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Live Life Deliberately

Activists in Lebanon are fighting to reclaim dwindling public spaces

BEIRUT — To get to a park in Karantina, an impoverished neighborhood near this city’s blast-destroyed port, two children on a recent day had to climb a utility pole and jump over a spiked iron fence because the park, with trees and a jungle gym, is always closed.

It is a story repeated across Lebanon, where people are reeling from an economic crisis and desperate to breathe, but where open spaces are often shut, in short supply or reserved for those who can pay.

“There are barely any public spaces in Lebanon. Public gardens are often closed, and most of the places either are privately owned or you need a permit from the municipality to get in,” said Maggie Najem, who is fighting to keep her local beach open in northern Lebanon.

The country’s diminishing public space is a product of Lebanon’s growing inequality and the power of private interests, all aggravated by political corruption.

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

“There is no proper concern over where the kids hang out,” said Aadnan Aamshe, a parent in Karantina. He said the park was initially closed by coronavirus restrictions but still hasn’t reopened.

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

Children converted this parking lot near Beirut’s closed-off Karantina public space into a makeshift playground. (Video: Mohamad El Chamaa)

Mohammad Ayoub, who heads the public space advocacy group Nahnoo, says little has changed since he was a kid in the 1990s, when he and his friends would play in vacant lots “in any way we could.” Now, he added, all the empty spaces have been turned into parking lots.

Ayoub says he believes the situation has little to do with Lebanon’s financial crisis or the pandemic, pointing out that officials kept the city’s largest park, Horsh Beirut, closed for 25 years and only partly reopened it in 2014.

Rather, he blames policymakers who he says are not interested in providing public services or making investments in parks, unless it involves building parking lots beneath them.

A 2020 study by Lebanese University professor Adib Haydar estimated that in Beirut, there are 26 square feet of parking space per person as opposed to just 8.6 square feet of green space, well below the 97 square feet 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 Mikhael district, the site remained vacant until GroBeirut intervened. The group planted trees and bushes and installed benches, converting the lot into what is now known as Laziza Park, named after the beer the brewery produced.

The owners of the lot recently filed a lawsuit to evict its caretakers and permanently close Laziza Park.

Improvised spaces often have a short life, according to Nadine Khayat, a professor of landscape architecture at the American University of Beirut: “The children appropriate the car parks by virtue of living in the area, and can only use it until the owner decides that it is time for development, and the children lose their space.”

There is a similar dynamic at play along Lebanon’s coastline, where Ayoub estimates that 80 percent of the land, nominally in the public domain, has been illegally privatized by beach clubs and resorts. For years, Najem feared that this would be the fate of northern Lebanon’s Abou Ali public beach, a place she has visited nearly every day since childhood. Her fears were confirmed when construction workers with excavators showed up in April.

Abou Ali is a small sandy stretch nestled between private resorts. There is no direct access to the beach, so swimmers have to trek down a slippery footpath on a vacant lot to get there. But that doesn’t keep them away.

“Any day of the year you can find the beach full of people from all areas, from all walks of life. That’s the beauty of it. This is public space,” Najem said. “They wanted to change all of this.”

Abou Ali, a small stretch of beach in northern Lebanon, is public space, but swimmers have to take a slippery footpath on a vacant lot to get here. (Video: Mohamad El Chamaa)

An investor who leased the surrounding lots hoped to lay claim to Abou Ali.

Locals and activists like Najem began mobilizing to save the beach. They reached out to Nahnoo and quickly spearheaded a campaign against the land grab. After their efforts garnered widespread attention, officials moved in to stop construction.

It was a small victory amid so many similar challenges. Two weeks ago, illegal construction was reported on the beaches of Naqoura, in southern Lebanon, where a U.S.-brokered maritime border deal between Israel and Lebanon has developers eyeing waterfront terrain.

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

In April, footage of Syrian children swimming in a downtown Beirut reflecting pool dedicated to slain journalist Samir Kassir unleashed a torrent of racist invective against Syrian refugees and prompted city officials to drain the pool.

Similar issues are stalling work on a pedestrian project in a blast-hit area near Laziza Park, one of the busiest bar districts in the Lebanese capital. Local politicians complained that widening the narrow sidewalks would take away parking spaces, and that the benches installed in their place would attract “undesirable people.”

Struggles like this one, between a weary public and more-powerful private interests, could go a long way toward determining Lebanon’s future, Khayat says.

“Public spaces are a vehicle for people to congregate,” she said. “The more you bring different people together, the more they are going to recognize the humanity in each other, the more we have a cohesive society.”

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