Institutional involvement in Beirut’s urban planning has, for decades now, been severely lacking. Because even during the post-war era, reconstruction and urbanism have frequently been taken up only by the private sector, many of the city’s public spaces have been left in a state of shameful neglect. While the private sector continues to focus on commercial and residential parts of the city, shifting priorities within the government have paralyzed institutional work on public spaces in Beirut.
The citizen, as a result, is the one who ends up paying the price. Beirutis at large have been left with little more than the sea-side Corniche, a few modest public gardens, and a small open part of the Pine Forest, which is the only large public park in Beirut. And while there are ample government plans to fix all this, the current political deadlock continues to block every effort to implement them. Or, so it seems.
Perhaps even calling these few public spaces “public” is a bit of a misnomer too. For one, many of them still fall either East or West, in a Sunni neighborhood or a Shia one – sectarian divisions in the city mean that even many of Beirut’s so-called public spaces are, in reality, only frequented by local inhabitants and their sectarian affiliates. Amal flags or a Lebanese Forces triangle painted onto a concrete wall mark out a park, for example, as anything but public.
As an essential component of the public sphere, parks and gardens are important breathing spaces for city dwellers. Or in the language of the urbanist, parks and gardens are a city’s “lungs.” Generally visited by families, couples and the elderly, these are important spaces which offer relative quiet in a city plagued by contagious and rampant honking; they are a green refuge for residents who feel trapped by the concrete exterior of their cityscape. While many Beirutis escape on weekends to the peace and quiet of their village and family land, not everyone has this opportunity, and for those who can’t get away, the occasional afternoon in the park is a psychological necessity.
Former Green Line president Salman Abbas told NOW Lebanon that Beirut’s average area of greenery per capita is 0.8 square meters. The World Health Organization, however, has set the ideal “greenery per capita” standard at 40 square meters. That’s a difference between the reality of Beirut and a healthy standard of 5,000 percent!
Abbas, eight years ago, began an enormous campaign in which Green Line collected 16,000 signatures and received more than 12,000 emails supporting a plan to turn the 213,000 square meter Hippodrome into a public garden. But, he said, “the municipality responded by saying that there are many gardens and green spaces in Beirut, but it seems that they don’t understand the difference between a garden and a public park.”
After the Beirut Municipality promised to turn half the Hippodrome into a park, Abbas continued, “we began coordinating with the Association for the Protection and Improvement of Arab Horses (SPARCA), but we were surprised later when we discovered that the municipality had ignored the campaign and their promises by renewing a three-year agreement with the track's managers, SPARCA.” That agreement between horse racers and the municipality, Abbas explained, “entails a ceiling and not a floor for the municipality's profits, but even then the municipality's profits are much less than the track's real value [as a green space].”
Although Abbas and his co-campaigners have suggested alternative income generating projects for the municipality, including building open-air sports and recreational facilities, cafes or an experimental theater, the only response they received from the municipality was a vague assurance that the city intended to plant more trees in Beirut. “But greenery is not just trees,” Abbas explained, “Parents don’t take their children out to play in the streets. A public space means the social concept of making room for children to play outdoors and providing people a space to relax and get away from their crowded everyday life.”
Abbas, however, did concede the municipality may not actually have the authority do decide the future of the Hippodrome. Plans to preserve the racetrack, it seems, have been strongly backed by the personal interests of various politicians from the very beginning.
Beirut’s Mayor, Abdul-Munim al-Ariss, told NOW Lebanon that the municipality has no problem with it if people want to visit the Hippodrome during the day and “treat it as a public park.” “There are about 70 square meters of green areas within the Hippodrome which create a green pocket, or a lung for the city with trees and vegetation. People can go inside anytime they want, with hours similar to those assigned for other public gardens in Beirut,” Ariss explained. He also mentioned that the municipality had installed swing sets and other playground equipment for children in one section of the Hippodrome.
Maha Majdi, the head of the public gardens department of the Municipality of Beirut, told NOW Lebanon that there are 23 public gardens in the city, but only eight of them are substantial in size. These gardens cover the municipal Beirut area and have many similar functions and structures.
The Jesuit Garden in Remeil, for example, houses a public library, and the René Moawad Garden in Sanayeh is one of the oldest public open-air spaces in Beirut. It was originally called the Sanayeh Garden, but it was renamed in honor of President René Moawad after his assassination in 1989.
Sioufi Garden is a public garden in Achrafieh. The garden overlooks President Émile Lahoud Avenue, the Beirut River and the summits of Mount Lebanon.
Gibran Khalil Gibran Garden is in the downtown and faces the UN House. The garden, which is named in honor of the Lebanese-American poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran, however, is currently occupied by opposition protestors and has been since December 2006.
Majdi mentioned that the city’s efforts are currently concentrated on a new project to plant trees on sidewalks. “We have already started planting these trees, despite the situation, and we also intend to open the rest of the Pine Forest to the public,” she said.
Ariss added that the municipality has plans to increase the size of green areas in Beirut. “We decided to purchase about 114 plots of land in order to create around 33 new public gardens to add to the 23 already existing gardens,” he said. The plan is that underneath each garden, parking facilities would be constructed for residents in the neighborhood to use. “Hence, we will be solving two problems at the same time, by providing parking facilities and green public areas in crowded neighborhoods,” he explained.
The municipality has set two standards to take into consideration while picking these lands. One is to look for crowded or overcrowded neighborhoods, and the other is to look for open or vacant lots, because they do not want to move people from their houses. “We have located almost all areas, and now we are in the process of preparing the administrative documents,” he explained.
The city, it seems, is well aware that there is a problem with the lack of public spaces in Beirut. Unfortunately, as the mayor and various other offices in the municipality have confirmed, there is very little that can be done in the immediate future. Residents and activists like Abbas, however, aren’t entirely convinced. Does parliament really have to convene for the city of Beirut to open a few new parks? Shouldn’t Beirut be able to function as an example for other municipalities in the country and demonstrate how a political deadlock in the upper echelons of the government doesn’t have to sabotage local initiatives for development?
NOW Lebanon decided to take a closer look at some of the most important public spaces in Beirut to see how they were faring in this tense political climate. What it found, however, was less then encouraging:
Two-thirds of the Pine Forest is still closed to the public. Only those with political connections and ample wealth have been able to secure a pass from the mayor’s office to visit the greenest and most beautiful parts of the forest, but the mayor says it’s because visitors under the age of 35 tend to rough the place up. Read more here.
Much of the Corniche is in disrepair, and a class division between those who frequent expensive Nargileh cafes and those who use the Corniche to fish for their livelihood has created an uncomfortable atmosphere for many. How can the city make the Corniche a prime spot for more inclusive gatherings? Read more here.
The city’s three largest public squares – all downtown – have been overrun by protestors. All of Solidere’s plans to revamp public spaces have temporarily been paralyzed. Read more here.
In fact, because the municipality has been unable to provide the city with its much needed public space, a number of private initiatives have had to step up and do the job for them. Groups like Studio Beirut and Green Oasis are doing their best. Read more here.