It is important to acknowledge the effort of the Beirut Municipality to reach out to the public to inform Beirutis about its intentions and to respond to civil society groups’ criticism of the Fouad Boutros Bridge project. What has ensued is a welcome and healthy direction for urban politics.Unfortunately, the problems with the Fouad Boutros Bridge persist no matter how open the municipality is to discussion, no matter how glossy the new bridge images are, no matter how well pruned the ficus trees in the renderings look and no matter how much lipstick the city puts on this pig of a project. These problems have been and will continue to be the focus of the debate around the project itself in media, on the streets and in the history books yet to be written.
However, the municipality’s responses over the past several weeks reveal a much more serious set of problems that have led to this confrontation. They reveal an outdated understanding of the contemporary city, administrative thinking that is out of touch with solutions being used worldwide as well as with the ambitions of Beirut’s citizens and their right to the city.
First, there is a problem of priorities. Think about it this way: The municipality has more than $70 million, expropriated land, historic buildings and the authority to address a series of problems. What do you with them? Build an axis according to a plan from the 1960s? Or use that money creatively to improve on the entrances and exits to major shopping centers, introduce public transportation in the locality, come up with innovative ways of conserving the historical fabric and enhance existing public spaces?
During its public presentations, the municipality has acknowledged that it needs to address the problem of public transportation at a later stage. Why at a later stage? In the past, President Fouad Chehab, one of Lebanon’s more progressive presidents, made a well-intentioned effort to bring development to the mountains and reduce the problem of urban migration. But he made the mistake of building roads to the mountains before improving the conditions of living there and before providing social security to those working in agriculture.
As a result, the inhabitants of the mountains left in higher numbers to the city, creating major social problems that many historians link to the Civil War. Chehab’s road to the hell of war was paved with good intentions, but he did not have his priorities in the right order. Nor does the Beirut Municipality.
If we do not want to learn from our past, why not learn from other cities? When Enrique Penalosa, the recent mayor of Bogota, was faced with the same choices, he worked with citizens to turn an existing highway into a park and to dedicate lanes to buses and bicycles. The result was an urban project that has become a model for other cities in the world to follow.
When traffic became a major problem for London, the city set a limit on how many cares could enter by adding disincentives to drive and increasing spending on public transport. It did not build new roads. These are the examples that Beirut should follow. Beirut deserves a better arrangement of its priorities.
Then there is a problem of representation. In general, a city’s municipal authorities should represent local citizens and defend their rights against those of private interest groups such as real estate developers and against the negative consequences that national priorities sometimes create, especially for a capital city such as Beirut. When faced with a situation such as the demonstrations against the Fouad Boutros Bridge, municipal authorities should ideally side with the locals, not with a national body such as the Council for Development and Reconstruction.
The reason is that when a municipality, which by definition must address and take into consideration local concerns, comes to represent national interests, there is something wrong with how it perceives its role. If, for the municipality, through-traffic is more important than local traffic, then the municipality is more interested in bypassing Ashrafieh than in Ashrafieh itself.
Instead of dismissing the visible value of the 30 buildings that will be destroyed by the Fouad Boutros project with the justification that only two are listed for preservation, should not the municipality campaign to protect more buildings? Instead of succumbing to the pressure of local land owners who wrongly believe that the value of their property will skyrocket when the highway is built, should not the municipality be developing mechanisms of property right transfer and other tools that are readily available worldwide to protect its heritage through economic incentives? Why is the Beirut Municipality taking sides and not seeking innovative solutions to please everybody?
A municipality must have projects and must have ambitions for the city; it should not be opposing its citizens. A municipality is where arbitration of differences takes place, not where differences are produced. Beirut’s best municipal presidents during the Ottoman and French Mandate periods were the ones who stood up for the citizens against the foreign rulers, even when those presidents were effectively appointed by the rulers. One of the key problems in the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul last year was that the mayor of Istanbul took the side of national authorities, not that of citizens.
Finally, there is a problem of image. Our image is what the world sees of us and how we also see ourselves. The images that were circulated by the municipality two weeks ago to represent a kinder and gentler approach to the highway debate were very telling of a larger attitude toward the city. But was this the image we want for Beirut? A highway dressed in trees? Between that and the old houses of Gemmayzeh, which would you prefer? Does the municipality really want to use the green-wash technique against citizens, an approach that greedy developers often use to hide the negative impact of their projects?
A real estate developer from Dubai once observed, “In Beirut, you have it easy, you have history everywhere. You can bank on this image to sell your city to the world. In Dubai, we have to invent it from scratch.” If a real estate developer from Dubai can understand the importance of conserving Beirut’s historic image in order to increase its real estate value, why are we trying to make Beirut more like Dubai?
Headlines in the past year have not been very generous toward Beirut’s image. Putting security aside, many reporters have chosen to focus on the city’s growing urban problems. Headlines include: “For a Bike Messenger Beirut May be the Worst City Ever,” and “Beirut: For the Rich Only.” The municipality and the citizens should aspire for a better image, maybe starting with a headline that reads “Beirut Chooses History Over Highway.”
Hashim Sarkis is the Aga Khan professor of landscape architecture and urbanism in Muslim societies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.