By Waltraud Frommherz-Hassib

While a number of countries slid into a deep recession in 2008, Lebanon witnessed spectacular economic growth. Over the last few years, not only trendy downtown Beirut but other parts of the country, too, have seen a major construction boom. In 2009, tourism too broke all records. In the real estate business incredible annual growth rates of over 30% are increasingly attracting capital from the Gulf States and from wealthy Lebanese expatriates. The run on luxury real estate has reached such levels that building plots are becoming hard to get by. Fantasies of offshore islands for wealthy expatriates have further fuelled this trend. A group of professors from Beirut`s American University has called the project an “environmental and urban” disaster.

Settlement Development in Greater Beirut District
Although there is a zoning plan for Greater Beirut District, Beirut suburbs might choke down by the innumerable construction sites. The zoning plan of Beirut, drafted in the spirit of the 1950s, does not provide criteria for a livable environment, nor for pedestrians and cyclists, and there are no standards for public space, air quality, or noise control. Buildings go up as each constructor seems fit. The only limitations are regarding height and site density – and even there innumerous exceptions are being granted. What is left, is a city not only scared by war, but also by speculation – a city whose everyday life is marked by traffic congestions, smog, noise, and the struggle to receive elementary services such as water and electricity. Furthermore, Beirut is rapidly losing its last character and havens of green tranquility.

Everybody’s right to built – even without urban management
Every landowner in Lebanon, no matter, where his property is located, may legally build houses of up to four floors on 10% to 20% of the property. The only exceptions are nature preserves and plots on Mediterranean coast. Neither binding site plans, nor public hearings are necessary to be granted a building permit. Access to public utilities, such as electricity, water, wastewater, roads is expected to be granted by the state even in remotest locations.
Only about 10% of all Lebanon territory are covered by legally binding local master plans that supplants national law by specific building regulations – and about a fifth of them is still not legally binding. Moreover, although there are local zoning plans for main settlements areas – the one for Beirut is from the 1950s – such plans exist only for about 40% of current areas of urbanization. Negotiations between planning authorities, ministries, and local authorities do usually take very long because a lot of money is involved.

According to the central planning authority (Direction Generale d`Urbanisme, DGU), during the years 2008 and 2009 only two new local master plans were submitted for review. After more than ten years, half of the plans are still work in progress. As there has been a freeze on recruitment for ministries and authorities since 1995, it is very unlikely that, in the short term, much will change about Lebanon`s “lack of plan”.

Lack of basic data
During the civil war years, almost all systems of data gathering collapsed. Up to the present day, Lebanon`s statistics agency is fighting an uphill struggle to create a reliable collection of data for the country. As the last census took place in 1932, the statistics agency can only work with estimations based on registered buildings, household numbers and voter registers. Yet, these do not reflect actual population figures as people who moved or migrated are still being listed. A new census is nowhere in sight, as it might threaten Lebanon`s fragile confessional balance and political status quo.

To date, about a third of Lebanon does not have a land register. Only Beirut, the coastal area, the agricultural areas in the Bekaa Valley, and a narrow strip along the road to Damascus are on a land register. Many areas affected by the current boom in construction such as Mount Lebanon, the area between Beirut and Sidon in the South and up North to Batroun do not have a land register.

Around 10% of the Lebanese populations are Palestinian refugees living in camps on the periphery of the cities Beirut, Sidon, Tyros and Tripoli. Legally, these areas are “humanitarian havens” and fall into the responsibility of UNRWA. With particularly high population growth rates these areas are outside of every planning, utilities and administrative structures.

Weak state structures and hardly enforceable master plans
After the French mandate administrative structures in urban and regional planning were quickly taken in by a dynamic private sector. Although the Lebanese state has always kept interventions and regulations to a minimum, bureaucratic procedures are extensive. Permission to build a department store, for example, requires about 20 bureaucratic acts. Yet, none of these address the environmental impact, nor is the bureaucracy concerned about the urban development concept. The interests of residents are not looked into, nor are there any efforts to optimize the project or to upgrade basic infrastructure to increased needs. In addition, there is an enormous backlog caused by the freeze on recruitment since 1995.

Also the Ministry of Environment, which is chronically understaffed, has hardly any backing from within the government and is continuously sidelined when it comes to reviewing and enforcing environmental legislation and policies.

With or without a master plan, every building application will be submitted to the chief of the local administration, too. Local authorities, though, rarely have the expertise or the necessary funds to handle sustainable urban planning – and frequently there is a lack of political will to do so. How building applications will be dealt with is therefore mostly up to the discretion of the major or of influential citizens. Most local authorities have only been established in 1998. In many parts of the country, especially in the north, there are still no local authorities.

The Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR) was created in 1977 as an independent authority that reports directly to the cabinet. With its National Physical Master Plan for the Lebanese Territory (NPMPLT) the CDR theoretically has created the basis and the guidelines for the drafting of local master plans. However in its final reports the council addresses numerous criteria and problems of regional planning, it does not seem to be following up on them in planning. Environmental issues and the conservation of resources are minimized to designate small national parks. According to the little interest in the issue of national master plans, it took parliament four years (2005-2009) to ratify the report and plan. While a step in the right direction the national master plan is considered a general sort of recommendation with little impact on local plans.

In order to maximize profit margins policy makers seem to focus on fueling the construction industry regardless of the existing master plan. Little to no attention is paid to how a prospect new structure interacts with street spaces, neighborhood, community or environmental concerns and the way in which such stresses may accumulate.

The actual real expansion demand is never even discussed in neither administrative nor planning decision despite obvious innumerous empty lots and brownfield sites.

With the exception of a few nature preserves in the mountains, the possibilities for recreation and the overall appearance of landscape are being completely ignored. This is highly problematic especially in urbanized areas where there is little public space.

Theory and Reality
Already today many conclusions of the National Master Plan are overtaken by actual construction boom. While the CDR is still drafting a detailed master and management plan especially for the coastal areas, new resorts, housings and industrial estates will already be in place and the metropolis Beirut is spreading unchecked into a nature preserve planned for the catchment area of the Beirut River.

The Jeita source provides 80% of Beirut`s water supply. Rapidly growing and uncontrolled settlement with practically no effluent disposal reveals signs of bacterial contamination and hydrocarbon pollution. Instead of protecting the Jeita catchment area, the national master plan designates it as only threatened and does not provide any planning recommendations. In fact, the area is one of the hotspots of the present construction boom.

A further problem is the lack of adaption of laws sometimes dating back to as far as the 1920s. Thus the penalty for operating an illegal quarry is still 100LL, equivalent to less than 0,08 USD.

Wastage of Resources
Even before the present boom Lebanon faced difficulties to satisfy its demand of gravel and sand for the construction industry. Beaches are still dug out and destroyed, riverbeds are extracted from gravel and numerous quarries are mined uncontrolled only to produce material for the projects. One consequence is that only 21% of the Lebanese coastline remained intact. All efforts by the government, to limit the extraction have failed so far. Only in 2005 the pressure of 18 NGOs and a legal case enforced the closure of two illegal quarries in Jiyyeh and Nahr el Kalb.

Lebanon`s waste and sewage issue is still unsolved. Depending on the region, between 35% and 74% of Lebanese households are connected to a sewer system, yet most of it is in poor condition or seriously undersized. In addition, most of the sewage remains untreated and is disposed off into a natural watercourse or the Mediterranean. Even worse is the uncontrolled seepage of uncollected sewage – either because there is no sewer system or because of leaks – into the ground water. This problem is exacerbated by the uncontrolled urban sprawl.

Even though a fee for public drainage infrastructure is due for each building permit, there is no accountability on how the funds are being used. Thus, as was the case during the civil war, citizens manage on their own account to get water from tank trucks, to install their own power generators, or just to siphon power. Sewage will remain untreated and waste will be disposed uncontrolled.

Privatization of public space
Although, in Lebanese Law, the entire coastline is regarded an inalienable public property one of the greatest problems is its privatization. Only one public beach remains in the whole Greater Beirut District. When in 1998 the Lebanese NGO Greenline discovered that this beach too had been sold to two companies and that influential politicians were involved, public pressure mounted and caused to the construction plans to be shelved.

The absence of concepts for sustainable settlement development with appropriate infrastructure or open space, and because of the ignorance of decision makers concerning the demands of the population, public and semi-public space is limited to gaps between buildings or streets. Inhabitants of Beirut have to accept 0.8m² of open space per inhabitant, while central European cities allot ten, even twenty times as much.

Raising awareness
Numerous NGOs and universities are increasingly active in making urban, regional and environmental planning a cross-sectional task. Unfortunately initiatives from ALBA-University and the AUB for example concerning the reconstruction of Harek Hreik, Beirut´s destroyed neighborhood in 2006, faded away as discussions were brief and limited to a small circle of experts. So the actual reconstruction did not assimilate the results of these workshops.

The instruments of urban and regional planning in Lebanon and their implementation seem inadequate to deal with problems associated with the construction boom and consequently jeopardize the sustainable development of the country. Urban development almost exclusively focuses on short-term economic gains. Where there are local master plans at all, they are disregarded or, like the National Master plan, sidelined.

Sustainable environmental, social and economic factors go almost unheeded. There is a major imbalance between a given structural framework and the uninhibited construction boom.

The developments described are not only the effect of a ruthless pursuit of profit by an economic elite. They are only possible in a state that does not have the monopoly on power and that is unwilling to develop and enforce a legal system and to follow transparent guidelines. As long as many decision makers in ministries and local authorities do get a cut from building and real estate speculation and as long as polluters are not held accountable for the consequences of the uncontrolled construction boom on population and environment, the situation will only aggravate.

Sustainable urban and regional planning must be comprehensive. The guidelines of the national master plan must be mandatory for all local planning. In order to achieve this, the corresponding administration of justice has to be developed and enforced.

Waltraud Frommherz-Hassib, a Geographer and regional planning practitioner, lived in Beirut from 2008 until 2010.