Daliyeh and the ongoing struggle for Beirut's public spaces

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A young boy holding up a sign during a protest highlighting the sealing off and eviction of Daliyeh's fishermen during one of the earlier protests on October 2013. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Daliyeh, a small peninsula sprouting from the Raouche neighborhood close to Beirut's renowned Pigeons' Rock, is being sealed off from the public. Already, security guards are on site and steel poles – the first sign of a planned fence – have been struck into the ground. A luxurious hotel resort is expected to be built on the land, a resort likely accessible to only a small affluent section of Lebanese society. For everyone else, it is another marker that Beirut's suffocation is accelerating as the struggle for inclusive spaces continues.

For decades, Daliyeh – amounting to 112,257 square meters of ground and rock – was used as a place of leisure for many sectors of Lebanese society. Its spacious land, with a beautiful view of the Pigeons’ Rock, was used for family picnics, lovers' romantic hideouts, as a hub for swimmers and divers, a port for fishermen, and by hundreds of Lebanon's Kurdish population who headed there to celebrate Nowruz at the dawn of spring.

It is one of the last places of leisure for many, particularly the poor who cannot afford the expensive entrance fees charged by beach and swimming pool resorts which have eclipsed virtually all of Beirut's shoreline.

The struggle over Daliyeh escalated during the final months of 2013 after companies owned by the Hariri family scooped up most of the land from other prominent families and began to dig up the foundations for what is expected to be a fancy beach resort.

In October and November, the fishermen of Daliyeh launched various forms of demonstrations to highlight the imminent eviction they faced. The protests were ultimately unsuccessful, and the development proceeded as planned.

But the story of Daliyeh is only one story in a series of tragedies besetting the design and control of Beirut's public spaces.

Public Space: A Symbol of Liberty?

On Tuesday, May 6, as part of a month-long celebration inaugurating their new building, the Issam Fares Institute (IFI) hosted a talk by Abir Saksouk titled, “The Making and Reclaiming of Communal Spaces in Beirut: The Story of Daliyeh.”

Saksouk is an architect and urbanist, with experience in numerous projects highlighting the need to protect public spaces throughout the capital. The most prominent of these efforts was “This Sea is Mine,” which highlighted the massive privatization of and the growing restrictions to access Beirut's coast line through the use of meticulously researched booklets and a performance boat tour of the shore.

In the lecture, Saksouk presented Daliyeh as an example of an ongoing series of appropriation of publicly-used space, from the sea to parks, that has been occurring since the end of the Lebanese civil war.

Saksouk's observation isn't unique, but widely shared by architects, activists, and urbanists in the city.

“[O]f course Beirut lacks open/public spaces, and more generally the quality of anything public, including services or sidewalks, [is] dismal,” Mona Fawaz, an architect and associate professor under the Urban Planning and Policy Program at the American University of Beirut, wrote to Al-Akhbar.

Fawaz's point on sidewalks is a striking example of the dire condition of public spaces in Beirut. Consider the difficulties of walking along these crumbling pathways, gradually encroached by private entities and security barriers, to the point that one is forced to walk dangerously along the cement, car-dominated roads.

“One thing I am confident of is that unless you are very rich, you are missing public space like hell in Lebanon!” the associate professor added.

A great summary of the dire condition of public spaces came in the form of a 9-minute video released by the Lebanese Economic Association on February 2013:

Indeed, for citizens and non-citizens alike, the struggle over public space is representative of the grander struggle over the future of the Lebanese society.

At its core, these public spaces symbolically represent liberty and leisure, communal and shared with all creeds of life in the city, and according to Saksouk these areas are being replaced by ones that are essentially “free of passion.”

In other words, not only is it about excluding mainly the lower classes of Lebanese society, it is also a method to strictly regulate behavioral norms to conform to a vision of being 'proper' – or as Saksouk said, “sterile, apolitical, and controlled.” Having control over public spaces is a way for elites and decision-makers to essentially govern social interactions.

“Public spaces are for people to gather together and share points of view,” Ameera Halabi, a masters student of Environment Studies from Akkar and a member of the Lebanese NGO Green Line, said to Al-Akhbar during a brief conversation.

“But in the planning of the Lebanese city, we no longer have this concept of public space. It is like [the authorities] are removing them on purpose in order to fragment and restrict gatherings,” she said.

“Solidere is a classic example. [The authorities] have declared it a public space, but Solidere [downtown Beirut] as an environment isn't open to the public. The stores there are expensive, and even then, think of the security around it,” she added.

The appropriation of public spaces is “enshrined by law, enforced by the state which is disinterested [in maintaining public spaces] or openly at war on them,” Saksouk said during the IFI talk.

Mobilization as Public Power

In terms of Daliyeh, the manipulation of the 1966 regulatory decree no. 4810, which regulates the use of maritime public property and has been constantly circumvented, exploited, and distorted to make way for the development of the Beirut coast, is a key example of the alliance between capital and state interests over the needs of the public.

Mainly, capital and government are one and the same, with rich elites in parliament buying real estate and developing what they see fit, going as far as shaping the law in their favor.

The staggering power of this alliance is very familiar to one campaign group, Masha3. Masha3 was formed in the summer of 2012, and was formally launched in October of that year. It has been ferociously struggling to protect public spaces to varying degrees of success, but has mainly failed due to how powerful its adversaries are.

“Most of the battles have not been won in the last two years because we are going up against huge capitals. Hundreds of millions of dollars, within a neo-liberal state, in which capital and government are one and the same,” a member of Masha3, who requested anonymity, told Al-Akhbar.

Despite the overwhelming odds, there are a few success stories in the form of push-backs that offer hope for those concerned with the protection of public spaces. One example viewed as significant by activists was the Fouad Boutros Highway campaign, in which activists and residents of Ashrafiyeh were able to push forward an alternative plan that would prevent the destruction of over 30 historical buildings and the paving over of 10,000 square meters of garden and orchids.

Other instances of struggling for public spaces include the continuous attempts by activists to reopen Horsh Beirut, the city’s largest public park that has been closed for over 15 years, and proposals to link the park to central downtown with a pedestrian and bicycle pathway. In addition, there’s been a noted growth of groups like the Beirut Green Project, a collective established in 2010 that highlights the little green spaces that exist in Beirut and celebrates them by organizing gatherings in them.

In her talk, Saksouk also suggested the possibility of seeking changes to the legal framework in regards to zoning codes, abolishing decree 4810, and rethinking our collective ideas of private property and ownership rights as potential solutions.

On the latter point, Saksouk stressed that the general populace and land owners need to realize that while most of the land in Beirut is private, that does not necessarily mean their use could not be open to the public.

In Europe and the US, there are instances when private properties are obliged by law to allow the public to access parts of a developed area for leisure, and the divide between private and public spaces is not clear cut. For Beirut, it is enshrined by law that the residents of the city must have access to the sea, and resorts should not deny them that right. However, the implementation of such laws are held back because of the collaboration of governance and business elites.

Ultimately, the most powerful weapon to combat the destruction of the dwindling all-inclusive spaces in the city comes down to the mobilization of those who will use and enjoy these sites: the residents of Beirut, Lebanese and non-Lebanese alike.

Unless the general population has an effective and active presence on land under threat, campaigns like the current one in regards to Daliyeh would be utterly useless.

At least one person at Saksouk's lecture was energized and outraged enough to become involved.

“It's like [the authorities] are trying to occupy us from underneath the table,” Soua'ad, a woman in her 70s, whispered to Al-Akhbar during the talk.

“We can't breath the air anymore. Something has to be done, and it has to be done now,” former banker and a self-described “daughter of the mountains” quietly added.

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