BEIRUT – The Beirut Souks exhibition space recently displayed a dozen artworks and blueprints for parks and urban gardens submitted as part of the competition “I Green Beirut.” Each of the works presented visions for adding some green to Lebanon’s concrete capital through gardens, organic markets and photographs inspired by the environment.
The competition was organized and launched in August 2018 by Junior Chamber International, an NGO promoting youth engagement in local communities, in partnership with United Nations Information Centre Beirut and the Municipality of Beirut. The six-month-long project brought together professional artists and designers and students to present ways to transform three areas around Beirut into green spaces.
The competition consisted of three divisions — professional landscape, student landscape and artistic — with a winner being selected from each category and given the opportunity to implement their project. A panel of judges announced the winners on Feb. 3.
Mirella Antoun, an architect and urban planner, won the professional landscape category with her proposal, EcoSpot.
“I want to do something for Beirut. I wanted to do something for my city,” Antoun told al-Monitor. “There is a lack of public spaces, a lack of meeting places. … You don’t have green spaces for Beirut’s citizens.”
EcoSpot seeks to address Beirut's green space deficiency by creating a public area — next to the Université La Sagesse, in East Beirut’s Geitawi neighborhood — where people can meet, compost their waste and grow their own food.
Antoun explained, “The idea is to offer urban farming and workshops for people to help them create mobile planters and learn how to grow vegetables in their neighborhood.”
The mobile planters are transportable vegetable patches made from wood gathered and recycled from the many construction sites and dumps in Beirut. Some 50 budding gardeners will make use of the planters. Antoun noted, “Because they are mobile planters, if we have an event, the family or students using it can move it to their rooftop [for display].”
The composting component is another way to bring the local community together, by encouraging restaurants and residents to contribute food waste to a “big compost bin,” to which gardeners using the mobile planters and others will have access.
Antoun remarked that the Lebanese capital is a special place for her. She grew up outside of Beirut and now works in the city.
“My father had a small garden, and is very proud of his vegetables, so I was never far from nature,” Antoun said. “But I work in Beirut, and I know this place. I love it, but I know the problems. But the Lebanese love nature, and they can manage the green spaces themselves [if given the chance].”
Only a few kilometers from Antoun’s EcoSpot, Rana el-Khatib and Ghiwa Keyrouz, winners of the student landscape competition, will be working on UrbanMarket. Located in busy Sodeco Square, in the Achrafieh district, the project invokes the districts past as an agricultural hub.
“The idea was inspired by the local people and the history of the area,” el-Khatib, a landscaping student at Lebanese University, told Al-Monitor. “Looking back through the history of the place, it was known as the farm of Achrafieh, but the landscape of this area has disappeared because of urbanization.”
UrbanMarket is a combination urban garden and organic food market. “We can’t establish a farm in Achrafieh,” El-Khatib explained, “so let’s establish a market that will encourage people to [grow] more organic products, while at the same time, the market makes you feel like you are on a farm.”
El-Khatib hopes to achieve this in part through design, by, he said, “placing the produce in a way where you can take cabbage from the ground, as if you are harvesting the crop, or take the fruit from a basket in the tree, [and] you put out real tomato plants and beside it tomatoes for sale.”
To implement UrbanMarket requires working with local farmers, el-Khatib said. “Farmers will be more inclined to [grow] organic products for the [UrbanMarket]. It’s commercial, but it has a message for the residence in Achrafieh and also for the people in the field. … We have to do such things to encourage knowledge about sustainability.”
The winners of the artistic category sought to capture the chaos of Beirut.
Jill Alexandria, a professor of art history at the American University of Science and Technology (AUST), told Al-Monitor, “[The artwork] ties in the idea of transformation, taking something that has been layered but is not cohesive, with nature being the thing that adds cohesion.”
Alexandria and her team, three of her students, took photographs reflecting their “personal issues” with Beirut. In addition, Alexandria explained, “[They also] looked behind the skin of these issues to find some sort of hope, something positive.”
Their photographs were layered, collaged, deconstructed and then re-created as a carousel demonstrating some of the contradictory elements one finds in Beirut. “Some of it is truly ugly, but … all together is aesthetically pleasing,” Alexandria remarked. The artwork will be transferred to a long gray wall along the side of a main road in East Beirut, Alfred Naccache Street, which runs between each of the landscape projects.
Elie Hanna, a designer and teacher at AUST, served as a judge for the competition. Remarking on Beirutis suffering from a lack of adequate green space, he told Al-Monitor, “The whole project is based on trying to find solutions. Our whole society is based on concrete.”
As a judge for “I Green Beirut,” Hanna said he looked for functionality, originality, innovation and environmental considerations.
“It brings hope again to Beirut, because you know that green spaces bring fresh weather [air], a good environment, peace of mind, a space for relaxation and enjoyment,” Hanna said. “When you walk down the street through these green spaces, it can really change your life.”
He added, “I would encourage all the other municipalities [in Lebanon] to take this project as a case study and to take it forward.”
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