Beirut: Recapture the City

Horsh-Park in Beirut

Everyday Democracy: Reconquering the city: Nahnoo fights for public parks in Lebanon

Horsh Beirut is a beautiful park that stretches over a huge area of 25,000 square meters: Pine trees, palm trees, meadows, 900 different plants, asphalt paths, and even a small stage. Located in the middle of the Lebanese capital, it would be an ideal local recreational area for the urban population.

But joggers and walkers can be seen only around the perimeter of the park. For over twenty years Horsh Beirut has been closed to the general public by municipal authorities. Only “permit holders” are allowed into the park—primarily Western foreigners or people with good connections to the park administration.
Horsh Beirut is no exception in Beirut. “There is the trend to privatize the most beautiful sections of the beach,” says Bente Scheller, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Middle East office in Beirut. “More and more parks and public spaces have been taken away from the general population. People can hardly meet anywhere now besides shopping centers.”

For this reason, the Heinrich Böll Foundation supports organizations and campaigns that seek to re-conquer the city for its residents. One of them is Nahnoo, Arabic for “we,” a small NGO whose campaigns include opening the Horsh Beirut park. “Try to imagine this discrimination: It is your city, your park, and yet you aren’t allowed to go in,” says Mohammed Ayoub, director of Nahnoo. “It is as if you said to the people: You don’t deserve something like this.”

Such messages have devastating effects on the population’s trust in democracy. Lebanon has weakly developed government structures. It has never really recovered from the years of civil war. The country is still divided—into different population groups which essentially correspond to the former war parties, a half million Palestinian refugees who live without citizenship or rights, and Syrian refugees who currently comprise about one-third of the country’s inhabitants.

Most of them continue to have more trust in their own ethnic-religious group than in the government—which is not surprising, as the postwar order set out in the Ta’if Agreement establishes a strict proportionality in parliament of eighteen different religious confessions. Without public spaces, these different sectors of the population have as little chance of encountering each another as people of different social backgrounds. Thus prejudices and fragmentation continue to be reinforced.

“Public spaces, that is, parks, beaches, and squares, are like the living room in a home,” says Ayoub. “Without this living room there is no place where one can meet, communicate, and dispute.” A democratic society needs precisely such public spaces in order to function, Ayoub emphasizes. “Democracy is more than just elections.”

Through campaigns, demonstrations, and public picnics, Nahnoo and the other NGOs supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation are working to have the Horsh Beirut park reopened and to create new public spaces. But beyond this they are also seeking to reverse the privatization. A series of beaches are commercially run, charge entry fees, and do not permit visitors to bring food in with them. “Many middle-class families can no longer afford to spend time together outside,” says Bente Scheller.

In the entire city of Beirut, there is only one single public access to the Mediterranean Sea, Ramlet al-Beida, a small, dirty beach. Every other beach is privately owned. Meanwhile public pressure has caused to the city of Beirut to at least promise to buy back land. And there has also been progress in the debate about the Horsh Beirut park. The argument that the park has to be protected from vandalism is mentioned less frequently. Municipal authorities have reluctantly begun looking for a company that could maintain the park. “I believe that Horsh Beirut will be reopened in the near future,” says Ayoub optimistically. “It requires time and patience.”

Upgrade instead of demolition: Makoko’s inhabitants open the eyes of urban planners

Even since reports about Makoko first appeared in architectural magazines, the Nigerian settlement has occasionally been compared to Venice. There are, however, no palaces in Makoko, only houses on stilts perched above the water. When more and more people poured into the fishing village and all the land was taken, newcomers moved onto the water of the shallow lagoon. Several thousand people currently live in this water community in Lagos, a city of sixteen million. It is an independent urban cosmos, designed with a wealth of ideas and ingenuity. The inhabitants have found ways to live on and from the water. Six-year-olds steer their own canoes between buildings; women have learned how to cook and navigate at the same time.

As practical as these people are, their existence remains precarious. Catching and processing fish brings little or no profit, and there are bottlenecks in the water and energy supply. Waste is rarely removed, usually ending up in the already stinking brackish water. The water level has risen due to climate change, leading to flooding. Because of the settlement’s attractive location on the lagoon coast, the people of Makoko are a thorn in the side of “modern” politicians and property developers. Thus, they live in constant fear of forced evictions. In 2012, however, the people began to abandon this defensive mentality. The Heinrich Böll Foundation had teamed up with Kunlé Adeyemi, a cosmopolitan Nigerian architect with an office in Amsterdam, a city that has learned to learned to thrive from the water around it. A study that proposed building a floating school for Makoko was warmly received. The ideas were pioneering: to live with the water instead of trying to defeat it, to use local materials and renewable energy, and to regard waste and wastewater as raw materials.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation contacted a local office of the United Nations and in October 2012 construction of the school was begun using UN climate funds. In early March 2013 the building was completed, at a cost of only 6,250 US dollars. No wonder there was a lot of dancing at the inauguration: “The boat remained steady while the event rocked,” the architect’s website reported.

The construction of the school almost didn’t take place. In July 2012 the city demanded that a group of people living on the lagoon leave their homes within seventy-two hours. Protected by police, men with machetes destroyed the wooden houses, while residents were barely able load their possessions onto their boats. During the five-day confrontation, one man was shot and killed by the police. In response to the abruptly terminated attempt to sink part of their neighborhood, the people living in the stilt houses decided to upgrade their settlement. With the assistance of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC)—a human rights organization—the Heinrich Böll Foundation initiated a volunteer work group to develop and discuss ideas. SERAC had represented the community repeatedly in court, when attempts were made to evict residents. The lawyers and social workers thus were quite aware of how life in Makoko functioned and who held sway. National and international architects and urban planners were also invited to collaborate.

With support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Fabienne Hölzel, a Swiss architect and founder of Fabulous Urban, became involved. She developed a strategy for neighborhood centers that could assume a variety of functions and provide especially the women of Makoko with opportunities for income and further education: simple floating biogas plants that would produce cheap energy to be used, among other things, to smoke fish. Vegetables would be grown in small hanging gardens. The centers were to be solidly built and have an upper floor as a safe haven during flooding. There had never been anything like this in the huge metropolis. City authorities tend to discuss their ideas within their own narrow circles and then implement them quickly without much ado. Now staff members from the three participating ministries and the environmental committee of the House of Representatives were invited to the district. Thus began a productive learning process for both sides, as was reflected in the resulting plans.

The final version was presented to the Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development in October 2013: the Makoko-Iwaya Waterfront Regeneration Plan. A few months later a small hearing took place at the ministry, which went well. With the official presentation of the plan, the government could no longer argue that there was “no alternative” to the demolition of the district in order for the city as a whole to develop in a positive direction.

Meanwhile the first neighborhood center for women has been built with the help of private donations. During the construction there were continually new challenges to be mastered, as processes of selection and decision-making are not well developed within the community. As yet, women have hardly played a role. It seems that the authoritarian decision-making structures so frequently found among politicians are even more deeply seated among ordinary city residents.

The plans for the water city have in the meantime gained international renown. Parts were exhibited at the international architecture biennales in Venice and Rotterdam in 2014. At the opening day in Rotterdam there was a panel discussion for experts in attendance on the participatory development of local solutions—organized by Fabulous Urban and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. A staff member from the Ministry of Physical Planning in Lagos was also invited; national pride can also be a good source of motivation.

This article is part of our dossier "For Democracy - From the commitment of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the world" and was created as part of the publication of the same name.