BEIRUT: The industrial area of Karantina isn’t typically associated with recreation and greenery, and that’s exactly why it was chosen for a bicycle festival in Beirut.
“This part of the city is forgotten. We want to make an impact,” said Karim Sokhn, founder of the group Cycling Circle, one of the event’s organizers. Sokhn noted that most of Beirut’s festivals tend to take place only in one of three places: downtown, Gemmayzeh or Hamra. He thinks it’s time to put Karantina on the map.
“We can make bike lanes here. There’s lots of green space,” he said, pointing to the area’s trees and quiet streets.
The Baskil Bicycle Festival, the first of its kind in Lebanon, kicked off Wednesday afternoon in the public garden of Karantina. The event, which will wrap up Sunday, is expected to draw around 4,000 participants over five days.
A completely community-supported initiative that includes exhibitions, rides and workshops, the festival offers bicycles on loan from the sports shop Bicycle Generation, insurance sponsored by Commercial Insurance and the posters, done by the MENA Design Research Center, have been donated by the Danish Embassy.
Tucked away behind the coastal highway, about midway between Beirut Port and the Dora roundabout and around the corner from the Sukleen waste center, the garden is at the heart of one of the least desirable areas of Beirut – better known for industrial pollution than greenery. But inside the gates of the garden, the tall eucalyptus, palm and pine trees provide a welcoming oasis of shade and fresh air for festivalgoers.
Even before the festival began, neighborhood children home for spring break were riding bicycles around the garden, oblivious that they were on the ground floor of a grass-roots movement to make Beirut a bicycle-friendly city.
“There’s potential in this area,” Karim Attoui, an urban planner and an organizer of the festival, said as he sat on a park bench, relishing the buzz of children whizzing by on bikes and volunteers putting up colorful posters for the event. “This could be a prototype to show the potential for bicycle lanes and open spaces in Beirut.”
The urban planner is well aware of the potential hurdles that such a project could face – a stagnant government perhaps unwilling to engage with community grass-roots movements, hungry developers waiting to put their hands on the next trendy neighborhood, as well as a public whose hopes have been dashed too many times by their government’s broken promises.
That’s why he says he’s working with the local community to show them the value and potential of their neighborhood, urging them to get more involved and protect and sustainably develop what they do have.
“Instead of sitting and complaining, let’s learn to self-govern on a micro-community scale,” he said.