You’re crowding my space!

Words Bassam Alkantar

Beirut’s biggest green space, the Horsh Beirut pine forest, is partially closed to the public. Wherever you walk in Lebanon’s capital, huge buildings have risen. The city has become a conglomeration of massive concrete blocks. Large parts of Beirut have been rebuilt since the country’s civil war ended 27 years ago, but much of the reconstruction has taken place by way of rapid and often unregulated private construction that has benefitted big companies. The transformation of the downtown area by Solidere was highly controversial; it changed the nature of the city’s center. “The area is now a ghost town of luxury retailers and empty office blocks,” as described by The Guardian in a report published in February 2017.

Encroachment on the public spaces
Beirut’s rocky coastline, the Dalieh peninsula, is a rare open space in the Lebanese capital. Fences have gone up around the site. Yet another luxury resort will soon demolish the site. The situation in nearby Ramlet Al Bayda is not better; an exclusive hotel or beach club looms next door. One decision after another is enabling owners to use this part of the coast for private profit. A project of more than 5,000 square meters that will become “a sanctuary of luxury and refinement” began construction last year, sparking outrage among beachgoers, civil society activists, and public space advocates. Beirutis who have been going to the beach for generations see this project as an encroachment on one of the few public spaces that remains.

Horsh Beirut is our heritage
In Lebanon, private land is sacred. People expect the Municipality of Beirut to do something to protect the remaining “public” green and ecological areas of Beirut. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. With little urban planning, Beirut has just 0.8 square meters of green space per person, far below the minimum of nine square meters that is recommended by the World Health Organization. The city’s largest park, Horsh Beirut, is partially closed to the public. Small sections on the outskirts are open, but only Lebanese over 35 years of age and with a permit can enter the main grassy, tree-filled area. A plan to build a hospital near Beirut’s park is ongoing. The project has angered some of the nearby residents, who use the area for recreational activities that are not permitted within the gates of Horsh Beirut. Another project that is also proposed is to build a sports stadium that will shrink the remaining green area in Beirut. Horsh Beirut is our heritage. It’s our only remaining green space, but unfortunately decision-makers don’t care.

New high-rise towers
High-rise towers are mushrooming in Beirut. Soaring demand for property has driven the price of land upward, motivating developers to buy property and build vertically. In the process, many old buildings have been torn down (sometimes illegally) to be replaced by high-rise buildings. Often, adjacent plots are annexed to make way for a larger and taller building. These buildings increase the ratio of rentable and/or sellable floor space per unit area of land.
High-rise buildings are eroding Beirut’s heritage, affecting its social and urban fabric, and changing the city’s skyline. Powerful developers, backed by lending institutions, are leading the drive to reshape Beirut. The city is fast losing its traditional old houses, with their red-tiled roofs, arched windows, and beautiful balconies and inviting gardens. Many buildings with French colonial and Ottoman architectural features are being demolished to make way for high-rise apartment complexes. The number of vacant lots used as parking lots is rapidly declining, to be replaced by cranes and jackhammers.
If the current rate of construction continues unabated, without legal and policy restrictions, Lebanon will undergo drastic and irreversible transformations in the coming decades.

Urban Heat Island
In Beirut, the Urban Heat Island effect was modeled using the Town Energy Balance (TEB) model. Simulated urban canyon temperatures showed a difference of 60˚C between areas of high vegetation fractions and dense urban fabric areas for summer and a difference of 20˚C for winter. According to cientific research conducted by Noushig Kaloustiana, Hassaan Bitarb, and Youssef Diab and published by Elsevier Ltd., various Urban Heat Island (UHI) modeling scenarios showed that the most appropriate mitigation measures could be achieved by increasing the albedo of rooftops as well as that of garden fractions.
The results also confirm that rooftop surfaces with higher reflective properties and albedos ranging between 0.6 and 0.8 as well as increasing vegetated areas have a positive, alleviating effect on the UHI. To this end, a campaign to raise awareness of the many benefits of such a mitigation measure would be highly effective. As for the increase in green areas, this would require more proactive measures potentially grounded in more sustainable urban planning policies.