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Challenges of urban planning in the Middle East

Since always, urban planning has been playing an important role in shaping the civic culture of a place. The country efforts to develop public spaces for its population to meet and connect as a group tells a lot about its political and social system. An interesting observation that was underlined in the book of Marwa Sabouni “ The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect,” in 2018. In Lebanon, this is also the concern of Mona Fawaz, a researcher and associate professor of urban studies and planning at the American University of Beirut who advocates for more inclusive cities.

Member of the political party Beirut Madinati, Mona Fawaz is trying to advocate for public spaces. Recently with the Beirut Urban Lab at the American University of Beirut, she has been working along with students and colleagues to put forward several proposals for public spaces in the city, and a full-fledge urban planning proposal for Beirut’s coast. She is also advocating the implementation of various soft mobility projects, like the activation of left-over spaces, and writes op-eds about urban history, social and spatial justice as well as planning practice. She is a co-editor of Refugees as City-Makers.

Mona Fawaz

How do you think urban planning and space management are shaping the life of a state?

It’s difficult to answer in general because each country has its own institutions and space constraints. But one thing I can say is that space management and allocation are part of how we think about “the collective”, which means people in their everyday life. As such, the quality of public space (how accessible, abundant), including streets, squares, meetings spaces, are all part of how a state or urban authority looks at its population. What rights do they have? How much political voice do they want to grant them?

What is the most important mission of urban planning in the Middle East today?

To me, planning needs to provide the infrastructure through which individuals and social groups can lead dignified lives. It responds to the rights to shelter, to free mobility, to play, to congregate, to work, to preserve one’s identity and culture, to lead a healthy life, etc. All of these are part of a social contract that citizens should see when they are members of a particular state. Unfortunately, no state in the Middle East today provides these rights and the main obstacle is the lack of political will.

Buildings in Beirut

What about the situation in Lebanon today? What were the effects of urban planning decisions after the civil war till now?

Sadly, all the post-war years have been about consolidating the work of the civil war, which means dividing society across sectarian groups but also across classes. More generally, public authorities have failed to protect anything from the shared commons: mountains, forests, riverways, or the natural coast. Instead, planning has allowed for sprawl, encouraged property speculation, facilitated quarrying, and failed to set up any shared public infrastructure such as public transport which is direly needed. One example is the so-called post-war reconstruction of Beirut Downtown that erased the shared spaces of Beirut and replaced them with a playground for land speculation.

What do you think about the future of public spaces in Lebanon?

I think people have demonstrated the thirst for public space and the desire to coexist and share it. The former Mayor of Beirut used to claim that he won’t open Beirut’s main public park because the city dwellers would kill each other in a shared space. Here we are, 75 days into the revolution, and people are sharing the spaces. I am hopeful that there will be more effort in the future to protect public spaces, to open the coasts to city dwellers because there are existing projects that are being advocated, there are clear demands, and there are inspiring practices.

The Egg

How do you explain that an abandoned building like the egg has become an emblem of the revolution?

Theaters are a cultural emblem of a collective that comes together to implement a form of art, a sign of its shared identity. When the “revolution” started, the young activists were dreaming of collective political debates, public performance, etc. The egg, the grand theatre and other public spaces where natural locations of convergence.

You were co-editor of a publication talking about refugees as city-makers? What is their role in shaping the future of the Lebanese cities?

Our work has shown that Syrian refugees have been very actively reclaiming their place, use, and practice of the public spaces of the city. We documented some of these practices. It is imperative to recognize the presence of these refugees in our cities, to engage them as active participants in their making with the privileges and the responsibilities this brings about. After all, Beirut is a city built largely by refugees, even before there was a Lebanon, and after. To recognize urban mobility and people’s agency as key elements of city-making is obvious in this context.