The shortage of public spaces, as well as walking and biking infrastructure in Lebanon, is not a new problem. During a pandemic, this shortage becomes time-critical and even more life-threatening, especially in dense Beirut. As cities around the world look to find ways to live with the pandemic, providing space to allow social distancing has become the main challenge. To be ready to re-open, Beirut needs accessible public space and a transportation system that lets people walk and bike at a safe distance from one another. The city does not have either right now. In this piece, I offer an analysis of the current public space and transportation situation and how it might impact the potential spread of coronavirus. Then I provide a number of suggestions to create temporary opportunities for social distancing.
Shortage of Public Spaces Might Have Helped during Full Lockdown, but It Is Catastrophic for Social Distancing
On 21 February, the Lebanese Ministry of Health (MoH) announced the first case of COVID-19 in the country. After some delay and backlash from people, the government declared in March a general state of emergency, which imposed a full lockdown and closed all borders and ports. The situation seemed surprisingly under control. The government rushed to celebrate success and announced gradual reopening for businesses in early May. The government plan in easing out of the lockdown gradually did not work. A lack of opportunities for social distancing played an important role. Photos of crammed queues outside businesses and packed outdoor seating along sidewalks looked terrifying. The number of cases spiked again causing confusion due to the unclear process of closing and opening.
Despite the relatively low numbers of positive cases, the country is not over the pandemic yet. The discussion over the right timing to get back to "normal" is purely medical, only experts can determine whether the high risk has passed. For now, what we all know is that unless a vaccine is available, any reopening for businesses, schools, and universities, etc. will have to be gradual and will require caution and social distancing. With the economic fears and extended COVID-19 crisis, governments are moving towards living with the pandemic and setting new rules. What urban planning experts can discuss and assess is if the country and its infrastructure are ready to allow social distancing.
During the lockdown, the lack of certain infrastructures like public parks and extensive transit networks may have played a role in controlling the spread of COVID-19. It made the government’s job slightly easier, especially on local levels. After all, if there are no parks, people cannot be gathering in the parks! As the country reopens, this fact is very likely to backfire, making any attempt to re-open gradually almost impossible.
Beirut’s Privatized Public Spaces are Suffocating the Most Vulnerable
Public parks in Beirut are very minimal. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a minimum of 9 square meters of green space per capita, Beirut has only 0.8 square meters not all of which are public or accessible by the public. For example, there are around seventeen green spaces defined as public gardens/parks, around eight of these are small memorial gardens. Those that have amenities like paths, seating, water features, and play areas are still small in size mostly ranging between four thousand to twenty thousand square meters. Beirut Pine Forest (Horsh Beirut) is the largest public park at three hundred thousand square meters. (See Figure 1 for major public spaces in Beirut.) In addition to the limited number and area of public parks in Beirut, the municipality’s policies have played a major role in limiting access to many of the available parks. These policies treat the public parks as an asset for the municipality and the city elite rather than a form of public ownership that everyone has the right to enjoy. Access to the Horsh was, until recently, limited to those that have a permit from the governor and it required a long fight from the civil society to reopen for the public. Other smaller parks are seen as valuable real estate and an opportunity for the municipality to commission contentious big-budget contracts. The municipality had plans for a number of the city’s public gardens like Sanayeh, Jesuite, and Hassan Khaled to undergo "rehabilitation" projects that mostly aim at building multilevel underground parking before replacing the park on top of a concrete slab. The plans were presented as the only "solution" to the high parking demand in the city rather than public transit or biking facilities and safe sidewalks. While the pressure from the civil society and local activists managed to save the Jesuite and Sanayeh gardens’ presence for now and limit the impact of the rehabilitation process, Hassan Khaled garden has lost the fight so far. This deprived the neighborhood and the city from a much-needed public space, at least for the time being.
Beirut also has a number of public squares that usually have memorial statues in the center, like Martyrs’ Square and Riad El Solh Square. These have gained fame for hosting the largest protests in the country throughout the years, especially in 2005, 2015, and the recent uprising in 2019 and early 2020. Back in March, Beirut Municipality took a number of measures to ban gatherings in public spaces and announced all city parks closed for public access. The municipal police enforced these restrictions. As the city businesses are allowed to open up, parks and public space closures are still in place.
Another form of public space and a major outlet for the Lebanese capital is its coast along the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the private appropriation that has taken over large sections of the public waterfront by bending the law, there are still major public assets. The promenade (Corniche El Manara/Ain El-Mraisse) and Ramlet el Bayda Public Beach, the last public beach in Beirut, are among the greatest public spaces in the city. They provide free spaces for everyone to exercise, hang out, watch the sunset, and enjoy the sandy beach during hot summers. Following the lockdown rules, people are banned from using the promenade. The municipal police are enforcing the new restriction and asking the promenade goers to go back home. Last week after the second wave of the lockdown, as part of the state government’s plan for gradual reopening and along with the increasing temperatures in the Middle Eastern country, the ministry announced that pools are allowed to be open while the beaches are to remain closed. It is worth noting that all pools are privately owned in Lebanon, mostly with high entrance fees. Only a few free public beaches remain.
Public open spaces in Beirut were not always this rare. Years of war and illegal acquirement of public plots by individuals stripped the city of many of its public assets; depriving the residents of their right to these assets. For example, Figure 2 maps the violations of the public realm on Beirut’s waterfront. In a chat with Mohammad Ayoub, founder of NAHNOO (a Lebanese non-governmental organization that focuses on public spaces, governance, and heritage), about the situation of public spaces in Beirut during the lockdown, he said, "A public site is supposedly sacred; it is not assigned a legal lot number for a reason. No one owns it. It is to be owned and enjoyed by everyone." Yet the reality is different. He added, "It is as if the war never ended, public property stolen during the war was never returned." Actually, public property continues to be acquired illegally—the only difference is that it is happening with the government’s blessing.
As the government continues to fail in protecting the public realm and people’s rights to it, it deprives the most vulnerable of any outlet. Lower-income families have no alternative. Public parks, beaches, and the promenade are among the last few remaining breathing spaces for them. The current situation and the closure imposed by the municipality without providing a workable solution are depriving them of the little that remains.
With Limited Transportation Options, One Has to Choose the Lesser of Many Evils
The walking infrastructure in Lebanon does not offer much. To walk from point A to point B, the chances are you will not find a safe or comfortable route. As this policy brief from the American University of Beirut on walkability in Beirut describes it, "The fundamental right to walk in one’s city is simply unavailable to the inhabitants of Beirut." If you are lucky to find a sidewalk, it is either narrow (less than 1.5 meters wide), not in a good shape or blocked by a parked car, or taken over by a vendor that has set up shop or a restaurant’s outdoor seating. This ends up forcing pedestrians to walk within the travel lane among the cars.
The country also lacks a functioning public transit network. Beirut relies on a moderately priced, privately owned hail and ride busses, taxicabs, and pool (service). As part of the state of emergency, the government imposed restrictions to organize vehicular movement by license plate. This restriction did not provide an alternative for those who need to commute to work, get to essentials, or rely on their cars for living like taxi drivers. It definitely did not provide a solution that would allow social distancing. Those who own several cars are finding their way around the regulation. Those who cannot might have to choose between the risk of COVID-19 and losing their livelihoods.
Beirut Is Bike-Friendly by Nature but Lacks a Supportive Culture and Basic Infrastructure
As for biking, the infrastructure almost offers nothing. Despite the inherent advantages like the city’s small size, relatively flat topography, and slow traffic, biking is still a rare sight in Beirut. Basic biking networks and proper bike parking are non-existent. In addition, biking still lacks a lot of presence or acceptance in Lebanese society. I had the opportunity to chat with Zeina Hawa and Rami Zoya from The Chain Effect, a Lebanese non-profit promoting and facilitating the use of bicycles as a form of urban mobility. When describing the obstacles for biking in Lebanon. Zeina said, "Biking is on the sidelines in Lebanon, especially now with the multiple crises hitting the country." People see biking as a luxury that they cannot afford to prioritize. Rami adds that there is some increased use for bikes during the lockdown but still very minimal.
Zeina and Rami also describe the efforts by The Chain Effect to promote biking as an alternative that would allow social distancing. The organization has written open letters to the Beirut Municipality and a number of ministries to explain the critical need for allowing biking and walking during the lockdown. The municipality responded stating their inability to control numbers and gatherings. The organization also has started an initiative to collect donations to provide bikes for those who need them. They worked on coordinating with major grocery stores and hospitals in the country to provide these resources to the essential workers. The fundraising and donations program is moving successfully, however, the major employers did not show enthusiasm to provide their workers with bikes as alternatives. Instead, they are offering them stipends to use taxis or coordinating carpools. Despite biking being a better alternative as it allows for proper social distancing, the absence of a biking culture limits hopes for presenting it as a reliable alternative.
Is There a Solution?
Space for walking, biking, and enjoying the outdoors has become a precious commodity during lockdowns around the world. Big cities are innovating to allow for social distancing along their sidewalks, parks, and open spaces. The Municipality of Beirut has a chance to rise to the challenge and learn from dense cities around the world. It is nothing new that Beirut municipality needs to reacquire public property and invest in public parks and multimodal transportation infrastructure; however, this situation requires quick, short-term interventions on their end to allow a safe and implementable social distancing plan. To ensure the municipality is on the right path, the civil society and local activist groups will have to play a major role, as they have done in the past, to create awareness and sense of urgency, advocate for solutions and push the municipality towards quick action. At the same time, the municipality has to be receptive of the civil society’s suggestions, accepting of their recommendations and be willing to respond and act fast. Below are some suggestions for quick temporary actions to allow social distancing.
- Open Horsh Beirut and other public gardens to the public. Instead of closing up available public green spaces to avoid gatherings, the municipality should consider opening the large gardens and sites like the Horsh while monitoring the numbers of people coming in and the group sizes to allow proper social distancing. The municipality police tasked with monitoring these places to ban people from accessing the parks can be re-tasked to monitor the numbers of people going in. Civil society volunteers can also have a role during this process, as they did back in 2015 when they helped the municipality to reopen the Horsh for everyone.
- Consider opening some underused public spaces like the Beirut Municipal Stadium that has been neglected and in limbo for a while, for people to walk and jog.
- Prioritize pedestrian movement by ensuring the implementation of the traffic law that calls for the protection of pedestrians and cyclists and fines any action that blocks the sidewalks.
- Where the conditions allow, temporarily close up a travel lane for cars and open it for pedestrians, people on bikes, street vendors, and outdoor seating for restaurants. For example, neighborhoods like Gemmayze and Hamra that rely on restaurants and pubs can use wider outdoor spaces for seating at a social distance. More dense residential neighborhoods can also use wider outdoor spaces to allow stores and street vendors more space and avoid tight crowds.
- Open the Promenade and temporarily close off a travel lane of the Boulevard to allow for more space for biking, jogging, walking, and seating.
Beirut has a lot to do to achieve an acceptable level of public spaces and multimodal infrastructure. The urgency of the current pandemic requires that the city acts fast and does all that is possible to allows for safe reopening. Given the economic collapse and the forever-complex political situation, starting somewhere might be all that we can ask. Starting somewhere may be all it takes to create a catalyst and generate change. Implementing any of the suggestions mentioned above will be a remarkable achievement and a key step in the right direction.