Getting Beirut’s green back

Access to the Horsh reflects the clash between fear and progress

On a hot Saturday in mid-June, hundreds of young people across Beirut took part in a campaign to temporarily occupy key high traffic locations and replace them with ‘guerrilla gardens’. What took place was a welcome contrast from the tire-burning and road-blocking protests of late; instead, participants laid out patches of grass on sidewalks and roundabouts and picnicked under umbrellas to raise the profile of their cause for public green spaces.

Only two days before, the chief of the Beirut municipality, Bilal Hamad, held a press conference to announce the launch of the “Beirut is Amazing” initiative. Attempting to both respond to public pressure and direct the discourse, Hamad announced plans to rejuvenate the city’s parks. Unfortunately, the project is as uninspired as its name, and ignores an area constituting 77 percent of the city’s public green space — the Horsh Beirut. This park is a key issue of the guerrilla gardeners.

The Horsh — destroyed by fire in an Israeli raid during the civil war — is a sprawling 330,000 square meter urban park that until now is reserved for the exclusive use of those selected by the Beirut governorate. Only two years ago this historic piece of real estate was a non-issue for most Beirutis. That was until a non-governmental organization called Nahnoo (Arabic for ‘us’) rallied supporters and started asking the right questions. Today, beyond their media campaign, Nahnoo has compiled research, consulted legal experts and urban planners, organized public events and coupled advocacy with a policy focus to lobby cooperatively with decision makers.  The movement, however, isn’t without detractors — including many ordinary citizens from neighborhoods around the park. In typical ‘tragedy of the commons’ rationale, critics of the campaign say the Lebanese will not be able to collectively own such a pristine space without destroying it, pointing to threats as terrifying as barbecues, argileh, littering, and “immoral behavior”; thus, we must deprive ourselves of our public space in order to protect it. Hamad himself made these very arguments during a public forum organized by Nahnoo earlier this year.  The forum attracted an almost full house at Hamra’s Madina Theatre, where the majority of the audience was too young to remember the park in its glory days. Many were also angry. They saw the park’s closure as an act of exclusion, one that deprived them of a much-needed refuge from Beirut’s concrete jungle and a meeting point in a city that has one of the lowest levels of public green space in the world. Of course, it is not simply about green space, and the reasons given for the parks closure are superficial at best.

In a sectarian and segregated city the park takes on new meaning. Its triangular shape separates the suburbs from the city with barb-wired walls, keeping Christian, Sunni, and Shia neighborhoods apart. The question that many are asking away from the spotlight reveals an unspoken yet palpable sectarian turf war: “Who will control the park?” Of course legally, the municipality would be required to ensure the park remains clean and safe. On the ground, control is exercised differently. Groups of young men loyal to this or that political bloc could set up shop, hang their flags and effectively “take over” the space. Some believe that Sunni and Shia youth will clash and the violence could ruin Horsh Beirut.

Those leading the campaign for public access to the park understand the risks and realize that a sense of community ownership is necessary for its survival once opened. This is why they are planning to use the space to bring youth together, undertake public education programs and create an active Horsh Beirut neighborhood association to play a role in ensuring responsible use of the park. The tug of war over this rare publicly-owned green oasis in a slowly suffocating city represents a clash between two ideologies: those with a ‘fear-of-the-other’ worldview and a new generation that refuses to submit to prevailing stereotypes and are adamant about reclaiming public space for the people; while the former sees the park through the prism of perpetual conflict and eyes it with suspicion, the latter looks to make the Horsh a space for community and unity, and a source of hope for the future. In many ways, it is the struggle between continuing to entrench the trauma of the civil war and moving Lebanese society forward.

 

ALI SAYED-ALI works in democracy and civil society development in the MENA region

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