Beirut’s secret garden

NGO efforts may yet unlock gates to the capital’s hidden green space

Many older residents of Lebanon’s capital have fond memories of the Horsh Beirut, of childhood games and family picnics in one of the city’s most beautiful parks. The current generation has no such memories. While the Horsh Beirut, also known as Horsh el Snawbar or Horsh El Eid, accounts for some 77 percent of the city’s green space, the municipality has kept it closed to the public for more than two decades; but if a growing number of civil society organizations are successful in their efforts, the gates may soon be open again. 

Among the many victims of the civil war was the Horsh, whose ancient pine trees were burned to cinders during an Israeli assault on the city in 1982. In 1992, the municipality of L’Ile De France, working with the Beirut municipality, funded the restoration of 90 percent of the park at a cost of $191,000, according to Bilal Hamad, president of Beirut Municipality, with the remaining 10 percent picked up by the municipality. Once completed, the municipalities of L’Ile De France and Beirut decided the park would remain shut for 10 years to allow the newly planted pine trees time to grow and mature, says Hamad.

Today — 20 years later — only 10 percent of the Horsh Beirut is open to the public; the remaining 90 percent is closed to all Lebanese citizens less than 35 years old, and even those older than 35 must hold an authorized permit from the municipality to access the park. This classification, says Hamad, is one he inherited from the previous municipality and does not “necessarily agree with.”

Nizar Sayghieh, a lawyer who has worked to reopen the park, says that according to common law, closing a space created for public use is illegal, and people have a right to access the park.

Hamad acknowledges that the park is a public space and that “it shouldn’t be closed.” He claims he wants to give it back to the people of Beirut but says he wants to be confident it will not get ruined by opening it haphazardly. Sayghieh counters that if the safety of the park is the concern, the municipality should use the ample funds it has to hire and train security guards.

Civil society in action

To obtain answers for the delay in reopening of the park, an NGO named Nahnoo organized a debate in February 2011, between Hamad, Nahnoo founding member Mohammad Ayoub, Sayghieh and Eric Bouvard, a representative of the municipality of the L’Ile De France in Beirut.

During the debate, says Ayoub, Hamad asked for a policy paper that would outline how best to manage the opening and maintenance of the park. Provided this was presented, continues Ayoub, Hamad promised that he would open the park by the end of 2012. While Hamad confirmed asking for the policy paper, he said that he didn’t mention a specific date but that he would love to open the park by the end of the year, provided that the necessary arrangements exist.

Nahnoo took up the president of the municipality’s challenge and, two months after the debate, provided him with a detailed policy paper outlining specific solutions to the possible obstacles preventing the park’s opening, such as security issues and fire hazards, says Ayoub.

Hamad praised the quality of the paper, adding that he had sent it to a committee within the municipality that will study it and give recommendations this month. Hamad also sent it to  L’Ile De France representatives for their input and, pending both, he will be calling for “a brainstorming workshop in his office within the next few weeks.”

“The purpose of this workshop is to come up with one final plan to be presented to a private company that will manage, protect and maintain the park,” says Hamad.

When asked if the municipality cannot afford to maintain the park themselves, Hamad said they can but if they could get a company to do it for them, then “why not?”

Questionable outsourcing

This has led others to cry foul, given the ample examples — such as the Beirut Central District — where private management of public land has proved controversial, to say the least.  “Giving the park to a private company could risk turning it into a resort of sorts where its very purpose of being a public and free space will be defeated, just like what is happening with our beaches,” says Sayghieh.

Hamad says this will not be the case as the municipality will retain ultimate authority over the park. He does admit, however, that there might be a nominal entry fee to make the people using it “feel a sense of responsibility.”

Hamad also mentions providing park users with access cards to the park so security catching people misusing the space can seize the cards, and deny violators further entry. He believes that this will be a good way to control those who might intentionally want to destroy the park.

Dima Boulad of Beirut Green Project, a local NGO also working on public green spaces,  says that while rules are certainly needed to protect the park, “We don’t need the rules to be so uptight that people aren’t able to enjoy the park experience anymore.” Boulad gives the example of the newly-opened Zaitunay Bay, which does not allow pets or eating in non-designated areas.

Nahnoo and other civil society organizations remain unsatisfied with the municipality’s evasive techniques and last month organized guerilla picnic protests at major intersections around Beirut, along with 12 other local NGOs also campaigning to the open the park.

Nahnoo’s Ayoub said that he fears the municipality is “coming up with excuses to delay the opening,” and is working with the other NGOs to pressure Hamad to set a clear target date for the opening. Hamad says he believes in the importance of public green spaces and has even launched a campaign, “Beirut is Amazing”  to renovate several public parks, such as Sanayeh Park and the Sioufi Gardens, starting this summer.

According to Hamad, a landscape artist has donated plans for the rehabilitation of Sanayeh, and the retail company Azadea has agreed to donate the needed funds for the project. The municipality is currently asking private donors, companies and NGOs to donate money or resources for the rehabilitation of the Beirut’s main parks and to add greenery to the  streets of Beirut, mainly on road islands and strips dividing the roads.

Notably absent from this campaign is Horsh Beirut. When asked about this, Hamad said that, Horsh Beirut, being the biggest park, requires a separate campaign. He concluded by saying of the Horsh “it is a jewel for the people of Beirut and we want to make sure it stays that way once we open it.”

Yet one wonders how valuable a jewel is when no one can see and appreciate its beauty. Until the park is opened, the children of Beirut will continue to grow up with memories of playing on hard concrete in narrow alleys, while the wide open greens of the Horsh lay in lonely silence.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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