Development disorder

Slums fester and traffic chokes the roads as Beirut blunders without an urban plan

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It has been 20 years since the end of the war, but we still haven’t seriously started reconstructing the country,” said Serge Yazigi, head of the Majal urban observatory, part of the urban planning institute of Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts at Balamand University.

Beirut may be in the midst of a construction boom, but the lack of a coherent, concerted vision of how Lebanon’s capital should look,  function and grow leaves urban planners like Yazigi shaking their heads in dismay.

Cities the world over face the challenge of rapidly urbanizing populations, particularly in developing countries, which often lack a strategy or effective policy to direct their growth down a sustainable path. In the case of Beirut, this problem has been compounded by an almost unmatched exposure to devastating conflict.

Low standards of living in the city’s numerous “informal settlements,” rocketing property prices, the absence of public transport, traffic congestion, environmental degradation and rampant construction are all serious challenges facing Beirut.

Yet thus far, no government body has shown the muscle to impose an urban plan to address these issues and ensure the city’s sustainable growth.

Informal settlements

Some of the first informal settlements sprang up in Beirut in the late 1940s as Palestinians fled Israeli aggression, with new ones forming over the years as people sought to escape rural poverty, Israeli invasions and civil war. Over time, areas around the capital that had at first acted as temporary sanctuaries for refugees became their permanent residences.

Today these areas host low-income urbanites who, decades ago, built homes there illegally and therefore do not pay taxes.

A recent study by Mona Fawaz, assistant professor in the graduate programs of urban planning and urban design at the American University of Beirut, said that the Hayy El Selloum area, located in the southern suburbs of Beirut, is the largest informal settlement in the city with a population of 100,000 people. Other informal settlements around Beirut include Zatriyyeh, Rouwaysat, Ouzaai and Al Raml Al Ali. The most recent numbers from the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) stated that in 2005, 53.1 percent of Lebanon’s urban population lived in slums or informal settlements.

Fawaz said inflation in the real estate market has effectively made it impossible for people living in informal settlements to move to other parts of the city, making these ever more densely populated. The need for people to reside near their workplace has also prevented many from moving to other areas, due to the lack of adequate public transport.

“These people have nowhere else to go so they are adding floors. What you are ending up with is a complete deterioration of these neighborhoods that are so congested they are impossible to live in,” said Fawaz.

Many informal settlements, due to their illegality, do not receive basic services from the government. Nancy Hilal, urban planner at UN-Habitat said that these communities often form their own committees through which they raise money to build local sewage systems and other necessary services. Out of 12 settlements in a UN study, only two officially received electricity from the national power company — others receive it through a variety of means such as private generators and political influence to divert the electrical grid. 

The government has done little or nothing to upgrade living standards in these areas or help residents move to better locations.

The one attempt it did make after the Civil War was the establishment of Elyssar, a public agency for the planning and development of the south western suburbs of Beirut: home to some 500,000 inhabitants living in informal settlements, according to a UN-Habitat.

The project was supposed to include more than 10,000 affordable housing units, 1,000 shops, some 100,000 square meters of light manufacturing, parks, warehousing and workshop centers, as well as basic infrastructure.

“It was the first time the government got involved in urban planning,” said Hilal. “However… planning is very political. This is why it is not being implemented.”

Elie Sawma, president of the Building Promoters Federation of Lebanon, said that his organization was pushing the government to reactivate the Elyssar project, which would decrease pressure in the real estate market by boosting supply. Sawma added that the price per square meter would be between $2,000 and $2,500 — lower than other areas in Beirut but significantly higher than the informal settlements, which would most likely defeat their purpose.

High prices on middle incomes

Middle class Beirutis are feeling the heat of the city’s red-hot real estate market, as local, expat and foreign demand causes prices to balloon. By law, foreigners are allowed to own only 10 percent of any one district in Beirut. A recent Al Iktissad Wal Aamal study showed that foreigners owned 6.52 percent of the capital, including properties purchased by Lebanese on behalf of foreigners, or properties purchased by local companies that are foreign-owned.

Inflation has hit all market segments with prices on lower-end properties in Beirut having risen some 120 percent on average since 2005, and 150 percent on higher-end homes, according to Ramco real estate advisors.

Urban planners Executive spoke with said the Lebanese authorities should help to control prices and encourage affordable housing in a city filled with ever-more high-rise luxury towers.

“We should keep it as a free market but some limitations need to be put in, like forbidding speculation or a jump in prices,” said Majal’s Yazigi, noting that these initiatives should be part of a specific urban plan which governs the construction and expansion of the city.

“Each country deals with the increases in prices in different ways, but all developed countries in Europe have a policy which fights the increase in land prices,” said Mohamed Fawaz, head of the Directorate General of Urbanism (DGU) between 1974 and 1993.

Public transport

Increased urbanization, a lack of public transport and among the highest per capita car-ownership rates in the world, are escalating Beirut’s traffic congestion, parking shortages and pollution from car emissions.

 “We are losing a tremendous amount of time to go from one place to another. [The congestion] is decreasing our attractiveness to tourists and affecting our health,” said Yazigi.

According to a study by advertising agency Pikasso, 65.2 percent of households in Beirut own a car and use it as their most frequent mode of transport. 

Mohamed Fawaz said that since the first meeting of Metropolis (World Association of the Major Metropolises) in 1985 – in which he took part as the head of the DGU – it is a commonly accepted fact that private cars cannot solve transportation and traffic issues in cities.

“However, this ‘conviction’ has not yet reached Lebanon,” he said.

Transportation means currently available include taxis, shared taxis, buses, or private minivans. Beirut needs 700 buses to provide efficient public transportation, said Mohamed Fawaz.

“Our city hasn’t provided a quarter of that number,” he remarked.

The World Bank initiated a $204 million “Urban Transport Development Project” at the start of 2009 to help provide Beirut with traffic management, parking improvement programs and training for police.

Though this program has improved traffic circulation and increased available parking, authorities have yet to set out a comprehensive public transport strategy, which Fawaz said should incorporate rail trams.

Mona Fawaz also related the lack of public transport to the housing situation, as high real estate prices force out lower-income earners, concentrating them in low-rent areas, which curbs the city’s natural growth.

“Public transportation and networks should be created in order to allow for this city to grow, for those who cannot afford municipal Beirut to be able to live somewhere where they can commute using a public network,” she said.

Do we have a plan?

In July 2009, the government approved the “National Physical Master Plan for the Lebanese Territory” —  a study concluded in 2005 by the Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR), the DGU and L’Institut d’aménagement et d’urbanisme de d’Île-de-France.

Experts laud the plan as a step toward achieving sustainable planning; the problem is that it does not include specific instruments for implementation.

“The planning instruments and the related institutional setup are almost non-existent in Lebanon and the cooperation between the institutions that are involved in planning is absent,” said Dania Rifai, Habitat program manager at UN-Habitat. “[Therefore urban] planning is restricted to construction permits.”

Role of DGU

Lebanon’s urban planning law dates back to 1983 (Law number 69), which gives the public authorities (the DGU) the power to regulate the built environment and infrastructure in Lebanon. The DGU was also given the authority to set population densities in different areas, forbid construction that might negatively affect the surrounding area, protect the environment and order the acquisition of land for public purposes, among other things. 

“However all its decisions have no value unless they are approved by the cabinet, and that is the disaster here in Lebanon,” said former DGU head Mohamed Fawaz. Consequently, the DGU’s powers are have been limited by political impasse.

The DGU was meant to have an active role in post-2006 war reconstruction, with the power to intervene in planning and preserve historic areas in line with social values. “However, financial limitations and political entanglements came in the way of their ability to play an effective role in the process,” said Mona Fawaz in her UN report ‘The Reconstruction of Lebanon after 2006.’

The DGU also offers technical assistance to municipalities that lack urban planning departments. The only municipalities with urban planning departments are Beirut and Tripoli, according to Mohammed Fawaz.

Municipalities are also involved in the urban planning process, since the head of the municipality must sign all construction licenses – except in Beirut, where the governor signs them.

Mohamed Fawaz pointed out, however, that license approval at the municipal level usually focuses exclusively on whether building specifications abide by the law, but do not consider criteria such as how sympathetic the project will be to its surroundings.

Often it is simply beyond the municipalities’ capacity to use anything but strictly legal criteria to assess license applications, as most lack the human, technical and financial resources.

Survival mode

The DGU is not playing the essential role it should be in ensuring sustainable development in Lebanon, and other government agencies lack adequate resources. 

Yazigi pointed out that urban planning in Beirut is still in “survival mode.”

“Instead of trying to anticipate the problems to come, all our energy is lost on solving as much of the current ones as we can — we need to identify a vision and reinforce the state power in order to implement [it],” he said. “If there had been a plan [since the civil war ended], we could have preserved more heritage and more identity. We could have enhanced tourism, investment attractiveness and… inhabitants’ quality of life.”