In a world of rapidly modernizing and globalizing cities, Beirut does not stand out as an exception. Spreading citywide since the early 2000s is an urban renewal process sparked by a well-resourced Lebanese diaspora and foreign investors, and influenced by an ambitious, controversial project to rebuild Beirut’s war-devastated central district (Solidere’s project). Indeed, over the past fifteen years, most neighborhoods in municipal Beirut have undergone conspicuous transformations that have dramatically transformed the city’s skyline, landscape, housing stock, and people-space relations.
Only a limited number of visual and quantitative records are available to researchers and practitioners interested in teasing out the trajectories of land and real estate markets that are behind these urban changes. To our knowledge, no substantial quantitative work on Beirut’s spatial transformations has been undertaken since Natacha Aveline’s study (2000) that addressed the 1990s property boom. Considering the lack of more recent accessible data on the topic, the Neighborhood Initiative and the graduate programs in Urban Planning, Policy and Design at the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut supported in 2014-2015 the creation of a GIS (Geographic Information System) database that looks into the intensive construction activities that have taken place in the city over the last fifteen years. The implementation of the database was carried out by the “Gentrification and Urban Change in Ras Beirut Project”—a collaboration between the AUB Neighborhood Initiative, and the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
The database’s aim is twofold. First, it aims to contribute to a better understanding of the geography, intensity, and mechanisms of the city’s ongoing transformations, and second, to stimulate new research questions related to property development at city, district and cluster levels. It is, therefore, a tool of multi-level spatial analysis that does not pretend to be comprehensive in its scope. This short article presents an overview of the methodology that the team who developed the database (the authors of this article) followed along with the key findings of the geo-mapping exercise.
Mainly concerned with the supply side of spatial production, we relied on construction permits as a key indicator of urban change and constructed the database primarily from data collected on all plots that received a building permit in Municipal Beirut between 2000 and 2013. We obtained photocopies of the permit records issued for these plots from the Order of Engineers and Architects (OEA) and then processed the relevant information into Excel sheets. This included information on the permit itself (registration number, issuance date, and status), the proposed new project (building use, construction quality, total built-up area, responsible architect, and land owner), and the geographic location of the permitted structure (cadastral zone and lot number).
We made efforts to keep track of the number of new projects instead of the number of permits issued, knowing that the permitting process for projects on merged property—i.e. projects that fall on two or more adjacent lots— involved in some cases the issuance of more than one permit for a single project. We also took into account projects on a single plot that were issued two construction permits (one permit for residential use and one for commercial uses). We felt this was necessary for purposes of data mapping and analysis. The overall accuracy of the database is however constrained by the lack of information on the number of permitted projects that were actually built. It is possible that some building permits have been cancelled or that construction activities have been postponed. Only comprehensive field research would allow verifying the number of projects that were actually built during the construction permit’s six-to-eight year period of validity.
Data collected from real estate magazines (mainly Lebanon Opportunities and Le Commerce du Levant) and developers’ websites presented an additional source of information. We compiled project names, number of floors, total built-up area, and sales value as well as the names of their developers and architects for more than two-hundred projects (mostly large projects and projects within Ras Beirut) to supplement the data extracted from the building permits. We recorded discrepancies in project size between that recorded on the building permits and that advertised by developers. In addition, we identified some sixty significant new projects citywide that were missing from the data obtained from OEA and collected information from published material and online sources for these projects and added them to the database. More projects are probably missing but we do not have a means of verification.
We, subsequently, geo-referenced the collected data on the 2004 cadastral map of Municipal Beirut—the most recent accessible cadastral map of Beirut, which we got in the form of a shapefile and a geo-referenced satellite image. We also overlaid the data on existing GIS maps of parts of Beirut, produced by Hani Al-Naghi as part of his work with the AUB Neighborhood Initiative. Lot numbers were the guiding attribute for linking our new data with the 2004 cadastral base map. Although we made efforts to update the cadastral map, the mapping process remains limited by the inaccuracy of the base map itself, given that it does not include post-2004 land agglomeration and re-parcelization processes. Despite its limitations and inaccuracies, we believe that the database offers a lot of possibilities for further investigations.
In addition to the structural logic of capital accumulation prevailing in Beirut, the supply side of urban production in the Lebanese capital relies largely on the decisions of local and transnational actors who play with a series of financial, technical, and legal constraints to decide where, when, and how they develop property projects. The database has helped us to unravel some of the patterns of the urban transformations taking place in the city since 2000. We present here our findings under three headings: the concentration of massive developments in prime city locations, the domination of a demolition-based form of urban restructuring, and land agglomeration practices to allow the construction of megaprojects.
The concentration of massive developments in prime city locations
Where did urban restructuring unfold? Our inquiry has revealed that a total of 1,560 new projects, mostly residential, with a total built up area of 9,350,186 sq.m. were given construction permits in municipal Beirut between 2000 and 2013. As Map 1 shows, these projects—irrespective of plot sizes that may bias visual analysis—are fairly scattered throughout the city. The highest numbers of authorized projects are in Moussaitbeh, Mazraa, and what might be called the greater or wider Ashrafieh area. More specifically, Furn El Hayek, Ras El Nabaa, the western part of Moussaitbeh, Ain El Tineh, Ain El Mreisseh, and Mina El Hosn are the sectors with the highest number of new projects. Sectors with the fewest new projects are Bachoura, Karantina, Karm El Zeitoun, Geitawi, and Qoubaiyat; these are areas that may be considered land stock for future developments.
[Map 1: Location of New Projects in Municipal Beirut (2000-2013). Right-click to open larger map in a new tab (Source: Authors).]
The number of newly authorized projects in a certain city district does not mean that this district is also highest in terms of newly authorized built-up densities. As a general observation, the largest new projects are not located in areas that have the highest number of new projects. Districts where the largest, i.e. most massive, new developments can be observed (Map 2) are mostly in the western and southern parts of Ashrafieh (Tabaris, Furn El-Hayek, Sodeco), Beirut Central District (BCD) and immediate vicinity, Moussaitbeh, and the western part of Ras Beirut (Raouche, Manara). As Maps 3 and 4 further reveal, location, rather than zoning regulations, is a main determinant of project size. The better the location in terms of prestige, historical reputation, and open views (including sites with high elevation), the higher the built-up area of new projects is likely to be. We assume that a significant number of new projects in prime locations may have been given exceptional building permits that allowed their developers to bypass zoning regulations and exceed the permissible Floor Area Ratio (FAR) (Krijnen and Fawaz, 2010). Indeed, some of the largest projects— i.e. above twenty thousand square meters—are located along Beirut’s western coast in the stretch extending from Ramlet El Baida to Ain El Mreisseh. Needless to say that developers of high-end buildings in such prime locations capitalize on sea views for their marketing and pricing strategies. Solidere has also done this, by transferring development rights within Beirut’s Central District and concentrating large developments in strategic locations including the waterfront and the sea-facing district of Mina El Hosn area.
[Map 2: Size of New Projects in Municipal Beirut (2000-2013). Right-click to open larger map in a new tab (Source: Authors).]
[Map 3: Size of New Projects in Relation to Building Zones in Municipal Beirut (2000-2013).
Right-click to open larger map in a new tab. (Source: Authors).]
[Map 4: Estimate of Projects Obtaining Exceptions in Municipal Beirut (2000-2013).
Right-click to open larger map in a new tab (Source: Authors).]
The relationship between prime location and built-up densities is also a factor of land prices. In order to get top profit from their investment, most developers seek to maximize their development rights where land cost is high. Map 5 illustrates, on the basis of a map prepared by Ramco Real Estate Advisers, the correlation between real estate prices in 2014—which indirectly reflects land cost—and high-density projects. This map suggests that alongside zoning, land prices affect urban form and density.
[Map 5: Size of New Projects in Relation to Property Prices. Right-click to open larger map in a new tab (Source: Authors).]
The domination of a demolition-based form of urban restructuring
The second theme of our investigations concerns the emplacement of new construction in the existing building fabric, a question that is usually key to explaining patterns of urbanization. We examined the overlay of the 2004 cadastral map of Beirut, which shows footprints of existing structures, and the location map of newly planned projects. This simple mapping exercise revealed that Beirut’s 2000s property boom has been, for the most part, based on demolition and reconstruction (Map 6): approximately seventy-eight percent of authorized construction projects were planned on constructed parcels of land as of the 2004 occupation status (Chart 1). Furthermore, most of the projects planned on vacant lands are concentrated in Solidere, Jnah, Ramlet El Baida, Adlieh, as well as the Corniche El Nahr, which has historically experienced limited residential urbanization because of industrial activities near the Beirut River. However as discussed earlier we do not have information on the number of such projects that were actually implemented.
[Map 6: Demolition-Based Development in Municipal Beirut (2000-2013).
Right-click to open larger map in a new tab (Source: Authors).]
[Chart 1: The Prevalence of Demolition-Based Development in Municipal Beirut (2000-2013) (Source: Authors).]
As Map 7 shows, in Ras Beirut and Ain El Mreisseh, where the stock of vacant plots is limited, 81.5 percent of the new construction projects are planned on already constructed plots. This substantial ratio is not surprising in a historic part of the city with few empty plots. Similarly, in Ashrafieh and its immediate vicinity (Ras El Nabaa, Saifi, Gemmayzeh) (Map 8), 82.3 percent of projects are planned on already constructed land (mostly in the dense neighborhoods of Rmeil, Furn El Hayek, and Mar Mitr).
[Map 7: Wider Ras Beirut (Ras Beirut & Ain El-Mreisseh): A Demolition-Based Form of Redevelopment (2000-2013).
Right-click to open larger map in a new tab. (Source: Authors).]
[Map 8: Wider Ashrafieh (Rmeil, Ashrafieh, & Medawar): Demolition-Based Redevelopment and Newly Urbanized Areas (2000-2013). Right-click to open larger map in a new tab (Source: Authors).]
Land agglomeration practices to allow the construction of megaprojects
Absolute land scarcity, i.e. the lack of developable plots, is the primary reason that many landowners, property brokers, developers, and bankers often point to in justifying inflated land and real estate prices in Beirut. They claim that demand for land exceeds supply in a city that can hardly expand, and attribute high land prices to market mechanisms of supply and demand. The GIS database that we developed is not enough by itself to challenge such market-based arguments. Further evidence would be needed to explain Beirut-specific dynamics of property price formation, particularly the land retention practices of economic agents and the key role they play in shaping land markets.
Still, the mapping exercise that we went through shows that large, vacant, and developable parcels of land in prime city locations are indeed scarce. This is an issue worth highlighting in order to better understand land agglomeration dynamics. Briefly, Art.16 of the Lebanese Construction Law (Law No. 646 of 1971 and its revision of 2004) stipulates that land developers can benefit from the grands ensembles regulations and their exception-based permitting process, provided the surface area of the plots on which they are constructed is at least four thousand sq.m. (Krijnen and Fawaz, 2010). The legal facilitations and increased built-up areas granted to developers of plots of four thousand and above have, in view of the scarcity of such large land parcels in prime districts, encouraged many developers to look for adjacent smaller plots that they can agglomerate into a size that would render their investment financially more viable and profitable.
At least fourty-five large projects citywide (Map 9) are estimated to involve this type of incentivized land agglomeration and ad hoc permitting process. Such practices well exemplify the rise of state-led informal planning practices at play in many metropolises of the Global South (Fawaz 2016, Roy 2005, 2009). Importantly, large developments erected in zone 1 benefit from the specific, more permissive zoning and building regulations of Beirut Central District’s master plan. Their permitting process does not involve exceptions but comprises in some cases land consolidation, in addition to the fact that Solidere has already commercialized large plots stemming from radical post-war re-parcelization. Out of the city center, two recent iconic projects illustrate the dynamics of plot merging: La Citadelle and Sama Beirut. La Citadelle, a new building overlooking the sea in Ain El-Mreisseh by Jamil Ibrahim Establishment, involved the agglomeration of six adjacent parcels to make a bigger plot of land with a surface area of 5,492 sq.m. For Sama Beirut in Achrafieh, the developer Antonios Projects merged eleven adjacent parcels totaling 5,385 sq.m. in surface area.
[Map 9: New Projects Involving Land Agglomeration in Municipal Beirut (2000-2013) (Source: Authors).]
The strategy of land agglomeration has affected the urban change dynamics of post-war peri-central areas in at least in two ways. Firstly, as a result of developers’ preference for large parcels and their strive to acquire adjacent parcels, a number of small and medium size plots, which could potentially accommodate smaller new buildings, remain undeveloped. Aware of the high-yielding large developments around them, many owners of such smaller parcels tend to wait until receiving the highest bid before they agree to sell or partner with one of the developers who approach them. Whether directly or indirectly, their land retention behaviors have contributed to the inflation of land prices and support the arguments of those who claim that vacant land in Beirut is scarce, hence land is expensive. Secondly, and more importantly, land agglomeration mechanisms, and the overall regulatory framework governing new construction, have largely contributed to the significant transformations of the built environment and to the displacement of the original inhabitants of many neighborhoods in Beirut. This is, for instance, the case of La Citadelle and Sama Beirut, mentioned above, and most of the high-end towers in Beirut Central District. Such projects are dramatically transforming Beirut’s skyline, urban landscape, and social make-up as they clearly target a different clientele than most of the current long-term dwellers of the city.
In addition to providing a visual record of the city’s physical transformation process, the database presented in this paper helps illustrate how urban change dynamics in post-2000 Beirut have relied, beyond the availability of capital, on the way developers have dealt with a series of financial, technical, and legal constraints. This brings into view how city builders use their agency to produce space in Beirut. This database is not a final product but rather open ended and subject to continuous updates. It is an open resource for all those interested in understanding the forces underlying changes in Beirut’s built environment. We strongly encourage researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers to expand and complement the database with new location-based information that would help monitor Beirut’s urban restructuring and influence property and construction laws and practices. The database is now housed in the AUB Jafet library and is accessible to all.
[Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank Cynthia Myntti from the AUB Neighborhood Initiative and Mona Fawaz from the AUB graduate programs in Urban Planning, Policy and Design at the Department of Architecture and Design, for their support in making this database possible. They would also like to thank Mohammad Saad and Dalia Chabarek for their contribution to this work. Thanks as well to Jadaliyya Cities page editors for their generous and constructive feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.]
Natacha Aveline. Marchés fonciers et immobiliers à Beyrouth (Beirut: CERMOC-ORBR, 2000).
Mona Fawaz. "Exceptions and the Actually Existing Practice of Planning: Beirut (Lebanon) as Case Study." Urban Studies (2016), 1-18.
Marieke Krijnen and Mona Fawaz. "Exception as the Rule: High-End Developments in Neoliberal Beirut." Built Environment 36-2 (2010), 245-259.
Ananya Roy. "Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning." Journal of the American Planning Association 71-2 (2005), 147-158.
Ananya Roy. "The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory." Regional Studies 43-6 (2009): 819-830.
 Building permits reflect the intentions of financiers to invest in and of builders to launch projects according to their anticipation of real estate activity. Although collected, renovation permits—i.e. permits issued for the rehabilitation of a certain section of a building—were removed from the database to work with construction permits only.
 Bearing in mind that districts vary in scale in Beirut, this research aggregated data into areas of comparable surface as follows: the wider Ashrafieh area (Ashrafieh, Rmeil, and Medawar), BCD and immediate vicinity (Saifi, Mina el-Hosn, Marfaa, Bachoura, and Zokak El-Blat), the wider Ras Beirut area (Ras Beirut and Ain el-Mreisseh), Moussaitbeh, and Mazraa.
 In the case of plots above four thousand sq.m., permit applications are channeled through the Higher Council of the Directorate General of Urbanism, which takes ad hoc decisions based on subjective criteria, instead of through the Municipality, whose decisions are based on pre-defined norms complying with building law and zoning ordinance (Fawaz, 2016). Through this exception-based permitting process, developers benefit from relaxed regulations (with regards to plot surface coverage and building envelope) that allow them to supersede the allowable (as per zoning regulations) built-up area for their plot.
 This number is probably higher as our estimation only includes projects whose land agglomeration was carried out during the permitting process. In many cases, developers merge land plots before applying for a permit. However, our database does not give access to such information.