[In light of the 4 August port explosion, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies sought Professor Howayda al-Harithy’s insight on how to approach the recovery of the damaged areas.]
Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS): In light of the disaster that befell Beirut on 4 August 2020, there are different approaches on how to rebuild ravaged areas and damaged infrastructure: an urban recovery approach versus a reconstruction approach. Could you explain the difference between the two and inform us which is better suited for Lebanon?
Howard al-Harithi (HH): There are diverse approaches to rebuilding in the aftermath of disasters and conflicts. These depend on the nature and scale of the areas, the damage, and the communities impacted. They also depend on the country’s system of governance and the disaster preparedness and response mechanisms available. Reconstruction has traditionally been an approach largely focused on the physical built environment and infrastructure and for it, multiple strategies can be adopted. These range from total conservation that brings the built environment to the pre-disaster conditions to a tabula rasa strategy that erases what was there and takes the opportunity to build anew. Urban recovery has emerged as an alternative to reconstruction in recent years. Recovery as a construct has even evolved over the past three decades from a term that is synonymous with reconstruction to an open-ended participatory process that is locally informed and socially anchored.
It is now important to advocate for a holistic recovery process with a social recovery agenda, post Beirut blast. Physical recovery is not independent of the social, economic, and environmental concerns that constitute human settlements, which is why it is also important to mitigate community vulnerabilities through socially just recovery schemes. Urban recovery has to be an inclusive social process that is shaped by both pre- and post-crisis conditions. It is about ensuring that people maintain their bonds and community relationships. Recovery is difficult when the post-disaster reconstruction of a city is imposed on the residents, leading to relocation and further damage.
LCPS: What types of reconstruction policies were applied in Lebanon in the past, particularly following the civil war and after the 2006 July War?
HH: There were no reconstruction policies or frameworks after the civil war. The state was not equipped or committed to setting in place such an important and critical process. Instead, it focused its postwar reconstruction efforts on one single site, which is the Beirut Central District (BCD), and turned it over to a private company, Solidere, in the absence of a role for the government or the people.
In the aftermath of the 2006 war, different models were applied to address the devastated areas. They ranged from a top-heavy reconstruction, such as the case of Waad, where a single party controlled the reconstruction of Haret Hreik on behalf of the residents and promised to rebuild it as it was and to bring everyone back to their homes. In other areas, particularly villages in southern Lebanon, where people, through the compensating policy of the state, rebuilt their own homes in the absence of a strategic framework that addresses the shared and public spaces, heritage, services, or vulnerabilities that existed before the attacks.
On the other extreme there was the work done by the Reconstruction Unit created at the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut by academics and professionals in response to the 2006 war. The Reconstruction Unit advocated for a bottom up community-based approach to reconstruction, and succeeded in some villages in the south to varying degrees. They worked with local municipalities and funding agencies to produce a strategic framework for recovery. In Bint Jebil, for example, the efforts were directed toward a heritage-led framework of recovery that saved many of the old fabric and stone houses and mostly safeguarded the socio-economic networks that existed and operated in the town before the war.
LCPS: Scholars speak of how urban heritage in Lebanon has been “museumified” through a preservationist approach rather than taking the social context into account. Could you explain the differences between these two approaches and how this debate applies to Beirut today in the wake of the explosion?
HH: There is no single approach to urban heritage in Lebanon although museumification is largely practiced, neither is there an agreement of what constitutes heritage except for the legal framework that protects archeological sites and historic buildings that were built before the 1700s. In many reconstruction and rehabilitation projects in the country, heritage was framed as a commodity and to be consumed by the tourism industry. And we saw this with the reconstruction project of Beirut after the civil war: Urban heritage was not used to physically, socially, and emotionally reconnect people to places and memories in a process that embodies both remembrance and commemoration.
When we use the term “urban heritage,” we aim to advocate a more inclusive definition of heritage and a more holistic approach to safeguarding it. It is beyond a single building that is preserved and turned into a frozen icon of the past, but rather an urban fabric that is a living heritage and that constitutes tangible and intangible socio-spatial practices.
This is why it is important to address heritage in the wake of the explosion from that perspective and to protect both the spatial and the social fabrics that redefine each other. Heritage has been defined by scholars as a social construct through which people select from the past what serves their present and future needs as individuals and as communities. Memory plays an integral role in this process. Heritage therefore includes spaces of shared memories and social significance to a particular community.
LCPS: How does one go about improving the built environment and create inclusive public spaces in a manner that better links reconstruction with the social fabric?
HH: The best way to link reconstruction to the social fabric is to set up a participatory process that engages the people and to co-design with the community an urban recovery project that tackles the social, economic, cultural and physical together in a comprehensive and integrated manner.
LCPS: How do we prevent a Solidere 2.0 from occurring today in the damaged areas? What are some successful case studies that we can draw upon and learn from?
HH: To prevent a Solidere 2.0, we have to identify the problematic methodology and objectives with which Solidere worked and understand where it failed. The company did not initiate a participatory process in which different stakeholders and voices were incorporated. Instead, it adopted a market driven model for its decision-making. Solidere failed to integrate heritage into a comprehensive vision and so was unsuccessful at cultural recovery. The 1991 master plan, and its revised version, resulted in the erasure of memory instead of celebrating local diversity and cultural richness. It adopted the tabula rasa approach in reconstruction. It created urban and social rupture through the enclaving of an exclusive Beirut Central District with major arteries and by commodifying heritage that fosters tourism and manufactures a false image of a unified postwar Lebanon. These negative consequences of the post-war reconstruction were largely due to the absence of a participatory strategy that engages directly with affected stakeholders such as property owners and local experts in devising alternative visions for urban planning and heritage integration. Particularly evident was the prioritization of a profit-based neoliberal ideology that minimized the role of the government and attracted private investment in luxury housing and commerce.
Ultimately, the implemented 1994 master plan fell short of accounting for the heritage in the BCD and of reconnecting people to the place through living memory. The outcome that we witness today in the BCD—a luxurious and largely abandoned downtown thirty years after the end of the civil war—is evidence of the failure of the reconstruction project to address the social and cultural dimensions of the city center.
It is critical for any reconstruction of a post-disaster/war city to be part of a larger urban recovery that is not only physical but also social, economic, and cultural, which would take into consideration the pre-war socio-spatial networks that linked people to a place through their practices and memories. It is therefore important that we envision and put in place an alternative process of post-disaster recovery, one that is holistic and participatory. One that is guided by a shared vision and not an imposed one.
[This piece was originally published by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies on 21 August 2020.]