In Lebanon, highway projects cutting through urban neighborhoods and displacing people, in the name of urban modernity, economic development and improving traffic are not new. They are often implementing old designs elaborated in the 1960s by planners who conceived the city prioritizing vehicular movement. More than half a decade later, Lebanese planning agencies do not reconsider those grand plans, despite contemporary urban planning policy trends that advocate addressing transportation problems via soft mobility schemes and public transportation projects. In the middle of Achrafieh, a section of Beirut known for its rich urban heritage and architectural character, one of those highways is threatening to slice the neighborhood of Hikmeh, and being advocated as a beacon of progress and efficiency by planners, municipal leaders and political elites alike. For months, civil society activists have been trying to dialogue with decision-makers and convince them of alternative solutions to resolve traffic congestion in Achrafieh, to no avail. Thus, the "Civil Coalition against the Highway Project (Fouad Boutros Road)" threatening the old neighborhood of Hekmeh (Beirut, Lebanon) has issued a petition on 24 February 2014 demanding the cancellation of the highway project in favor of the "Fouad Boutros Park" and of alternative road infrastructures. Below is an excerpt of the petition text.
Beirut is becoming a city of asphalt, concrete and glass, without a tree, without an identity and without any gentleness. We have a right to the city and to its future, this is the opportunity to finally claim these rights! Let’s ask for the end of senseless and obsolete highway projects, let us promote, instead, the green spaces we severely lack and the smart management of traffic flow we desperately need.
We, the undersigned citizens, inhabitants and merchants of concerned neighborhoods and of Achrafieh, Rmeil and Medawar; employees, managers and owners of affected economic institutions; members of civil society, of social, environmental and cultural associations, of movements for civil rights; professionals and academicians of civil society, urban planners, architects and engineers; united under the name of the Civil Coalition Against the Highway Project “Hekmeh-Turk" Axis ("Fouad Boutros" road), announce our total refusal of the “Hekmeh-Turk" axis (Fouad Boutros road) highway project in all its aspects, road devices and components and ask for its immediate cessation and final cancellation. We also ask for the halt and cessation of all expropriation and bid procedures, whatever the advancement of the project and regardless of modifications, additions and so-called “improvements” on the original scheme (design), for a great number of reasons.
We demand that the people in charge at the municipality of Beirut officially cancel the project, and declare this in the shortest time possible. We also demand that they replace it with the following projects, which will cost less than the current project and will benefit many more areas of Beirut. (All the forthcoming projects are the product of recent studies completed by volunteering professionals, urban planners, architects and engineers).
- The creation of a staircase park, under the name of the “Fouad Boutros Park,” with a mainly cultural, social and historical character, on the parcels already expropriated between the Mar Mitr street and Armenia Street. This park would be the first new park in Beirut since Lebanon took its Independence and will offer citizens some of the green spaces the city badly needs. A golden opportunity can be grasped here, as most of the plots for this park are already owned by the municipality. This project will preserve the rich garden and orchard vegetation and protect the architectural heritage in a profitable way by renovating it and converting it with a cultural and commercial program that will preserve the social fabric of the neighborhood by allowing all of its inhabitants to remain in it.
- The construction of a complete tunnel under the Charles Malek Avenue, from the Fouad Chehab Avenue in the west (Ring bridge), until the Emile Lahoud Avenue to the East, executed by tunnel-boring. As well as the reconfiguration of main crossroads, which will make exchange flows more fluid, especially at the level of "Collège de la Sagesse" and will improve circulation on the Charles Malek avenue, Sassine Square and all their tributary streets.
- The transfer of circulation flows toward the Emile Lahoud Avenue as it is wide and under-used—especially during peak times—then toward the most important East-West penetrating roads (Sioufi slope, Armenia Street, Charles Helou Avenue) by building efficient and modern interchanges and improving the extremities and intersections of the Emile Lahoud Avenue.
- The launch of serious studies regarding the implementation of public transportation in Beirut, which is the only sustainable solution to problems of traffic congestion and which will most certainly improve the quality of urban life and the environment overall. We should strive, as all great cities in the world do, to decrease, rather than increase, the presence of the car.
Here are the hyperlinks to sign the petition in English, and to read its texts in French and Arabic. As this goes to press, local media outlets, blogs and social media sites are increasingly mobilized in support of the Coalition which is also calling for a series of protests.