Playing monopoly with the lights off

 

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Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad presents his plans for the city at a press conference in February

How does municipal planning work in Beirut? Who draws up the projects and what experts are consulted? The municipality claims it is increasingly working with the community, to serve its needs, but how has such cooperation actually functioned? I spoke to some experts who consulted on municipal projects yet feel they are in the dark about what is being planned for the city.

If the Beirut municipality has its way, the face of the Lebanese capital will be drastically changed over the coming years. The city’s Ottoman-era horse race track will be transformed by an artificial pond, a golf training course and restaurants. A new stadium will be built on the grounds of Beirut’s only major park, the sole surviving patch of a historic pine forest that once enveloped the city. The current municipal stadium, built at a cost of over $8 million in 1996, will be razed to make way for a vaguely-defined civic center and an underground parking lot for 2,000 cars in one of the city’s densest neighborhoods. Other car parks will be built in historic public spaces and an elevated highway will cut through a rare farm that survived the urban sprawl that has transformed Beirut – once a city full of orchards and verdant hills – into one of the least green urban environments in the world.

Undoubtedly, these projects will have a major impact on the physical landscape of the city, its social fabric, spatial history and citizens’ ability to access public spaces. So how are such decisions made and to what extent are the city’s residents – those who will pay for such multi-million dollar projects – consulted in the process?

In fact, many of the new municipality proposals were not discussed but rather announced to the public at advanced approval stages. The news coverage is typically scant and superficial: a few glossy sketches paraded in brief articles or fleeting video pieces with little detail about how the projects came into being, what, if any studies or surveys inspired them, which contractors stand to benefit and what ties they may hold to policy makers. Even the most basic details about costs, scope or completion dates are frequently eluded, with officials rarely questioned about unspecific explanations and ever changing completion dates, peddled with vaguely worded phrases like ’in the coming months’ ’by the end of the year’ or the perennial politicians’ favorite line: ’next year, inshallah.’

In the two decades since the end of the civil war, city officials have paid little attention to the need or value of public input. (Lest we forget Beirut is probably one of the few metropolitan areas to have its entire historic city center gutted and sold to a private corporation.)

Recently, I interviewed a senior engineer at the state’s development and reconstruction agency who shrugged at the suggestion of citizen participation in planning. ’Usually we don’t build public consensus on projects,’ he said nonchalantly. ’It’s never happened since I’ve been here since 1996.’

Yet with the advent of social media, public officials are increasingly under pressure to paint a more progressive image. When activists raised an uproar over the lack of studies behind the building of a $75 million highway connection (known as the Boutros road) that would plow through the farm, the municipality held what it dubbed a ’town hall meeting’ to discuss the matter. But this meeting was more of an invite-only affair, a municipal council member later revealed, and groups opposing the project said they were never notified. Later the mayor of Beirut gave a public talk on the project at the American University of Beirut, promising to answer any questions. But organizers, many of them former students of the mayor who teaches at the university, announced that journalists and non-university members would be forbidden from attending.

The intransigence over engaging the public only led to more pressure and protests from the activists, who eventually succeeded in lobbying the ministry of environment to force the highway project to undergo an environmental impact assessment, which the municipality had previously refused to do. This meant the municipality would be forced to solicit the opinions of outside experts, many of them architects, engineers and urban planners who were intensely skeptical of the project.

Architect Antoine Atallah said he and the other experts provided significant comments on the pre-study scoping report last year. But to his surprise, this input was attached as appendices by the private firm contracted to undertake the study rather than integrating those expert comments into the report itself. Because the expert opinions were not taken seriously, Atallah says the ministry of environment failed to approve the report late last year. But its decision was eventually overruled and the environmental study was to begin this year, with another meeting with the experts planned for January 2015. But that meeting never happened, Atallah says: ’We are in a blackout. There has been no news since late November.’

On the upside, some of the activists say the long delay (the road was supposed to break ground nearly two years ago in 2013) has sapped political will to undertake the project. But the precarious status quo leaves citizens uncertain about its future. The same can be said of the many new projects in the pipeline. A plan to build a city museum in Martyr’s Square was announced with much fanfare a decade ago. Last year the culture minister promised the project would break ground in September. Over six months later, there is no sign of any construction. The national library, Beirut’s only park, the Beit Beirut museum are all similarly uncertain, with launch dates pledged and then forgotten multiple times over recent years.

In fact, despite the municipality’s ambitious multi-million dollar spending schemes, it has not managed to launch a basic website over the last four years. This means there is no place to keep track of city projects, contractors and official promises. Worse still, citizens have virtually no access to city budgets and how public money is spent while the municipality boasts of a surplus of over $1 billion in interviews with the press. In a post-war society, these funds could go a long way toward improving the lives of citizens, not just by creating highways and parking lots that may entice more cars and congestion, but also by building parks and systems of public transportation that may help relieve it.

If designed by elite decision-makers and their associate contractors, such projects run the risk of being redundant and out of touch with society’s needs. But if they are the product of genuine public participation, city projects present a great opportunity for state-building and much needed national reconciliation.

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This column was originally published in the April issue of Bold Magazine