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Mona Fawaz, associate professor in Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut and LCPS research fellow

May 2017
Urban Policy: A Missing Government Framework

 As part of a series highlighting key challenges facing Lebanon, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies has sought input from leading experts on what the new government’s priorities should be. Lebanon’s predominantly urbanized population is faced with numerous challenges ranging from inadequate service delivery, to low standards of livability and the absence of channels of participation and accountability. Dr. Mona Fawaz in this article argues that a focus on greater spatial and sectoral integration of planning policies, as well as the democratization of planning processes, would present opportunities for fostering better livability across Lebanon’s cities.   

Despite a lack of reliable data, UN agencies, planning professionals, and physical geographers concur that at least 80% of Lebanon’s population is urbanized (1). Furthermore, 60% of this urban population lives in the five largest agglomerations (Beirut, Tripoli, Saida, Tyre, and Zahleh), with at least half of that 60% in the capital city alone. This high concentration of people and activities in a small section of the country indicates that Lebanon’s social, economic, and political potential are heavily anchored in its cities. Yet, the majority of Lebanon’s urban population struggles with grave social, spatial, and environmental problems that have accumulated over the past decades of rapid changes and governmental neglect.
Most city dwellers are crammed into poor housing and overcrowded neighborhoods and suffer from stresses associated with poverty and a lack of opportunities. Most are also forced to utilize expensive and inefficient transportation, bathe in brackish water, and lack access to public and/or green spaces. Rich or poor, they breathe polluted air that is linked to rising rates of diseases, suffer from the poor management of solid waste disposal, and struggle with numerous daily challenges that reflect the inadequate management of urban contexts in which they live. All in all, Lebanon’s cities are gravely deteriorating. They are increasingly segregated, economically exclusive, and marred with growing inequalities and environmental degradation. Their potential as spaces for experimentation, positive change, economic opportunity, and environmental sustainability continues to be gravely curtailed.
It is clear that Lebanon needs to develop a national urban policy framework, one that recognizes its largely urbanized population as a spatial reality, but also a social, economic, and ecological opportunity. The urban, indeed, is a form and a pattern of human settlement that affects livability. It is also a set of intertwined economic, social, and political processes, which are affected by transformations and practices that can be influenced using sets of integrated urban strategies (2).   
This article argues that to enhance livability, the governance of urban areas needs to be conducted in the most inclusive and democratic fashion in order to harness the creativity of urban majorities and emphasize the socio-cultural and ecological possibilities embedded in this spatial settlement form. This will require the government to place the intensive forms of economic exploitation that have characterized Lebanon’s dominant understanding of urban land under democratic controls, balancing the value of land as a real estate asset with its social value as shelter, a space for recreation and mobility, an ingredient for economic development, and heritage preservation, among others.
The adoption of an urban policy framework that can intervene to upgrade livability will require serious reforms at the institutional and governance levels. This article will highlight only four of those: Adjusting the scale of governance, integrating planning strategies, activating and renewing planning tools, and democratization agenda setting and implementation.
Designing Policies According to Scale
Before all else, an urban policy framework would allow decision makers to address livability challenges at the actual scale in which they manifest themselves, improving the effectiveness of policy responses. This would entail a redefinition of the anachronistic perimeters which currently dissect urban agglomerations into multiple municipal districts.
Indeed, challenges such as waste management, traffic congestion, or affordable housing manifest themselves at a scale that extends well beyond the boundaries of any individual municipal district. They are practically unresolvable at the scale in which they are currently addressed. How can one, for instance, resolve traffic congestion at the municipal level using city boundaries drawn in the 1920s when traffic now flows in a radius ten or twenty times larger? (3) The most dramatic case concerns Beirut, where there is an estimated 1.5 million dwellers spread over 130 municipal districts distributed across all political factions. There is no need discussing what it would take to get 130 municipal districts to collaborate, particularly when rival political factions that hold sway in them will consistently prioritize their narrow interests and short-term political gains over other goals.
One should also consider the best-known policy failure of the last decade: Waste management. Faced with the impossible challenge of solving waste management at the municipal administrative scale, where land prices make it practically impossible to locate a sanitary landfill and organize recycling appropriately, Beirut’s municipality is today rooting for the financially and environmentally prohibitive option of incineration, despite numerous and almost unanimous scientific evidence against it.
In sum, livability challenges present themselves at the scale of the actual urban agglomeration, as derived—even if with some limitations—through the actual footprint of high density, large, and heterogeneous populations that inhabit these areas and not along outdated administrative boundaries or self-designed sectarian enclaves. To be effective, policy responses need to be designed at the same scale, coordinating across current districts through unified urban agendas.
Adopting Integrated Strategies
Another important advantage of the urban policy framework is how it integrates the response to ongoing environmental, social, and spatial challenges through planning strategies that bridge the facets of urban livability. Take for example housing, transportation, urban infrastructure, and zoning. Purview over these issues is spread across numerous ministries and public agencies, including municipal authorities and governorates, the Directorate General of Urbanism, and the Council for Development and Reconstruction. Each of these agencies operates according to its own authority, with little incentive to collaborate with others, particularly when agencies are controlled by rival political parties. Yet, the main planning lesson of the past decade has been multi-sector integration. Only integrated transportation, land use, and housing solutions can reduce traffic congestion and enlarge the stock of affordable housing. Only integrated land use and mobility policies can improve walkability and urban greening. Only integrated economic, social, and environmental policies can resolve the challenges of waste management.
It should also be recognized that this can happen in cities which do not have advanced economies. For instance, inter-sectoral integration was most notably a strategy adopted in Curitiba (Brazil)—the poster child of sustainable cities—whose 1.5 million dwellers shifted their mobility practices to public transportation and accessed a large stock of affordable housing when the city’s growth was controlled through integrated land use zoning, housing, and public transportation networks and waste management strategies that integrated poverty alleviation, employment generation, and waste management. The recipe is simple. It has been tried in Europe and North Africa with equal success. Its main pre-requisite is the presence of an integrated urban strategy championed by an urban authority empowered to bridge across sectors. In Brazil, President Lula established the Ministry of Cities in 2003, which coordinates housing, transportation, sanitation, and urban development. In France, the Ministry of the City, Youth, and Sports integrates interventions between people and space, while in Morocco, a more classical combination integrates urbanism with architecture, heritage preservation, and territorial development under the Ministry of Urbanism and Territorial Planning. In Lebanon, however, responsibilities and conceptions of space and urban interventions are scattered among local and national authorities, agencies, and ministries that often duplicate some responsibilities, while missing many others.
Renewing and Adopting New Planning Tools
A third aspect of urban policy is the reactivation of existing planning tools and the introduction of new ones that could empower planning authorities to play a more active role is securing the long-term livability of Lebanon’s cities. Planning and municipal authorities already have a range of legal, urban, and fiscal instruments at their disposal to enhance urban livability and capitalize on opportunities and resources brought about by urbanization. Indeed, many urban and building regulations that were historically instituted to organize building activities (e.g. zoning, building regulations, coastal regulations) sought to contain and channel building activities in ways that balance individual capital accumulation with the shared, current, and future development interests of the social majorities. For example, inspired by European urban regulations, Lebanon’s Loi de l’Urbanisme states clearly that exploitation ratios should be pegged to the interests of the commons, rather than those of individual title holders. Under this principle, restrictions on land use, regulations for (national and built) heritage preservation, and numerous other controls were put in place to regulate, encourage, or curtail land and property developments according to criteria of social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and equitable economic growth. Yet, these tools are rarely used by Lebanese planning agencies. They are also evidently insufficient in addressing contemporary urban challenges, especially since Lebanese planning regulators have not introduced a single planning tool for several decades.
Indeed, the rise of intensive real estate transactions globally has dramatically reduced the social value of land and has required the introduction of new tools to control land speculation and its ensuing patterns of social exclusion, spatial segregation, and economic stagnation. Such planning instruments could include value capture taxes, inclusionary zoning, as well as incentives such as building bonuses to encourage developers to build affordable housing and adopt environmental building standards, limits on lot pooling procedures that encourage high-end developments, preference rights for public authorities to purchase properties, charged transfer of building rights, progressive property taxation, and others. These tools open up a new range of possibilities for interventions by urban authorities in a more economically efficient form but also in a manner which is more politically inclusive and sensitive to a range of existing social and environmental questions.
These tools do not need to make urban developers and builders the enemy of public policy makers. Rather, urban governments should recognize their role of controlling the process of urban development through the formulation of policies in which the individual interests of landowners co-exist with other social, cultural, and environmental interests of other groups and the city as a whole. These governments should harness the energies of multiple classes of urban actors who can produce a wider array of products and channel their investments toward more inclusive urban futures while recognizing the imperative of “giving back” to the city that people use to accumulate capital.
Democratizing Agenda Setting and Implementation
Finally, urban policy-making is a framework for invigorating (or perhaps, more adequately resuscitating) Lebanon’s democracy. Indeed, to devise the policies that organize our current and future urban growth is to ultimately ask: What kind of a city do we want? In other words, what kind of a “living together” (4)do we want? These are not questions to be answered by technocrats or learned scholars. Rather, these are vital decisions that need to be subjected to democratic mechanisms in which city dwellers can collectively decide, through the articulation of a participatory urban agenda, on the values and priorities that should guide the development of Lebanese cities and their societies.
A first prerequisite for inclusive urban governance is reforming Lebanon’s electoral laws. The issue is eloquently reflected by the ongoing ballet of decision makers gerrymandering national territory to eliminate any potential challengers in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. At the urban level, it is imperative to allow city dwellers to vote in cities where they live and toil, creating the necessary relation of accountability between them and elected representatives who manage urban spaces where they dwell.
Furthermore, for urban livability to guide the production of built environments and balance the role of urban land as real estate with its vital social and cultural roles as shelter, public space, art centers, and more, there is a need to revise employed planning tools. This entails widening the participatory frames of decision-making, requiring the adoption of urban interventions and/or land use tools that are subject to the scrutiny of informed populations that endure them, adapting the widely used tools of participatory budgeting in deciding on resource allocation, and holding hearings before permits are granted for large-scale developments that transform neighborhoods, among others.
There is no doubt that in Lebanon today, numerous organized groups are ahead of city governments in their understanding of urban challenges faced by the country. We rely on NGOs to recycle our waste, to manage and open our public parks, and to advocate for soft mobility, the reduction of air pollution levels, the protection of our coasts, the greening of our cities, and the preservation of our heritage. It is noteworthy that most of the researchers, activists, scholars, and city dwellers who are invested in these initiatives are not able to rely on institutionalized channels to voice concerns, let alone impact policies.
In closing, let us recognize that there is still a long way for Lebanon to go and there are many serious obstacles to overcome. A framework for urban policy-making is undeniably a good step forward toward better livability. This will require political will and serious capacity building but the stakes are enormous and such a framework would undeniably be a step forward toward a better future.
(1)    Given the quasi-absence of a rural economy in Lebanon, one can arguably say that Lebanon is 100% urban since its entire national economy and organization is actually pegged to urban centers … It is indeed the fabric of urban spaces that extends to the entire national territory where the majority of rural development falls under the rubric of secondary homes for urbanites.
(2)    Harvey, D. 1997. “Contested Cities: Social process and spatial form,” in: N. Jewson and S. McGregor, eds., Transforming Cities: Contested Governance and New Spatial Divisions, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 17-24.
(3)    It is estimated that some 70% of cars moving within Beirut’s municipal city-boundaries come from outside these boundaries, making it practically impossible to reduce traffic congestion in the absence of an urban regional policy that includes a traffic solution at the integrated scale of the city and its suburbs.
(4)    Amin, A. 2006. The Good City. Urban Studies 43: 1009-1023.

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