How activists in Lebanon are fighting to reclaim public spaces

BEIRUT — Two children recently had to climb a utility pole and jump over a spiked iron fence to get to a park in Karantina, an impoverished area near the city’s bombed-out port, because the park is lined with trees and a jungle gym. , is always closed.

It’s a story repeated across Lebanon, where people are reeling from the economic crisis and struggling to breathe, but open spaces are often closed off, scarce or reserved for those who can pay.

“There are no public spaces in Lebanon. Public gardens are often closed, and most spaces are privately owned or require permission from the municipality,” said Maggie Najem, who is fighting to keep her local beach open in northern Lebanon.

Lebanon’s growing inequality and the power of private interests have resulted in the country’s dwindling public spaces all exacerbated by political corruption.

Many had to resort to temporary solutions. Near the park in Karantina, children have turned the parking lot into a playground.

“There is no proper care where the children are staying,” said Adnan Amshe, a parent in quarantine. The park was initially closed due to coronavirus restrictions, but is yet to open, he said.

“Now that the epidemic is over, this is the only public space for people here,” Amshe said, noting that elderly residents have no alternative outdoor space: “Isn’t that the purpose of a public garden?”

Children turned this parking lot near Beirut’s closed quarantine public space into a makeshift playground. (Video: Mohamed El Sama)

Mohammed Ayub, head of public space advocacy group Nahnoo, says little has changed since he and his friends played in empty spaces “as best we could” as children in the 1990s. He said that now all the vacant lots have been turned into parking lots.

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Ayoub says he believes Lebanon’s financial crisis has little to do with the pandemic, as authorities closed Horsh Beirut, the city’s largest park, for 25 years and only partially reopened it in 2014.

Instead, he blames policymakers who he says aren’t interested in providing public services or investing in parks.

A 2020 study Beirut has 26 square feet of parking space per person, compared to just 8.6 square feet of green space, down from 97 square feet, according to Lebanese University professor Adif Haider’s estimate. Recommended By the World Health Organization.

Activists have taken matters into their own hands. After a brewery was demolished in the city’s once-industrial, now-gentrified Mar Michel district, the site remained vacant until Grobeiroud intervened. The group planted trees and shrubs, installed benches, and transformed the site into what is now Lacisa Park, named after the brewery’s beer.

The lot’s owners recently filed a lawsuit to evict its caretakers and permanently close Lasisa Park.

According to Nadine Ghayat, a professor of landscape architecture at the American University of Beirut, improved spaces often have a short life: “The children adapt the car park by living in the area and can only use it until the owner decides. It’s a time of growth, and children lose their place.

A similar movement exists along Lebanon’s coastline, where Ayoub estimates that 80 percent of land, nominally in the public domain, has been illegally privatized by beach clubs and resorts. For years, Najem feared this would be the fate of northern Lebanon’s Abu Ali public beach, a place he had visited every day since childhood. His fears were confirmed in April when construction workers arrived with excavators.

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Apo Ali is a small stretch of sand nestled between private resorts. There is no direct access to the beach, so swimmers must walk along a slippery walkway in an empty lot to get there. But that doesn’t keep them away.

“On any day of the year the beach is packed with people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world. That’s the beauty. It is a public space,” said Najem. “They wanted to change all this.”

Abo Ali, a small beach in northern Lebanon, is a public spot, but swimmers have to walk along a slippery walkway in an empty lot to get here. (Video: Mohamed El Sama)

An investor who had leased the surrounding land claimed Abu Ali.

Locals and activists like Najem started mobilizing to save the beach. They reached out to Nahnu and quickly launched a campaign against land grabbing. After their efforts attracted widespread attention, officials moved to halt construction.

This is a small victory in the midst of many such challenges. Two weeks ago, illegal construction was reported along Naqora Beach in southern Lebanon, where a US-brokered maritime boundary agreement between Israel and Lebanon allows developers to focus on waterfront land.

There is also debate over who should be allowed to use parks, pools and other public spaces, often fueled by prejudice.

In April, footage of Syrian children swimming in downtown Beirut, mimicking a pool dedicated to slain journalist Samir Kassir, prompted city officials to unleash a racist attack on Syrian refugees. Drain the pond.

Pedestrian projects have stalled in the area where the bombing took place near Lachisa Park, one of the Lebanese capital’s busiest bar districts. Local politicians complained that widening the narrow sidewalks would remove parking spaces and the benches installed in their place would attract “undesirables”.

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Such struggles between a jaded public and more powerful private interests could go a long way in determining Lebanon’s future, says Gayath.

“Public spaces are a vehicle for people to gather,” he said. “The more you bring different people together, the more they’re going to recognize each other’s humanity, and we have a cohesive community.”

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