Beirut municipality fails, again, to preserve green spaces

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Article Summary
The destruction of one of Beirut’s last green spaces, as well as the eviction of several startups, points to the government's disregard of the public sector.

The recent destruction of the historic Mufti Hassan Khaled Garden in Beirut’s Tallet el-Khayat neighborhood points to a harrowing future for the city’s environmental spaces. The park will be replaced with a parking lot, to host some 2,000 cars, as part of a citywide effort to provide alternative parking systems. The project has enraged civil society activists, who view this as further encroachment on the city's dwindling public spaces. Another park will be rebuilt atop the parking lot.

Demolition began the second week of August, but after a few weeks of work, the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) sent a team to the site and work suddenly stopped. A source inside the DGA said that though nothing of archaeological value was yet found, work stopped because protocol had not been followed.

The DGA hopes that work will continue under the guidance of archaeological teams experienced in working with delicate excavation sites. “They cannot make any excavation work without permission from the DGA," the source said. "Perhaps we will find archaeology in this area.”

The gardens, one of a few dozen still remaining in Beirut, have long served communities living in the area. There is a growing concern that children, who often spend their evenings playing in similar neighborhood parks, will soon have nowhere to go. According to local resident and civil rights campaigner, Raafat Majzoub, “This garden hosts a very local and consistent group of people. Elderly, children playing in the evening, coffee sellers.” 

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Images of trees languishing amid concrete and waste as trucks gather to dismantle the grounds is telling for many in the Lebanese capital, who are reaching a point of despair while an environmental and social catastrophe envelopes the country.

The movement has spurred the creation of a Facebook group, Friends of Mufti Hassan Khaled Park. After a door-to-door petition garnered 62 signatures, an online petition drew 1,000 more, highlighting the dangers the parking lot and poorly revamped park would pose to the community. “We made it a point to show the mayor there are people on the ground working,” Majzoub said. “We registered the petition officially in the municipality.” 

Action arose organically as a response to the municipality’s swift mobilization, which came as a total surprise, reminiscent of strategies employed by the municipality in the past. In 2013, protests erupted over the government’s attempt to demolish Jesuit Park in the Ashrafieh neighborhood to make room for an underground parking garage. Another attempted demolition occurred in 2017. Both times the project was canceled.

Beirut suffers from a lack of green space. While the World Health Organization recommends 9 square meters of green space per capita, Beirut posts a shocking 0.8 square meters. Not only do such places serve as social spaces and sanctuaries, but green and communal public spaces help rebuild and maintain the social fabric. A recent study in the Netherlands found an association between the quantity and quality of streetscape greenery and perceived social cohesion at the neighborhood scale.

Among civil society activists and concerned residents there is a growing awareness that the loss of each public space is indicative of the larger problem of the government's ineptitude. People have learned to take this in stride. Yet a number of grassroots organizations continue to thrive in the underbelly of Beirut’s politics of decay. Some are even facing eviction questions of their own.

Creative Space Beirut is a free school for fashion design founded in 2011. Since its inception, it has managed to build a three-year program, training students from marginalized communities, fostering opportunities and creating jobs. Students have gone on to work, study and teach at international institutions, establish their own brands and win prizes at Fashion Trust Arabia. In the words of founder and Executive Director Sarah Hermez, “There is an ecosystem and community that we’re building slowly and organically.” Sarah continued, “Government support never even crossed our minds.”

A recent World Bank report makes a case for the support of such startups, citing research that highlights the impact creative community spaces have in “urban regeneration through the repurposing of abandoned buildings, the development of new economic activities and the strengthening of social cohesion.” With that in mind, it’s a pity local upstarts don’t have more municipal funding or government support.

Creative Space Beirut has moved offices three times. They last moved into Beirut Souks as part of the Khan al-Joukh program by Solidere, envisioned to bring life to the gold souk by filling the area with local producers who reflect a diverse Lebanese microeconomy and culture of ideas. At the time, the offer was too good for most to turn down. They hoped that heightened visibility and access to neighboring markets would fuel their business. Yet each business has since left the souk, and Creative Space's future is uncertain. There’s an undeniable sense of abandonment in the area — the spaces empty, the corridors quiet. The original intention was laudable, but it has since dissolved. A request for comment by the current management was repeatedly denied.

The case is similar with Haven for Artists. Founded in 2011 as an event showcasing local poetry and musical acts, it has since evolved into an entrepreneurial collective, boasting a residency program, event space and, most recently, a bookstore and garden. They moved into their space in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood almost two years ago, keen on creating a community space.

The garden fast became a staple in the city, yet they’re relocating in the fall. “We’re trying to find other organizations to move in, to find a suitable partner to take over the space, to make sure it retains its identity,” founder Dayna Ash said. The hope is to convince like-minded NGOs or other startups to take over the space, if only to keep the garden available to a community desperate for such spaces in the city.

Beirut has vast potential, yet it is bogged down by endless challenges. Whether it's protecting public refuges, such as gardens, or providing for underserved communities and helping them enter the economy, the public and private sector must work together to alleviate harsh environmental and social conditions, allowing all stakeholders to thrive. Without support from the municipality — which, in turn, requires the financial and moral support of the government — the city will continue to plan on an ad hoc basis.  

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Dani Arbid is a writer, filmmaker and entrepreneur who graduated with a degree in political science from the American University of Beirut. He has worked as a writer, photographer and videographer in Beirut, Istanbul and Berlin. In 2018, he founded Barakunan GmbH, a publishing and media start-up based in Berlin, where he published his first two books under the name Zahreddine. In September 2019 he was awarded the inaugural Buro BDP Writing Prize, with the resulting manuscript to be published by Broken Dimanche Press in spring 2020. On Twitter: @zahreddinesays

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