Beirut Chooses History over Highway

“Beirut Chooses History over Highway”

It is important to acknowledge the effort of the Beirut municipality to reach out to the public directly and through the media in order to inform Beirutis about the municipality’s intentions and to respond to the criticisms of the civil society groups that are up in arms (peaceful arms) against the Fouad Boutros Axis project. The criticism that they have received, their responses and the criticism to follow (including this one) represent a welcome and healthy direction for urban politics.

Unfortunately, the problems with the Fouad Boutros Axis project persist no matter how open the municipality is to discussion, no matter how glossy the new bridge images are, no matter how well pruned the ficus trees in the renderings look, and no matter how much lipstick the city puts on this pig of a project. These problems have been and will continue to be the focus of the debate around the project itself in the media, on the streets, and in the history books yet to be written.

However, the responses heard in the past week reveal a much more serious set of problems that have led to this confrontation. They reveal an outdated understanding of the contemporary city and administrative thinking that is out of touch with solutions being used worldwide and with the ambitions of Beirut’s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.

First, there is a problem of priorities: Think about it this way. The municipality has more than 70 million dollars, expropriated land, historic buildings, and the authority to address a series of problems. What do you with them? 1) build an axis according to a 1960s plan, 2) use that money creatively to improve on the entrances and exists to major shopping centers, introduce public transportation in the locality, come up with innovative ways of conserving the historical fabric, and enhance the existing public spaces.

During the public presentations, the municipality has acknowledged that it needs to address the problem of public transportation at a later stage. The question is why at a later stage? In the past, President Fouad Shehab, one of our more progressive presidents, in his well intentioned effort to bring development to the mountains and reduce the problem of urban migration, made the mistake of building the roads to the mountains before improving the conditions of living in the mountains and before providing social security to those working in agriculture. As a result the people in the mountains left in higher numbers to the city creating major social problems that many historians link to the eventual civil war. Like the Fouad Boutros Bridge, President Shehab’s road to the hell of civil war was paved with good intentions but he did not have his priorities in the right order.

If we do not want to learn from our past, why not learn from other cities? When Enrique Penalosa, recent mayor of Bogota, was faced with the same choices, he worked with the citizens to turn an existing highway into a park and to dedicate lanes to buses and to bicycles. The result was an urban project that has become the model of other cities in the world to follow.

When traffic became a major problem for London, the city set a limit on how many cares could enter by adding disincentives to drive and increasing spending on public transport. It did not build new roads. These are the examples that Beirut should follow. Beirut deserves a better arrangement of its priorities.

Then there is a problem of representation: In general, a city’s municipality tends to represent the rights of its citizens, the locals, against those of private interest groups like real estate developers and against the negative consequences that national priorities sometimes create, especially for a capital city like Beirut. When faced with a situation like the Fouad Boutros Axis demonstrations, the municipality usually sides with the locals not with a national body like the Council for Development and Reconstruction. When the municipality represents national interests, it means there is something wrong with how it perceives its role. If for the municipality through-traffic is more important than local traffic, then the municipality is more interested in bypassing Ashrafiyeh than in Ashrafiyeh.

Instead of dismissing the visible value of the 30 buildings being destroyed with the justification that only two of them are listed, should not the municipality campaign to list more buildings? Instead of succumbing to the pressure groups from local land owners who wrongly believe that the value of their property is going to skyrocket when the highway is built, should not the municipality be developing mechanisms of property right transfer and other tools that are readily available world wide to protect its heritage not by deterrence but by economic incentives? Why is the municipality taking sides and not seeking innovative solutions that please everybody?

Yes, the municipality must have projects and must have ambitions for the city, but it should not be opposing its citizens. A municipality is where arbitration of differences takes place not where differences are produced. Beirut’s best municipality presidents in its Ottoman period and French mandate were the ones who stood up for its citizens against the foreign rulers even when these presidents were effectively appointed by the rulers. One of the key problems in the Gezi Park uprising in Istanbul is that the mayor of Istanbul took the side of the national authorities not the citizens.

Finally, there is a problem of image: Our image is what the world sees of us and how we also see ourselves. The images that were circulated by the municipality in the past week to represent a kinder and gentler highway approach are very telling of a larger attitude towards the city. Is this the image we want for Beirut? A highway dressed in trees? Between that and the old houses of Gemmayzeh which would you prefer? Does the municipality really want to use the green-wash technique that greedy developers often use to hide the negative impact of their projects against its own citizens?

A real estate developer from Dubai once observed, “In Beirut, you have it easy, you have history everywhere. You can bank on this image to sell your city to the world. In Dubai, we have to invent it from scratch.“ If a real estate developer from Dubai could understand the importance of conserving Beirut’s historic image in order to increase its real estate value why are we trying to make Beirut more like Dubai?

News headlines in the past year have not been very generous towards Beirut’s image. Putting security aside, many reporters have chosen to focus on the city’s growing urban problems. Headlines include: “For a Bike Messenger Beirut May be the Worst City Ever,” and “Beirut : For the Rich Only,” The municipality and the citizens should aspire for a better image, maybe starting with a headline that reads “Beirut Chooses History Over Highway.”

Hashim Sarkis

Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism
Harvard University Graduate School of Design

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