Development Threatens Beirut's Largest Swath of Public Parkland

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A lonely bench in Horsh Beirut, the green space-starved Lebanese capital city's long closed — and now threatened by new development — version of Central Park. (Photo: Joelle Hatem/flickr)

In the years between the end of World War II and the outbreak of civil war in 1975, the Lebanese capital city of Beirut was affectionately known as the “Paris of the Middle East” — a complimentary moniker that wasn’t undeserving in the least. During this era, Beirut — international jetsetting destination par excellence — was an alluring, liberated city famed for its café culture, fashion, nightlife, French architectural influences and overall cosmopolitan air.

And while tourism numbers have rebounded in recent years as city boosters attempt to reclaim Beirut’s once-beloved Parisian-ness, there is one crucial thing — a boon to tourists and, even more importantly, residents — that the City of Lights has in spades but that a rebuilt Beirut sorely lacks: public green space.

In fact, a near-dearth of urban parkland has become one of Beirut’s most unfortunate defining features in the years since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990 as development and massive infrastructure projects continue to overwhelm the city’s once ample open spaces. As Wendell Steavenson writes for Prospect Magazine: "Beirut combines private affluence with public squalor. It’s a city with almost no public green space or parks."

With its dense forests of skyscrapers, 21st century Beirut is a concrete jungle through and through with .8 square meters (8.6 per square feet) of green space per capita as of 2014. The minimum amount of green space per capita as recommended by the World Health Organization is 9 square meters (97 square feet).

Beirut’s woeful deficit of parkland has given rise to a grassroots movement that not only strives to introduce more green to the predominately grey city but to also promote and protect the little urban parkland already in place. Take, for example, the good work of groups like the Beirut Green Project, which, in 2016, literally rolled out unadorned squares of grassy turf around town. The attention-grabbing, awareness-raising pop-up parks, which were in place for just one day, measured .8 square meters and came equipped with cheeky signage that read: “Enjoy your park.”

Now, a new battle is on to save Beirut’s largest swath of public parkland, Horsh Beirut.

Also known as Horsh El Snoubar or Bois des Pins (the “Pine Forest”), Horsh Beirut covers 74 acres — that’s more than 75 percent of the available urban green space in a sprawling metro region home to over 2 million people. Located in the south of Beirut near the city's famed horse track, the triangle-shaped park had been closed to the public since 1992 for post-war reconstruction and reforestation efforts, although some foreign nationals and special Lebanese permit-holders (read: those with the right connections) over the age of 30 were granted limited access.

“It's like preventing New Yorkers from accessing Central Park,” Joanna Hammour of nonpartisan community organization Nahnoo explained to Agence France-Presse in 2015. “The closure of Horsh Beirut is illegal. It's a public space.”

“I had to sign a document pledging that I would keep the park clean and tidy and that my doctor had recommended I exercise,” relays one Beirut resident of his attempts to secure a permit for park access. “They are supposed to get back to me in 10 days."

Thanks to relentless campaigning by activist groups such as Nahnoo and the Beirut Green Project, Horsh Beirut reopened to al l for limited use (from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays only) in 2015. Despite being only a partial reopening that should have come years earlier, a newly accessible Horsh Beirut represented a major triumph for both pro-park organizations and the general public alike. For many Beirut residents, this was a chance to — once again or for the very first time — enjoy the many splendors of a major urban green space that had been cordoned off for decades; a green space that, despite suffering through the ravages of war, deforestation and neglect, is teeming with a variety of flora and fauna.

Reads a Nahnoo-run website dedicated to the re-opening of Horsh Beirut:

The Re-opening of Horsh Beirut presents a major step towards supplying public spaces in Lebanon, providing a space for people to meet and offering all the aspects of everyday needs. By providing this space, we believe that we are providing a new platform for a behavioral change in Beirut citizens towards their public life, aiming a healthier aspect. Hence, taking this step can only present a positive influence to all Lebanese people and local authorities at once.

In May 20016, Nahnoo announced that Horsh Beirut would be open on weekdays in addition to Saturdays. This marked another victory although, much to the chagrin of eager, leash-wielding park-goers, dogs are still not allowed.

Horsh Beirut Park, Beirut
Horsh Beirut: A speck of green in a sea of brown and grey. (Photo: Google Maps)

Horsh Beirut: A speck of green in a sea of brown and grey. (Screenshot: Google Maps)

A new year, a new battle

As recently reported by Al-Jazeera, the fight to bring Horsh Beirut back to its former glory currently faces a major new setback in the form of an Egypt-funded public hospital that’s being erected on the edge of the park. Those rallying against the hospital worry that the $5 million project won’t just further limit public access to the newly reopened park — Beirut’s only true set of green lungs that help to clean the air and lower temperatures — but potentially destroy it altogether.

“Horsh Beirut is part of the 1925 Real Estate act, which means it is categorised as a nature reserve according to a legal precedent set in 1939," activist Mohammad Ayoub explains to Al-Jazeera. "Therefore it is prohibited to build anything on it, so the law is 100 percent on our side.”

Authorities claim that a plan has been hatched to expand other green spaces to compensate for any space lost within Horsh Beirut. What’s more, those in support of the hospital point to the fact that the facility is being built expressly to serve Syrian and Palestinian refugees and that protesting against what union leader Adnan Istambuli calls a “charitable project” is insensitive.

Relatedly, earlier this year multinational NGO Meals for Syrian Refugees Children Lebanon (MSRCL) dedicated a rare new park — Aleppo Park — in a vacant seaside parcel geared specifically for the thousands upon thousands of Syrian families who fled their war-torn country and resettled in and around Beirut.

In an interview with the Lebanon Daily Star, one local resident who joined recent protests against the hospital project clarified that she was "not against the hospital, but ... against building it over Horsh Beirut" and that tree-planting would be a suitable alternative to construction. "There are other plots of land in the area."

As for the other urban parks in tree-starved Beirut that haven’t been closed off for decades, there are, as mentioned, a limited number of them. Located in the heart of the city, Sioufi Garden, Saint Nicolas Garden and the recently revamped Sanayeh Garden (René Moawad Garden) are three of the more notable ones although all are significantly smaller than Horsh Beirut.

And parks aren’t the only public places in this densely populated, culturally diverse port city to be threatened by development (if they haven't been bulldozed into oblivion already). Late last year, it was announced that Beirut’s only surviving public beach, Ramlet el-Bayd, will be cleared to make way for a luxury beach resort catering to well-heeled Beirut residents and foreigners. Like with the hospital project at Horsh Beirut, the impending closure of Beirut’s only non-privatized beach has sparked public outcry.

“It’s clear there’s been an awakening,” Lebanese writer Kareem Chehayeb tells CityLab. ”The movement for public space and the rhetoric associated with it is much more urgent.”