BEIRUT: In a culture where social connections are fundamental and incontestable, and in a country where the weather is relatively pleasant, “let’s meet at the park” is not a commonly used statement in Lebanon, and that is mainly due to the lack of parks, green areas and public spaces in the country.
Parks and green areas are almost extinct, especially in Beirut. They dominantly consist of El Sanayeh Park covering 22,000 square meters, and Horsh Beirut which used to cover 1,250,000 sq meters in 1696 and now only covers an area of 300,000 sq meters.
The UN Habitat, in its journal of public space, mentioned that “In 2015, the percentage of green spaces in Lebanon has decreased to less than 13 percent. While the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a minimum of 9m of green space per capita, Beirut has only 0.8m2.”
Other public areas, squares or gardens are scattered around the city, like the Martyr Square, the Nejme Square, Ramlet el Baida. However, most of these areas are losing their public character and their attractiveness either by being inaccessible or by being privatized.
Various reasons are behind the shrinkage of public spaces and green areas in the country and particularly in Beirut. The Civil War had its impact on these spaces as it divided the city into two parts and amplified social conflicts and segregation. Increased urbanization paralleled with the lack of proper regulations, urban planning and city management reduced access to public spaces. Moreover, these areas are decreasing in the face of the dominance of real estate and private developments.
Given that the value of land is high in the capital, investors prefer to cover and exploit the surface area with profitable projects such as residential or commercial buildings. Additionally, local municipalities haven’t developed many plans or projects to provide its citizens with much-needed public spaces.
Some activists are trying to reclaim their rights to these spaces, but there’s an overall lack of awareness around the right to access public and green spaces, as well as their importance. Malls, private resorts, restaurants and bars have acted as alternatives to these spaces and have perhaps shifted the attention of the general public to ask for their rights to green breathing room and public meeting places.
“I have lived in El Sanayeh area my entire life, but I have never been to inside the park,” said Amar who is 25 years old, “I don’t feel like it is inviting or secure, I much rather prefer to go to the mall or some other place.”
Parks, green areas and public spaces are crucial assets to a city. First, they offer a breathing space, they reduce the pressure on the environment and they cleanse the city from the emitted toxic gases and polluters. They also increase air circulation and offer shade.
Some cities are also developing public projects as solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change, such as Flooding or the Urban Heat Island effect. As a case in point, Copenhagen in Denmark is developing its public spaces by integrating water retention areas and increasing the share of greeneries to capture rainwater in order to reduce the risks of flooding following cloudbursts.
Similarly, Stuttgart in Germany increased the share of vegetation and designing urban corridors ad urban parks to reduce problems of over-heating in the city and air pollution.
Public spaces also offer the opportunity to engage with the community. They offer a space for everyone and diffuse social segregation which is necessary for the emergence of healthy communities.
To design attractive and welcoming public spaces, various elements should be considered, such as the sociability of the space, the uses and activities, the comfort of the space and its accessibility. Therefore, existing squares and parks in Lebanon should be remodeled and revitalized to welcome the public. These spaces should be easily accessible, attractive, and well maintained through offering a clean and a safe environment and should be lit at night to allow evening use.
Parks and squares should be places for everyone, thus should have multi-use features and should offer diverse activities and events. Given that Beirut is a dense city, and due to the scarcity of lands, small-scale initiatives, such as pocket parks, could be implemented in neighborhoods.
Existing streets could also be re-designed to become more attractive and to become breathing spaces by reducing car flows, widening sidewalks, and dedicating streets for pedestrians, adding urban furniture and increasing the vegetation cover.
Existing regulations, urban plans and buildings laws should be reconsidered, especially in dense cities, to reduce the over-exploitation of lands and to leave room for the integration of more parks and public spaces.
Rim Khamis graduated from the Lebanese American University with a bachelor of Architecture degree and accomplished her masters in Environmental and Energy Management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Her thesis was an emphasis on urban resilience and climate change adaptation in megacities using a comparative approach of Cairo, London and New York. Rim is currently undergoing her PhD studies in Environmental and Energy Solutions at the University of Pau and Pays de L'Adour in France focusing on climate change adaptation in medium-sized European cities.