Sanayeh Garden: The privatization of public spaces
After two years of hype and $US 2.5 million spent on renovation, Sanayeh Garden, one of the oldest and largest public spaces in Beirut, finally opened last weekend. Rather than offering a modest solution to the desperate desire for green, inclusive spaces in the city, the result is a growing conflict over the essence of public spaces, as well as what constitutes acceptable behaviors within them.
As part of the “Beirut is Amazing” campaign launched by the mayor of Beirut, Bilal Hamad, in 2012, Sanayeh Park underwent a massive renovation project funded and led by the Azadea Foundation, a Beirut-based charitable arm of a major fashion retail company.
Two years later, on June 1, with much fanfare and spectacle, the park was finally unveiled to the public. On Sunday alone, 19,000 visitors descended on the stylishly designed space, covering about 22,000 square meters of land, facing the Ministry of Interior.
In a city starved for green spaces, or simply inclusive spaces of any kind, the large turnout is not surprising.
According to a report by a local youth-led organization Nahnoo (“We Are”) in regards to the relationship between public spaces and municipalities, it noted, “Beirut is one of the most densely populated cities with an overly complex and massive road network (approximately 25 percent of the city’s mass, with a ratio of 1.11 km/sq. km), which is among the highest in the region.”
“Beirut has also one of the lowest public green space ratio in the world (0.8 sqm per inhabitant), which is below the international health standard,” the report added.
Obviously, there is no contention that Beirut needs green public spaces for all its residents. The campaign launched by the mayor two years ago relies on partnerships with the private sector, wherein companies “adopt” such spaces, renovating and administrating them.
In the case of Sanayeh, Azadea had spent $US 2.5 million, and is estimated to spend a further $US 200,000 annually over the course of the next decade.
Chairman of the Azadea Foundation, Marwan Moukarzel, believes that the progress of the city scape primarily lies in the hands of the private sector.
“If we wait for the public sector, it simply won’t happen,” he said to Al-Akhbar.
“We would love to see the private sector taking similar if not grander steps” that would better our city, the chairman added. “Our message to others is to step up.”
Yet, once the park was open, almost immediately disputes arose over what is considered acceptable behavior within its grounds. At the single entrance to the gated Sanayeh Park, a large billboard pleas the park-goers to “help us keep this garden alive” by following certain rules outlined, including no smoking, no firearms, and no BBQ, among others.
However, there are many stories, already reported by the local press, of individuals and families colliding head-to-head with the private security guards in regards to excessive policing of people's behavior beyond what was outlined at the entrance.
Complaints have ranged from the benign, such as restricting children from touching water in the circular fountain at the park's center, to the more serious allegations of arbitrary restrictions of expected freedoms associated with parks, such as lying on the grass or bringing in certain types of food and beverages.
In one case, during a visit to the park by Al-Akhbar, a group of incensed women could be overheard expressing their outrage at the fact that they could not enjoy a cup of coffee at the park's grounds.
When asked, one of the women said, “I can’t believe they would not let us bring in a thermos of coffee.”
Ayman Ghazzawi, head of security at the park for Middle East Security, tasked with enforcing the regulations at the park in cooperation with Beirut municipality guards, told Al-Akhbar, “Had we not been here, the park would have been quickly trashed,” adding that at least half of the flowers had already been ripped out by children in the first few days of the park's opening.
Moreover, Lebanon's complicated political and security situation renders this public space within a “security zone,” which according to Ghazzawi requires searching visitors for firearms and other weapons.
The justification of maintaining security zones, especially in Lebanon, further confines the disposition of liberty in these spaces, not to mention that it emboldens the security men to be aggressive during the course of their work. This leaves many residents unsure of the distinction between private and public spaces, and their rights within each.
While the code of conduct is quickly being adjusted to citizens' feedback, according to Makarzel who stressed that complaints are immediately being remedied, the question of the existence of such a code onto itself in a supposedly 'public space' is disconcerting.
In terms of the recent changes that were implemented after public pressure, the park's operating hours were extended to meet the needs of early morning joggers, and some restrictions have been eased in the face of vocal dissatisfaction.
Nevertheless, public spaces in Lebanon, it seems, will only be permitted to exist if the activities within them are predominately and tightly controlled by the private entity that runs them in cooperation with the municipality.
The trend of public-private cooperation in developing and maintaining green and public spaces will further exacerbate tensions that have emerged in Sanayeh, especially since these cooperations are part and parcel of the “Beirut is Amazing” greening project.
What is seen in Beirut is but the local manifestation of a global neo-liberal project that requires the assistance of corporations seeking to soften their image through the mantra of social responsibility.
In the end, the idea of giving back to the community is but a facade to the fact that this same community is coming under increased policing and surveillance for the sake of having access to spaces that supposedly already belong to them.
However, before a struggle for free, and unrestricted access to public spaces, such as Sanayeh, historically in regards to Horsh Beirut, and currently brewing in Daliyeh, there has to be a consensus to what a 'public space' entails.
While on one hand some have complained about the restrictions in place for Sanayeh, others have applauded these measures and have even called for additional restrictions, including an entrance fee – in an attempt to exclude the poor, Syrian refugees, migrant workers, and other “riff-raff”.
It has been argued time and time again that ownership over public spaces can only be made when it is used by the public, wherein the norms and behaviors can organically develop through these interactions. Until the general public-at-large takes ownership and responsibility for these spaces, they will continue to be dominated by Lebanon's economic, security, and political circumstances.