location and despite its small size, Israel is an amazing environmental microcosm of every different climate and climate problem experienced by other countries around the world. The PSES is focused on applied research and encouraging regional cooperation around environmental issues, and Dame Shirley hopes that the young scientists being trained there will go on to play an international role in making the world a better and greener place.