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Lucy Knight

The city’s green list

Local campaign group launches an online guide to Beirut’s parks

Beirut Green Project
Beirut Green Project
Beirut Green Guide
Beirut Green Project

The British statesman William Pitt the Elder is said to have coined the phrase, ‘the parks are the lungs of London’. Much to the chagrin of many of Beirut’s residents, parks like those enjoyed by Londoners are something of a pipe dream. The green side of Beirut is hard to come by and even when you can sometimes see it, it doesn’t mean you can enjoy it.

 

Parks are not seen as an economically rich venture, and the build up of car parks, malls and high-rise apartment blocks is now the norm. Even the once greened plaza of Martyrs’ Square, rich with palms trees looking out to sea, is now a parking lot and the early stages of a shopping complex. Steady changes are afoot though. 

 

Beirut Green Project (BGP), a collection of people actively seeking a greener Beirut, is launching an online guide to green areas in the city. “People were always bringing up the big three,” says founder Dima Boulad. Indeed, Sanayeh, Horsh Beirut and Sioufi tend to be the most famous and when BGP started hosting its ‘Green your lunch break’ initiative in summer 2011 a lot of time was spent in trying to direct people to the meeting points. “People just don’t know what’s out there.” And it is a lot more than one might originally think.

 

Over the course of one year, and in collaboration with the Beiruti branding agency WonderEight, the group has researched and collated information such as opening hours, family and pet friendly advice, and a little bit of history, for 20 parks covering thousands of square meters. “Places that people are not familiar with include Qarantina Garden, so quiet, and the William Hawi garden in Geitawi.” Gardens in Ramlat al Bayda and Tallet al Khayat have also been added to the list. 

 

Working alongside the municipality run office of garden maintenance, based in Sioufi Garden, Boulad was surprised and pleased with the help the group received. “These guys are really happy about our project and in turn entities like this need our support.” 

 

Fighting for what many might see as an already too short list of parks is a tough and ongoing job though. During the summer months campaigners were successful in defeating a project to uproot the Geitawi Park, build an underground parking lot, and apparently rebuild the park on top. Typically residents were sceptical that any such thing would actually happen but, despite the sterling endeavours of the municipality in other areas concerning green spaces, in this case it gave the project the go-ahead. Thankfully, the protestors, who turned out en masse the day construction was due to start, were successful in having the project cancelled. 

 

“Since we came to the Municipality three years ago we’ve given top priority to urban planning,” says Nadim Abourizk, vice president of the Beirut Municipality. Objectives laid out by the Municipality include the re-design of big gardens; the rehabilitation of smaller gardens, and the ‘parenting’ of small spaces, like sidewalks and roundabouts, by civil society and the private sector.

 

The Municipality has even gone so far as to purchase land that is to be turned into park, an example being the Metropolitan Audi in Achrafieh, where plans have been drawn up to build and underground car park with a park on top. It does sounds scarily like the Geitawi plans - but trust has to come into force at some point. Another major project is to make the Hippodrome more people friendly with environmental facilities.

 

There are several projects involving businesses, and it’s this marriage of public and private sector that seems to hold the key to creating more space.The retail company Azadea is behind the current revival of René Moawad Garden, so behind it in fact, that it is funding the entire thing. A long-crumbling relic of a more peaceful past, popularly known as Sanayeh garden, was host to a dry fountain, broken benches and crumbling toilets. Now it’s closed off to the public as work gets underway on a much needed facelift. The garden is due to open again in March 2014.

 

Région Île-de-France, a frequent partner with Beirut, has provided feasibility studies for the Damascus Road project, something Abourizk terms a ‘pilot project’. Working with the local architect Habib Debs the Municipality has plans to create a route of walkways and bike lanes running from Horsh Beirut to Downtown. 

 

Sandra Rishani, from local firm 109 Architects, says that the post-war government wasn’t concerned with spaces like these. “An influx of refugees during the war meant the number of inhabitants increased,” says Rishani. “Post-war reconstruction assumed these people would go back to their homes, but of course, many didn’t.” Thus the intention to provide for inhabitants then and there was what led the way.

 

Rishani says that one of the critical aspects of urban planning is the time it takes.  With a lead time of two to five years for projects to start producing anything, due to their often large scales, planning is always one step behind. “After the war it was more about infrastructure and reconstruction and the fact there are not really any green spaces is just one of the many aspects of this approach.”

 

For the BGP though it’s all looking very positive: “The more people know about the parks and then visit them, the greater the influence of green spaces in the city.” 

 

 

The guide will launch tomorrow night (Thursday, October 24) at Tawlet. For more details, you can visit the Facebook event page here.

 

You can check out Beirut Green Guide here.

(Image via Facebook)

“The more people know about the parks and then visit them, the greater the influence of green spaces in the city.”