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Bilal Hamad

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Sign inside Horsh Beirut park reads: “Forbidden to walk on the grass”

 

Next week there is a protest to call for the opening of Beirut’s only major park, which has been closed for decades. The mayor has repeatedly warned that the public is simply not ‘ready’ to use the space and may damage it. I recently traveled to a few parks in the US to find out how city governments cope with such unruly public spaces– and actually let people use them– in my monthly column for Bold Magazine. 

 

By Habib Battah

As we pulled up to the guard gate, the Florida park ranger probably thought I was crazy when I got out of the car to take a picture of the sign above her head. It read: “$8 per vehicle, $2 for cyclists and pedestrians.”

A sign like this may be normal in parks across the US, but for a Lebanese person on vacation, it almost felt outrageous. Once you drive inside, there are vast green fields set up for baseball and soccer games, dozens of picnic tables under palm trees with built-in barbecue stations and then, a massive stretch of sand beach. All this for the $8 per car and up to eight persons per vehicle or just $1 per person.

By contrast, in Lebanon, where most of the coast has been colonized by private resorts, beach access can cost a minimum of $20 per person. No cooking is allowed, so you’ll need to dish out an additional $15 per person for food and drinks at pricey on-site establishments. That means instead of paying $8, in Beirut that same family of eight could end up paying at least $280 or over half the monthly minimum wage of around $500. That’s expensive even for elites. But for the majority of the country that is poor, it means you simply won’t be able to enjoy a restful beach day or any public space.

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At Crandon park in Miami, the public is encouraged to picnic with barbecue stations, picnic benches, garbage cans and covered areas.
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Entrance to the park is as low as $1 per person, including access to sports fields and the beach. Park security make regular patrols to ensure maintenance and safety.

Instead, in Beirut, lower income families can be found slipping under a fence near the corniche promenade to perch precariously over a pile of rocks or take a dip in a sewage infested area. How sustainable is that? How healthy is it to keep the poor bottled up with no place to breathe, no place to unwind from the daily stress of the city while the rich sip cocktails and stretch out as they please.

Ridiculous as it may seem, Lebanese resort owners will certainly argue that they are providing a public service. Had it not been for them, people would make a mess, leaving their garbage everywhere as is the case in many parts of Lebanon. To some extent this may be true. But why is that? Is it because the Lebanese people are “dirty”? The claim is made often by foreign observers and local elites, among them the mayor of Beirut, who complained during a recent lecture that he could not open city’s largest park (which has been closed for decades) due to a lack of orderly citizen conduct. Speaking at the American University of Beirut earlier this year, the mayor painted a picture of an unappreciative and dangerous public. With an expression of disgust on his face, he described the garbage found ‘daily’ inside Horsh Beirut park, particularly the waste of drug addicts. “Everyday we pick up needles” he exclaimed, gesturing excitedly.

Not only were the citizens dirty or abusive, they could also be violent, even lazy. Without providing any specific evidence, the mayor complained that public spaces evolve into places where fights over politics break out. He lamented that a city basketball court had become a place where locals gathered to “put their feet up and watch television.” The mayor then wistfully recalled his university years in the more civilized United States in Austin, Texas, where he described himself as being active at camping and swimming. Indeed Austin is known for its lush parks and natural springs. The most famous of them is Zilker Park with a giant pool and picnic areas that can be accessed for as little as $3 per adult and $1 per child. But how does it work? Like the aforementioned park in Florida, there are garbage cans and garbage collection, and regularly scheduled cleaning. There are rules– like no entrance after sunset–and park rangers patrolling in vehicles to enforce them.

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Zilker Park in Austin, Texas where the mayor of Beirut earned his PHD.
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In contrast to Beirut, park visitors in Austin are encouraged to sit on the grass for a free concert.

So why doesn’t the Beirut mayor offer something comparable to his good old college days for constituents in Lebanon? In fact how is the public supposed to properly dispose of garbage if there are no garbage cans in most Lebanese public spaces? How would any American park stay orderly if the city offered no personnel to maintain or police it?

Cynics are likely to argue that Beirut simply cannot afford such maintenance and monitoring services, but according to several news reports quoting council members, the city has amassed around $1 billion in reserves. How that money is spent remains a mystery as the municipality does not make its budget accessible to the public. In fact, the billion-dollar city of Beirut does not even have a website to communicate with citizens about its activities or spending. During his recent AUB lecture, the mayor suggested it was not his fault but the governor of the city who had prevented the establishment of a website. Yet he offered no reason or details as to how or why on earth that could happen.

On the other hand, the municipality has recently been spending money on keeping parts of the coast private. A municipal police station has recently been erected on the last major stretch of Beirut coast where the poor and middle class often congregate, swim in natural pools and have barbeques. Known as Dalieh, the massive vacant plot of seafront land has been a swimming and picnic spot frequented by Beirut families for generations. But the property has recently been purchased by developers and fenced off, pending construction.

State and municipal police have deployed to the site to try keep people out but have so far proved unsuccessful as hundreds continue to visit the area on weekends through an opening in the fence. They have been supported by a group of urban professionals and activists, who have organized weekend gatherings to occupy the space with protests, live music and teach-ins. They carry banners and homemade wooden benches, providing at long last, spaces for residents to sit, enjoy or express themselves, making up, if only temporarily, for the municipality’s failures. The group, which calls itself The Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh, includes lawyers, architects, urban planners and professors and they have been busy lobbying high level officials. Many have offered tacit support to their cause. Some, such as the Environment minister, have spoken out publicly against the privatization of the city’s last undeveloped shore, posting pictures of the fence and decrying the assault on public space.

At a time when citizen rights are trampled upon across Lebanon and the region, the grassroots Dalieh movement offers a breath of fresh air. It provides an alternative to the cynical and dehumanizing language used so often to ridicule the low income classes, to subdue their legitimate rights to secure the investments and long term profitability of ruling families and their associates. Of course these efforts will only gain momentum if they are joined and shared by like-minded individuals, including those that have read this far. It is time to stop accepting public space as a privilege reserved for those living in other countries. As activists have shown, access to the city can be demanded but it will not demand itself.

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After much protesting, activists were let into the Beirut horsh for just one day last year. With no tables, they were forced to sit in the dirt as the grass was prohibited. There are no facilities for cooking or sports.
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Horsh Beirut remains closed to the public. It is only opened sporadically, often for a day or two.

This column was originally published in the Sept. 2014 issue of Bold Magazine 

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This week, Beirut residents celebrated Job’s Wednesday (Orba’at Ayoub) at Ramlet El Baida, a tradition that stretches back generations. Legend has it that Job, a biblical prophet also revered in Islam, was directed to swim in the Ramlet El Baida waters to help heal his illnesses.

For decades, Beirut families have gathered on the last Wednesday of April for a picnic in his honor.  “There were thousands of people, all of Beirut came out,” Samir, a 70-something local resident told me, reflecting wistfully on the 1950s. “Everyone used to walk all the way from their houses to the sea. My father used to take me.”

For the occasion, women often prepare a special sweet dish called “mfatka:”

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The tradition was kept alive this year with dancers, fireworks and a souk.

But the crowd that came out was much smaller than the hordes of people that thronged the coast in 1950s, before the unregulated real estate boom that has literally walled in the shore and erased much of Beirut’s extended sand coast and dunes:
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There are also fears that Ramlet el Baida, the only remaining free beach in the capital, may fall victim to well-connected investors and privatization. Until the late 1980s, this coast was protected from construction by Lebanese law, but land-owning politicians have recently changed those laws, paving the way for large developments that will benefit them and their associates.

At the far south end of the Ramle beach is a multi-million dollar development known as Eden Rock. And on the northern side, the natural shore of Dalieh has also been claimed by a political dynasty who have commissioned a Rem Koolhaas design. Will Ramlet el Baida face a similar fate?

The Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh is making its voice heard and working to ensure the continuity of public coastal access and activities. They placed a banner at the event.

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We inherited Dalieh from our parents and grandparents and we will pass it on to our children and grandchildren.

Many from the crowd enjoyed it so much they took selfies:

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The activists also tried to reach Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad, who was busy taking selfies himself:

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But as exited after the brief visit, he never stopped once to look up at the banner:

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Hamad has repeatedly claimed the beach will be saved from development, but he has yet to translate those promises into action and has refrained from calling for the protection of Dalieh, which is owned by a political dynasty he is very close to.

The evening ended with fireworks:IMG_0450

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And more singing and dancing:

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At the end, Dalieh organizer architect Abir Saksouk-Sasso was welcomed on stage and gave a brief speech about the campaign.

Beirut seafront traditions, and the working class that participates in them, have been hit hard by the zeal for luxury development, which is literally pushing people out of the city.

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But it’s nice to know that many still believe in holding on.

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AUB engineering students have arranged a rare question and answer session with the mayor of Beirut over the most controversial civil works project in recent memory, but the media and activists have been barred from attending.
As noted in the event’s “about” section, only AUB students and faculty will be able to attend, effectively banning any news coverage or tough questions from activists who have been following the issues closely:
Now I have been to dozens of AUB lectures and conferences over the past ten years–at the departments of public policy, architecture, Middle East studies and many others. They have all been wonderful, insightful and free and open to the public.
This is the first time I have seen such an aggressive banning of public participation from journalists, students and faculty from other universities as well as experts and outside members of the community. Is this unprecedented or very rare in the history of AUB? Shouldn’t the residents of Beirut–not just students of an elite university– have access to their mayor?
When asked by one of many architects that have spoken out about recent municipality plans, how such a ban would be enforced, one of the student organizers suggested IDs would be checked at the door to the lecture hall:
Now how often do you hear that at AUB? When asked why the students were taking such an aggressive policy, no direct answers were provided. One suggested this was student policy and commented “check the website” but there is no mention on the Civil Engineering Society website that such a policy exists and it appears that it has not been implemented at past CES events.
So why the restrictions and what is different this time? In fact, this is not the first time activists have been shut out of municipality meetings.
The mayor is scheduled to speak about the now infamous Boutros Road, a four-lane tunnel and bridge system that will pummel through one of the city’s greenest neighborhoods and destroy up to 30 historic buildings and green properties.
Activists block Armenia road during a march for a park last month
Architects and urban planning experts from Harvard, AUB and other prestigious institutions have opposed the $75 million plan. Not only will it destroy some of the city’s few remaining green and pedestrian areas, it may also cause increased traffic jams by putting added pressure on congested roadways, multiple experts told me in an investigative piece I wrote last year for The Daily Star.
At the time, the municipality refused to divulge plans for the project, curtailing any public discussion by independent analysts or members of the community. In fact, after waiting for two weeks for the documents I was told by government officials that: “the consultant working on it had to leave for an emergency.”


So it was with great surprise last November that the deputy mayor of Beirut announced during an international AUB conference that the municipality was very transparent and had held a “Town Hall meeting” to engage the public in its planning efforts. 

I was surprised because I had never heard such a meeting took place and neither had some of the largest activist groups in Beirut including Save Beirut Heritage and the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage.
I approached deputy mayor Nadim Abu Rizk after his short presentation and asked how someone like myself might get invited to such a meeting. I also asked if very visible groups like SBH and APLH had been invited. “I don’t think so,” he said. Asked who then was invited: “I consulted my friends,” who sent out emails to all the ‘concerned experts’.
So it turns out the Town Hall meeting the municipality had been touting before international experts at AUB last year, was actually an “invite-only” meeting and the most prominent activist groups who have proposed alternatives to the road were not invited.
And among those that did attend the meeting, there were reports of time constraints and exclusion of any detailed discussion.
“A serious and real discussion between the municipality and the participants was not conducted,” wrote the youth organization Nahnoo in a letter to the deputy mayor on its website.
“… it didn’t leave us time to conduct a discussion concerning the topics represented,” it said, adding that media coverage was scant and “only certain people” were allowed to participate in the discussion.
Was this a genuine attempt to engage the public, or was it merely an attempt to create a media image that “the civil society was present” Nahnoo asked.
Giving credence to the later explanation, the head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the government body which is undertaking the Boutros project, told me:
 
“Usually we don’t build public consensus on projects. It’s never happened since I’ve been here since 1996.”
 
The same official also told me that there was “no need” for an environmental impact study because there were “no flora or fauna” in the area:
One of Beirut’s last farms which, like many green spaces, falls in the path of the Boutros project. Activists want to build a park here.
Also despite recent ‘engagement’ statements, the municipality has completely rejected a plan proposed by activists and urban planners to build a park in the place of the highway, to better serve the community. Such plans have been adopted by municipalities around the world, argues Hashim Sarkis the Agha Khan Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard. In a recent essay he gives multiple examples of alternatives to the road and writes that the municipality plans:
“…reveal an outdated understanding of the contemporary city and administrative thinking that is out of touch with solutions being used worldwide and with the ambitions of Beirut’s citizens and their right to the city.”
He adds:
“Unfortunately, the problems with the Fouad Boutros Axis project persist… no matter how much lipstick the city puts on this pig of a project.”
Interestingly the plans for a park were initially included in the latest AUB event flyer:
But these were swiftly removed by the “CES student society” in favor of a more flattering image of the mayor, divorced from the controversy:
Why all the fuss about how the event is presented and who attends? Is there a desire to please those at the top?
Finally, despite the municipality’s insistence on its plan, it was announced that it would break ground in “summer 2013”. But now, several months later, the municipality says it is engaging in a new study that won’t be ready until the end of summer 2014. There are few details on how this study was commissioned or how much it will cost. But the delay of over one year is substantial. Did the questions and protests of activists play a role in this possible backtracking?