April 22, 2013
By Samya Kullab

BEIRUT: The walk down Damascus Road to Downtown can be disorienting for pedestrians forced to navigate narrow, broken sidewalks and distracted by the cacophonyof bulldozers ripping open the earth. The idea that what was once the Green Line – now littered with dilapidated structures – could be transformed into a “green” pedestrian-friendly walkway in only a few short years is easily dismissible as fantasy.

Yet the project has been taken up by local architect Habib Debs and Beirut’s municipality, helped by studies conducted in Ile-de-France, the region surrounding Paris.

These, alongside other municipality-backed projects in the works, constitute small gains made in the service of a broader goal: to reconnect Beirutis to the environment.

Flipping through the design report for the Damascus Road project feels like stepping into an architect’s utopian daydream. Digital renderings of a route from Horsh Beirut all the way to Downtown – with verdant promenades, bike lanes and a narrow one-way road for vehicles – stand in direct contrast to photographs of the current route, with its wide roads crowded with forests of cars rather than trees.

The boost in efforts to go green is partly due to Mayor Bilal Hamad’s presence among both the municipal administration and lobbyists. As an American University of Beirut professor and head of city council, Hamad has led the adoption of numerous eco-friendly projects, including one AUB is currently undertaking on Jean d’Arc Street.

“The environment is a very important issue for Beirut, where the ratio of green space per capita is the lowest in the area,” the mayor explained from his Downtown Beirut office.

Lebanon’s capital has just 0.6 square meters per capita of public green space, a statistic that renders the city “unhealthy” by WHO standards. To correct the ratio, half the city would have to be demolished.

Beirut is below average where environmentally friendly urban planning is concerned. Hamad’s solution begins with rehabilitating existing spaces, like the public gardens of Sanayeh, Sioufi and Geitawi.

The mayor’s hesitation to launch a full-scale green-oriented urban planning program might have something to do with the government’s protracted implementation process, which can take up to a year.

Architects often find it difficult to get a green light for these types of projects, because they have the arduous task of convincing investors that the high initial costs are worthwhile in the long run.

“It’s easier if we have a grant, because the work gets done quickly and I save on the bureaucracy and red tape,” Hamad said.

But in terms of creating a more environmentally friendly city, these smaller initiatives barely make a dent. Drastic measures such as the Damascus Road project are needed to make Beirut meet international standards.

Unfurling a map included in the French studies, architect Debs pointed out the lopsided distribution of public green spaces in the city’s peripheries. Tariq al-Jadideh, Moseitbeh and Mazraa are shaded gray, Ashrafieh, Geitawi and Hamra enjoy splotches of green, while the gardens in academic institutions such as AUB and Ecole Superieure des Affaires dominate the map.

“The municipality owns a lot of small parcels of land in these areas,” Debs remarked, pointing to Moseitbeh and Mazraa. “There we have opportunities to propose building green neighborhoods.”

New parks are also being proposed within the old train stations of Mar Mikhael and Sin al-Fil, with the old railway line serving as a potential pedestrian walkway through the city. The aim of the “master plan,” as Debs called it, is to encourage links between public places and eventually create a “green network” in the city.

The reconstruction of Damascus Road, however, remains the only initiative with a projected deadline. Debs predicted the tendering process to select potential contractors would begin by the end of the year.

Nevertheless, Lebanon remains a country where private initiatives yield more effective results, and where the environment is concerned, this means including incentive-based schemes.

Urban planning and architecture design consultancy firm Studio Invisible, for example, is engaged in ongoing efforts to implement a municipal decree allowing buildings to grow rooftop gardens, with tax exemptions for those who partake.

Architect Sandra Rishani said eco-friendly opportunities lay in private/public sector cooperation: “There is already a lot of empty space in the city used up by parking lots or emptied-out plots. And there is potential to use balconies and vertical gardens along the sides of [private] buildings.”

However, architect and professor Jala Makzhoumi believes the solution to Beirut’s environmental urban-planning woes lies not in encouraging more green projects, but blue ones.

“The concept of an urban park is great, but ineffective at the macrolevel when a city grows to the extent that Beirut has.”

“The only real impact an open green space can make in places like these is at the scale of the waterfront, or river corridors like Nahr Beirut,” she said. Beirut’s coast and rivers already benefit from being spatially and legally defined, she added, as privatizing these spaces is technically against regulations.

In many ways, architects seeking to improve the city’s green potential are attempting to retroactively correct an internal infrastructure that never had a master plan, and was an ad-hoc result of population densification.

“With the building of towers and taller residential buildings on streets which once were designed for only three- to four-story apartments, we not only lost our gardens, but we lost the human scale, we dehumanized the city,” Makzhoumi explained.

And while, all parties working to improve Beirut’s green side – from both the public and private sectors – agree that changing individual carcentric mentalities is by far their greatest challenge, Makzhoumi prefers to consider their efforts as part and parcel of reclaiming lost values, eroded over time after the Civil War.

“The people of Beirut have changed,” Makzhoumi said. “As a child, I remember we spent the summers in the mountains, everyone did. It was important because it was our only contact with nature.”

During the 1975-90 Civil War, summer travel to the luxuriant mountains came to a halt, due to the infighting that prompted Beirutis to stay within their urban confines.

“I believe this had a big impact on the people, because they were cut off from nature, and their love for it,” Makzhoumi said.

“It’s really not about the garden,” she reflected. “The garden used to be a place where we negotiated who we were and our relationship to others.

The movement to go green “is a platform where people can mobilize and negotiate their priorities, that in itself is more valuable than the actual garden,” she added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 22, 2013, on page 4.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2013/Apr-22/214551-green-initiatives-boosted-in-unhealthy-beirut.ashx#ixzz2RLDIPdEG
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)