BEIRUT: In mid-July, Beirut Municipality teams began their ongoing campaign to removing illegally placed obstacles blocking roads and sidewalks across the capital. With the sheer number of makeshift flowerbeds, concrete-filled barrels and cars perpetually parked in front of homes and businesses across Beirut, it’s unlikely that the campaign will be completed soon.
Many car owners park for free on pavements where there are no parking meters as most apartment buildings in the city have no dedicated parking spaces.
Coupled with this, owners of damaged cars often leave their vehicles parked on the both sides of the streets until they manage to sell them for scrap.
Grocers regularly use the sidewalks to display wares and attract customers and mini markets are no less to blame for exploiting the public spaces around their shops with shelves of crisps or fridges of soft drinks taking up pavement space.
Pedestrians wind and weave around groups of young men basking in the sun on chairs or parked motorbikes on the pavements there.
Although unlicensed occupancy of public spaces, whether permanent or temporary, can be met with a fine between LL700,000 ($467) and LL3,500,000, violations are still clearly seen across the capital.
“I cannot rent a shop in Beirut,” a vegetable street vendor who displays his merchandise in the back of his shabby pickup truck in the Basta neighborhood told The Daily Star, adding “when I see them [inspectors] coming, I start my truck and leave.”
A couple of meters away, a vendor, standing next to a minivan that sells hot coffee, told The Daily Star that his unlicensed vehicle was his only means of income.
“When they came and told me it was illegal, I moved it off the sidewalk to this space,” he said as he gestured toward a plot of leveled ground that was once a very old building. “But I cannot take it down,” he added.
According to 2007 estimates, around 900,000 Lebanese are registered on the civil status records of Beirut. However, about 2,000,000 residents are thought to live in the city where infrastructure hasn’t seen adequate upgrades on a par with the boom in inhabitants.
The head of the Traffic Department at the Beirut Municipality Mohammad Doughan told The Daily Star that the “much-needed campaign” was met favorably by the majority of the city’s residents “except those who are actually committing the violations.”
He said that people were responsive in reporting violations allowing officials to send inspectors to issue fines and oversee removal with the support of municipal police and the Internal Security Forces.
As for the duration of the campaign, Doughan said that combatting the violations was an ongoing initiative that would continue until all violations have been removed. There is a long way to go, he said, adding that “the inspection teams organize unannounced field visits to [various] neighborhoods of Beirut two days per week.”
In order to boost the campaign, the Beirut Municipality has been coordinating its inspection visits with the municipalities of surrounding areas in the suburbs of Beirut and local representatives of parties whose supporters live in each area.
“The Beirut Municipality continues to coordinate with Ghobeiri Municipality to remove the violations from the areas on the border between the two municipalities,” Doughan said.
While some violators have tried to use their political affiliation as a means to avoid getting rid of their infringement on public places, local representatives of these parties took the initiative to help the municipality eradicate the violations, Doughan added.
“One example is the recent cleanup at Hay al-Lija ... where representatives from the area joined us [the municipality] to remove the obstacles,” he explained.
Local NGO NAHNOO lauded the move to clear illegal occupancy of public spaces, “however, it should not only be against the poor, as there is the waterfront public property where violations are being protected,” John Abu Elias from NAHNOO told The Daily Star.
“It is not a matter of a kiosk here or a cart there,” he said, adding that “double standards” by the municipality would encourage more people to illegally occupy public areas.
Abu Elias also called on the Beirut Municipality to “remove the large violations before the smaller ones.”
He also said that creating shared public spaces for people to meet and where vendors can freely display their goods would also reduce the number of violations in the city.
NAHNOO has been actively working with the Beirut Municipality to improve the conditions of the heavily populated residential neighborhoods in the city.
“We constantly communicate with members of the [Beirut] Municipality ... as we develop participatory action research [for the city],” Abu Elias said.
“We want wider sidewalks and more connected neighborhoods ... the sort of ‘large scale’ projects,” Abu Elias said.
NAHNOO recently held a seminar, which featured a member of the Beirut Municipality, to create a different and improved urban plan for Al-Tariq al-Jadideh, an overcrowded neighborhood, so that people in that quarter and other areas in Beirut have better access to public spaces. – The Daily Star