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urban planning

Before and after pictures were at the heart of the project to rebuild downtown Beirut following the Lebanese war. These images filled the pages of promotional material, coffee table books and photography exhibits hosted and commissioned by Solidere, the private real estate firm that undertook the project. Some of these images can still be found displayed at the airport today, 25 years after reconstruction began:

Credit: Ayman Trawi
Credit: Ayman Trawi

Even holograms have been made to showcase the transformations.

But then there are the before-and-after pictures you don’t see-those that cover the vast majority of  neighborhoods in the old city reconstruction zone, which were not restored but demolished.

Take this image that was recently uploaded to Facebook by Gabriel Daher. (If you like old Beirut buildings, you should definitely be following him.)

Photo: Gaby Daher

You might recognize the large Capitole building on the right, a former cinema that still stands today and is more recently known for hosting nightclubs like the now defunct Buddah Bar and its current rooftop lounge. The Riad Solh statue would later occupy the empty space in the corner, which seems to be still under construction here.

While Capitole–and the corner building just left of it (formally used by Pan American Airways) are often seen in old photos of the city,  what is less often seen is the neighborhood in the foreground.

Here is another shot of the neighborhood as posted on the same Facebook thread by another great archivist, Kheireddine Al-Ahdab. This time the perspective is from above the Capitole building (left) revealing a large swathe of buildings across the street, bordering the Lazarieh tower on the far left.

Al-Ahdab identified this neighborhood to be known as Ghalghoul. So what happened to it?

I was able to track down this photo of Ghalghoul from 1991. Many of the buildings appear to have survived the war:

Photo: Rene Burri

But during reconstruction, the entire area was eventually leveled.

In this picture from 2013, we can see Ghalghoul has been reduced to a series of parking lots. All that remains is the double arched building in the photo above. Its blue canvas roof now replaced with red tiles.

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The big hole in the foreground was supposed to be a mall but that project was stopped when ruins were found on the site and a public pressure campaign began not long after photos of the excavations were leaked to the public. You can read more about those discoveries here.

In this shot we can see that the Capitole building on the far right has been restored, but now faces a large void where Ghalghoul once stood.

Dozens if not scores of buildings were razed, leaving barely any trace of the neighborhood.

Here is an aerial view showing the extent of the destruction in between El Amir Bachir street and the Fouad Chehab highway ( Route 51) and in between Syria street and Cheikh Toufik Khaled-nearly all flattened as parking lots.

In fact the only time Ghalghoul saw life again in the postwar period was during the protests of 2006-2009, when a tent city was established in its parking lots by opposition parties calling for the resignation of the government.

Photo: Richard van der Graaf

I tried to find more about Ghalghoul but the only results seem to be images of its destruction shot in the early 1990s, such as this 1995 series by Fouad Elkhoury. Many of the buildings were still standing:

Fouad Elkhoury

Until the bulldozing began:

Fouad Elkhoury
Fouad Elkhoury

It’s often said that more of Beirut was destroyed by the bulldozers of reconstruction than through the shelling of the war. In fact, some 80 percent of the old city was reportedly demolished under the Solidere plan. So while there are plenty of pictures of the 260 odd buildings that were restored, you won’t find any trace of the hundreds of buildings that were leveled, entire neighborhoods and streets erased, not only in Ghalghoul but everywhere large parking lots are found today such Martyr’s Square, Saifi, Zeitouni and others. Wadi Abu Jmel, Beirut’s old Jewish quarter is among these. I was lucky enough to document some of the last buildings and meet the Wadi’s last resident before she died in this piece a few years ago for Al Jazeera.

How many other untold stories are out there from people and neighborhoods that were left out of Solidere’s vision?

If anyone has any memories of Ghalghoul or other razed neighborhoods, please feel free to share in the comments below and I would be happy to update the post.

 

 

 

Screenshot of video via Jad Ghorayeb

 

A number of images are appearing on social media today documenting the demolition of one of Lebanon’s first major factories and reportedly the oldest brewery in the Middle East.

Photographer Jad Ghorayeb posted this video this afternoon on Facebook:

Demolition has begun.. @ "Laziza Grande Brasserie du Levant"

Posted by Jad Ghorayeb on Monday, March 27, 2017

 

Activists tell me the demolition of the old Laziza brewery in the very dense working class Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhael could cause public health problems, as well as long term gentrification effects driving up the cost of living, and thus indirectly evicting residents and small family-owned businesses that have existed for generations.

Photo: L’Orient Le Jour, posted Oct. 2016

The old sign has recently been removed, seen in this picture taken his morning:

And scaffolding went up last week:

So why is this happening, and if local residents are not a priority, who is?

Capstone Investment

The Laziza brewery, established in the early 1930s, will be demolished to create luxury flats by famous Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, known for his exclusive nightclubs and appartments, affordable by a tiny fraction of the population.

According to the developer, Capstone Investment Group, the site will become “Mar Mikhael Village”

“Mar Mikhael Village entails the conversion of an old brewery into chic and trendy Lofts that exemplify contemporary city living in the hip area of Mar Mikhael.”

On his website, Khoury makes the argument that the height of the floors make it impossible for residential housing, lamenting its loss. He says a “ghost” of the building will be preserved, bringing back the sign and creating a small homage to part of the facade, dwarfed by a new massive superstructure.

Bernard Khoury website
Bernard Khoury website
Bernard Khoury website

Khoury says the demolition is “unfortunate” but inevitable: “The project’s relationship with the memory of its predecessor no longer lies in the mummification of the edifice that was to be recuperated, but instead rests on the acknowledgment of its unfortunate demolition, the tracing of its now-absent morphology and the poetry of its vital disappearance.”

But was a luxury residence really the only possibility here?

A piece that recently appeared in L’Orient Le Jour takes issue with Khoury’s comments, and questions their self-serving appearance. The piece argued that architects and investors bear a responsibility to the city beyond lip service and lamentation. Here is an excerpt translated from French via Google:

“But if the building is not suitable for housing, then the will to build should not be used as an excuse to demolish it. The problem does not lie in the inability of the Brewery to adapt, but in the choice of program which is unsuitable. Other programs, cultural, commercial, leisure, could indeed have been imagined there.”

The building should be preserved in its entirety and in all its parts whose composition is exceptional, witness of its rich history. But if it were nevertheless to concede to the financial reality, it would have been possible for example to preserve the central building and to allow itself to build on the rest of the ground. Real estate in Beirut is one of the most profitable in the world and even if this share of the 13,500m2 building is not exploited, the project will remain largely profitable.”

Yet this story is not just about the brewery but also the broader Mar Mikhael neighborhood, one of Beirut’s best preserved, and the dozens of developments and mega construction sites that are taking a toll on residents:

“The heritage situation in Beirut is indeed catastrophic: delusional real estate, absence of Masterplan, an obsolete heritage law that is struggling to be replaced by a modern law, blocked by politicians … As a result, demolished historic buildings and traditional neighborhoods Disfigured.However, the area where the Grande Brasserie du Levant is located is largely preserved and is a rare chance to preserve a historic quarter for the future. Such a massive project, replacing such an iconic building, is a violent act that will only initiate the disintegration of this precious urban fabric.”

Important questions raised by this project

What do local residents think of what is happening to their neighborhood? Why are their views rarely heard and why is the conversation on these mega projects frequently narrated by super wealthy real estate companies and starchitects? Why are people who own so much dominating a conversation over people who have barely a place to live?

How will projects like this one effect the residents health and livelihoods? What sort of pollution do these projects entail? How do they affect air quality, traffic, road closures and ability to do business? Do they also encourage other projects that will have similar effects, bringing more cars and pollution to the neighborhood?

Who are the developers, who owns Capstone Investment Group and what are there intentions, not just with the brewery but elsewhere in the city? Do big companies like this give back to the city, in terms of taxes and local development, or are the profits largely tax free?

What is the role of law and regulations? Are there laws to protect residents, average citizens living in the neighborhood? Do they have any rights to having their homes and livelihoods protected? Or were the laws and zoning regulations written to protect developers, who are often politically-connected elites?

What is the role of the ministry of culture? Some have said the previous minister opposed this project, has something changed? What about the urban planning departments, the municipality of Beirut, architecture and engineering syndicates? Are these government and professional bodies speaking on behalf of the country and the public or do they work in the interest of the powerful and well-funded?

Activists are planning to organize around this project so I will have more updates and background as it  becomes available. Any insights from readers, residents, old photos, etc would also be appreciated.

 

UPDATE:

A few hours after this post went up, a reader pointed out that there are actually two sets of plans for the “Mar Mikhael Village.” Although Bernard Khoury’s website and the Capstone Investment website both feature designs that incorporate part of the old brewery facade, Mar Mikhael Village also has their own website and Facebook page, where there is no sign of the old facade. In it’s place at the bottom center of the illustration, is a darkened, tilted modernist structure that has no resemblance to the original brewery:

And instead of the brewery sign, we have a similar shaped sign that reads “Mar Mikhael Village”:

Did Mar Mikhael Village just pull a fast one on us? Or are these old pictures? What happened to Bernard Khoury’s poetic “ghost” metaphor?

Also how did a single apartment complex already garner almost 14,000 likes on Facebook since it launched a few months ago?

UPDATE 3:

Photographer Jad Ghorayeb has just posted a beautiful set of photos of the brewery’s interiors. It’s hard not to imagine the potential for a community space, library or cultural venue:

How often do we find a 1930s factory with spiral staircases?

Or a space that recalls an industrial and national heritage that is long forgotten. Thanks to the developers, any potential for reviving it will now be fully erased, replaced by an exclusive gated community. See more photos from Jad’s full album posted on Facebook and also be sure to follow him on instagram for more of his stunning heritage photography.

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Have you ever been to Lake Naccache? It’s so romantic with restaurants right on the waterfront.

But strangely, the people drive cars, not boats:

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…which doesn’t make sense because the waves are good enough for sailing:

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…especially when a big truck pulls up and causes a mini tsunami, that brings the water up to the headlights:

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Maybe the Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Naccache can apply to UNESCO to protect this important wetland.

Obviously the municipality could not disturb such a cultural attraction by spending the residents’ tax money on things they need like storm drains. It also contains important organic compounds like raw sewage, another heritage item worth preserving wild and free from the captivity of pipes and plumbing.

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The ministry of tourism should get involved too. Remember that commercial they did about all the places Lebanon “looks’ like but really isn’t and will never be, like London, Marbella, Tokyo, etc:

Isn’t it time we add Venice to that list?

And while we are at it, considering the fact that you can now go to jail in Lebanon for a Facebook post, maybe we should add Beijing, Riyadh, Dubai and North Korea to the list too! Yay for sister cities!

One of the great things about the internet is that there is just so much floating around out there–like all the plans for Beirut that seemed to have magically disappeared.

There was/is(?) a plan to re-create part of the old promenade of Beirut, the original corniche, which was known as Avenue des Francais:

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Today’s seaside esplanade or corniche is an extension of this historic Avenue. But the bay was filled in with garbage during the Lebanese war and according to Solidere (the private firm created to rebuild central Beirut) the original coastline was “lost” and the plan was to use the garbage dump as a landfill and further extend the shoreline, thus creating hundreds of thousands more square meters of real estate property in the process.

For now, we won’t get into the controversy of how Solidere was formed and who profits from it (I’ve written about that extensively here and here). Instead, let’s look at one of the many promises it made to the public to build green and publicly accessible space as part of its rebuilding narrative. One of these projects is called Shoreline Walk, a series of interlinking gardens retracing the original coastal outline of the city as seen in the top photo of the Avenue.  It’s marked below by red lines.  We can also see how the large landfill created a new coastline enclosed by a new breakwater sea wall and yacht marina (which has also become a cash cow for Soldiere):

shoreline-walk-11

 

Designed by the London-based firm Gustafson Porter, The Shoreline Walk was meant to “restore the energy and vigour of the old Corniche promenade” with “green infrastructure” that aims to “re-establish east-west links and connect together a series of new public squares and gardens for the enjoyment of the community,” according to the firm’s website, which contains the images below:

walkgarden.jpg

The project was designed 14 years ago in 2002 and expected to be completed by 2010 at a cost of 5 million GBP (around $7.2 million) according to a company presentation. So where is it now? I’ve been living in Lebanon for most of my life and I’ve never seen or heard of it.

Here is an image of the design from Gustafson:

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It wasn’t easy to place the gardens on today’s Google map because so much has been constructed. So I resorted to an old aerial shot from the late 1990s to align the plots:

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And here it is with a rough overlay of where the “Shoreline Walk” should be:

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As compared to:

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So where is it?

Conceived 14 years ago, it’s due date is nearly six years past, and beyond a few shrubs and a short row of sidewalk trees, the area remains largely baren and off limits to the public.

The only garden that is completed is Zaytouneh Square, on the lower left.

But in reality, this is a hardscape space with few trees or shade:

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Source: Landscape Architects Network

A far cry from what seems a virtual rainforest in artist conceptions:

Gustafson-Porter_Shoreline-Walk_005

th_zaituneh-square

Indeed, Solidere’s overall “green spaces” map looks a lot more green on paper:

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…than it does in reality:

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On the other hand, the company seems to have had no trouble fulfilling its promise to construct blocks of high end towers for sale, with very few undeveloped plots remaining.

Still, Solidere’s green map is often touted in presentations and interviews with the press. Soldiere’s urban planner recently told design students at a university conference that the city center contains “60 parks and public spaces.” Many students were probably left wondering where these spaces are, as the presentation did not specify if the references and images described existing or planned projects.

In fact, Solidere has plenty of parks and public projects on paper. These include a range of archeological gardens, museums, fountain pools, even a large “central park” on the reclaimed new waterfront as seen above in the company map. But 22 years after Solidere began excavations in 1994, few of these spaces have materialized. And as seen by the example of the tiled Zaytouneh Square, the spaces that have been built often take the shape of sterile expanses with little seating that feel more like modern art to compliment private properties around them rather than inviting spaces for the general public to enjoy. But is that even the goal? Would the general public, most of whom are poor, be invited to mingle amongst the high security multi-million dollar apartments and luxury shops of the city center?

The Shoreline Walk was celebrated in a piece published last year by a landscape magazine which described the completed phase– Zaytouneh Square– as “daring, unique and dramatic.”

It added: “The sleek, bold, ultra-modern look of the square matches the character of the surrounding buildings and gives us the impression of a more modern, edgy Beirut.”

Here’s another image of that space:

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Source: Landscape Architects Network

Personally, I have never seen more than a handful of people loitering around the area and many of them tend to be private security. But will this change when the other “gardens” are completed? Will they be more green than this?

Although the magazine article was published last year,  curiously it makes no reference to the 14 years that have passed since Shoreline Walk was announced, neither does it ask any questions about when it will be ready. Soldiere’s web page on the Shoreline Walk also provides no explanation for the delay or any revised completion dates.

Perhaps the firm will say that political turmoil has hurt progress. Yet why has the same political turmoil not affected the completion of residential towers, sprawling condominiums with hanging gardens, a yacht marina and high end seafront shopping center (Zaitunay Bay) that have all been completed over the last decade? Are glass and steel towers easier to build than minimalist landscaped gardens?

Or does the $8 billion firm prioritize real estate gains for its investors over public space for the community? Perhaps someone out there has the answer.

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UPDATE:

What is the state of “Shoreline Gardens” today? Dirt, broken tiles and a patch of grass. Here’s a view from the ground:

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The real estate, the multi-million dollar new buildings are there but where are the public spaces?

Compare this to Solidere’s official website description of the Shoreline Gardens (which was recently updated) and note the use of the present tense,  which seems to convey this place actually exists:

“The Shoreline Walk is a sequence of five connected spaces, placed between the old city, and the new land-filled area. The concept design suggested a new line which guides and reveals elements of history and forms a connective spine…

Shoreline Gardens (4,508 sq m) site of the historic Avenue des Français, provide a contemporary promenade. A long linear water feature and pergola unite the space, creating water movement over an undulating surface and dappled shade to sit below, re-establishing this area as a meeting point.”

Here again is the artist conception from 2002:

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Photo: Sandra Rishani

Following resistance to a municipal plan to create a highway that would bulldoze a historic part of Beirut, architects and urban professionals are now reclaiming that space as one for public intervention and exploration. This Saturday, you can join architect and former AUB professor Sandra Rishani for a sort of “scavenger hunt” across the path of the proposed (now stalled) highway project.  Participants will visit three installations prepared by Rishani and her partner Nada Borgi from [hatch] architecture studio, under the title: “Popping Spaces: A Workshop On Playful Urban Internvetion”

Participants will be given an urban toolkit “to intervene on the spine (Boutros pathway) or within their own neighborhoods to highlight or raise an issue, reuse a ‘public’ space, occupy a ‘public’ space…”

This will also encompass “a case study on how with some reused and recycled items we can intervene in the public to raise awareness, campaign for a different future of space, highlight a loss, or create an actual usable space in the present. What is interesting for us about this site is that a very big part of it is expropriated by the government. So many of the empty plots and houses may in the present time be used by the public as it is owned by the public. A unique situation we think for squatting and starting to use this space as a linear pedestrian green park.”

The campaign to fight the $75 million Boutros Road project was one of the major activism case studies I discussed during a TEDx talk I gave in Beirut last year.

Basically activists and urban professionals were able to produce a multifaceted and multidisciplinary campaign to highlight how the overpriced project would lead to more problems than it proposed to solve on technical level, while also destroying one of the city’s biggest green spaces and most historic neighborhoods. In response, architects and urban professionals proposed a park project. However the municipality of Beirut rejected those suggestions with little consideration, and yet due to public pressure, the project has been stalled for the past two years.

I think it’s really interesting to see efforts to continue to pursue this project and engage citizens in the process of developing their city, a process which is too often dominated by non-transparent elite decision-makers and powerful real estate companies.

Rishani, who is the author of Beirut The Fantastic Blog, has produced some very thought-provoking interventions in past, including a fascinating tour of inaccessible city spaces I was able to attend a couple of years ago in collaboration with AUB, Carole Lévesque and Rana Haddad. See this previous post for details on that event known as “The Welcoming City Vertical Design Studio”. Judging by how great that was, I would highly recommend this upcoming event.

Click here to register for Saturday’s event and also check out the Facebook event page.  And for more on the Boutros road project, be sure to check out the impressive website, including research, maps, images as well as a petition produced by the civil coalition that opposed it.

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Popping Spaces: event image

 

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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 

 

The Civil Coalition Against the Boutros Highway is hosting a panel and discussion this Tuesday on the battle against the $75 municipality-led project that will cut through one Beirut’s greenest neighborhoods. The speakers include architects, urban planners and activists leading the campaign to create a park instead of the 1.3km road that will destroy several historic homes, including one of the last remaining terraced farm in the city. 
The event will take place this Tuesday August 26 at 11:00AM at the lush garden space that is threatened by the project. 
 You can join the event page on Facebook and find out more about the speakers in the invite below. (Click to enlarge)
For background on the legal battle against the project, and the questions raised about its transparency and the impact it will have on the neighborhood, see this in-depth piece on the project in The Daily Star and blog posts about the recent protests from local residents and activists.  
Click to enlarge