Private development is diminishing public space.
For nearly 40 years, 70-year-old Nassib Soleh has descended almost every day to a rocky stretch of shoreline on Beirut’s western edge to swim near the famous Pigeon Rocks — or Raouché, as the locals know it — a pair of prominent offshore rock arches that are the city’s most recognizable natural vista.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]The sea has been privatized... it’s like people are kind of in a prison in Beirut.[/quote]
Soleh, the head of a nonprofit that works with developmentally disabled adults, joins a group of some 40 other swimmers — including engineers, lawyers, and blue-collar workers — who take their afternoon dip together at one of the few publicly accessible spots remaining on a coastline crowded with resorts and private beaches. “We like natural places — we don’t like to go to private places,” Soleh says. “We feel free here.”
Like many of Beirut’s public spaces, the coastline next to Pigeon Rocks, known as the Dalieh, is threatened by private development. Under the law, the entire coast is supposed to be open to the public, and all but limited development is prohibited. That has not stopped the construction of private resorts along much of the coast. “In principle, the beach is public — you need an exception to build,” says Jessica Chemali, programs manager at Nahnoo, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for preserving public spaces in Lebanon. “But today, everything is an exception.”
Habib Battah, editor of the Beirut Report blog, which often covers land use issues, says development has limited accessibility to the ocean. “The sea has been privatized,” he says. “The economic development works were really not aimed at people who live here… Now it’s like people are kind of in a prison in Beirut. There’s very little beach and what little beach there is, is very polluted.” But in recent years, the city’s residents have begun to fight back.
May 1948: People wade in the surf on the beach in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo by Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Civil war reaches the shores
The rocky shore is frequented by fishermen who eke out a living there, by picnicking families, and by lovers who find refuge from the prying eyes of their families — although not always from those of peeping Toms and police officers.
One day a couple years ago, as Soleh and his friends emerged from the water, they were greeted by a group of men who said the rock was private property and they could not swim there. “We didn’t talk with them much because we cursed them and they ran away,” Soleh says. “This is public space — haraam.”
Before Lebanon’s 15-year civil war began in 1975, public spaces were plentiful, according to Chemali. The coast had not yet been built up, Beirut’s downtown was full of open-air markets, and families could stroll and picnic in Horsh Beirut, a large urban park on the remnants of a centuries-old pine forest.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]During the war and after the war, the politics of reconstruction have limited and almost eliminated the concept of public space.[/quote]
But over the course of the conflict, some of the sites were destroyed or closed, and afterward, more were replaced by private developments like beach resorts and shopping malls. “During the war and after the war, the politics of reconstruction have really limited and almost eliminated the concept of public space,” Chemali says.
Waref Sleiman, a young architect and activist, agrees. “There is no concept of public space,” he says. “My parents live in a village, and every weekend I go there. So for me, public space is my village… The public places are only for people who can’t afford others, which is not logical.”
But in the past few years, Beirutis have launched a number of campaigns to gain or preserve access to public parks and beaches. Nahnoo oversaw one that succeeded in reopening Horsh Beirut to the public in 2015, after a more than 20-year closure.
The park was burned in an Israeli airstrike in 1982 and remained closed through the rest of the Lebanese civil war. After the war ended in 1990, the park was renovated but not reopened fully to the public. Residents had to apply for permits to enter, but the permits were only granted to those over age 35 and under 12. In practice, many complained that permits for locals were often denied, while people who looked European were allowed to walk in without one.
After a series of protests, the municipality reopened the park to the public and dropped the permit requirement. The reopening was “a major achievement of civil society,” Chemali says. But that wasn’t the end of the controversies. Activists are now fighting the municipality over plans to build a hospital on land adjacent to the park. Nahnoo has filed a lawsuit over the project. And, in March, the Horsh was once again closed to the public. Municipal officials said the closure was temporary and necessary to eradicate worms that were eating the trees.
Public space lost to private development
Perhaps the most heated disputes are now over the future of Lebanon’s coastline. In recent years, activists have fought back — so far, successfully — against plans to build a hotel on the Dalieh site and another one at Ramlet al-Baida, a public beach to the south, with protests, lobbying, and lawsuits.
Lebanon’s Shura Council has issued orders to temporarily halt construction at Ramlet al-Baida, but the building has not actually stopped.
Construction has not begun at Dalieh, and no permits have yet been issued for the project. Recently, activists fighting to prevent development succeeded in getting the site placed on the World Monuments Fund watch list of threatened heritage sites.
In both cases, the struggle is complicated by the fact that the land is technically private. Dalieh was owned for many years by a group of prominent local families, but because development was prohibited, the land remained in practice a public commons. In the years after the end of the civil war, the land was acquired by a group of companies tied to former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. At the same time, regulations were changed to allow for development of the site and others along the coast.
Photo by Khalid Albaih/Flickr.
Three years ago, a fence was erected around the site, and fishermen began to be evicted. Soon after, advocates discovered that a plan was in the works to build a hotel there and that prominent Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas had been commissioned for the project.
Fishermen joined with urban planners and environmentalists in a campaign to halt the project. They also found support from a new group of activists that had formed in the wake of a prolonged garbage collection crisis that began in 2015. After one of the protests organized by the so-called “You Stink” campaign, a crowd of activists continued down the corniche to Dalieh. There, some went to work with wire-cutters and pulled the fence down. It never went back up.
Battah sees the lack of movement as a sign of the campaign’s success and attributes it to the publicity the activists generated around the site and the political unpopularity of the project, which moved the development from “kind of an accepted status quo to a contested state.”
“When you’re powerful in Lebanon, things move fast,” he says. “Things haven’t moved fast this time.”
Chemali says she believes, in part, that the successes have come because people in Beirut are beginning to believe that public space is something they are entitled to. “When we started an advocacy campaign in 2010, it was not a familiar topic; no one would talk about it apart from academics who specialize in urban policy,” she says. “I think today we’ve really made great progress in reactivating the concept.”