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Mona Fawaz, Professor in Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut, member of Beirut Madinati, and LCPS fellow

June 2020
A Ten Point Action Plan For Beirut's Muhafiz

The Lebanese government appointed judge Marwan Abboud as Beirut governor on 10 June, to succeed to Ziad Chebib, after weeks of political back and forth. The country, and with it Beirut, is in a state of emergency, and very little time is left before it becomes too late for a recovery plan. The role of governor of the capital is an important one, and comes with a lot of weight and responsibilities. Building on a decade of advocacy and involvement with urban social movement, but also my own experience as a city planner, I outline a ten points agenda for city authorities that I believe reflect the aspirations of many city dwellers and can make a difference in these critical times.
1.    The public needs a custodian. This has the role of a public official. The title of muhafiz madinat Beirut, entrusts the government with the protection of the city, its publics, not the handful of private interests that have controlled Beirut over the past three decades. As a civil servant, his role is not to balance between the private interests of the few, the political aspirations of others, and the delicate sectarian balance that supposedly makes up our society. The public he serves has no sect. It has unifying aspirations for a livable city that responds to the needs of the 99%—not the interests of the 1%.
2.    The city needs investments in shared mobility. Cities worldwide are investing in their pedestrian infrastructures, making it possible for people to walk, bike, and rely on public transport. These cities are seeing big returns on their investments both in their inhabitants’ health and their economies. The governor should abolish those outdated highway plans from the 1960s and the despicable parking buildings that figure on top of the municipality’s current vision for urban mobility. Beirut’s municipal drawers are full of good proposals: The soft mobility plan, Liaison Douce, the Bus Rapid Transit, and the public parking stations at urban entry points are some of those. Many of these projects are ready for implementation; they only need a champion.
3.    The city needs to prioritize sustainable solid waste management. The governor should cancel the failed plans for easy yet futile cures and take environmentalists pushing for a strategy involving “reducing, reusing, and recycling” seriously. We live in a city where residents recycle but collection trucks merge back the solid waste. There are NGOs ready to support this process. The governor may need to settle on an environmentally undesirable option for 10% of the waste, but he should at least begin with the remaining 90%. They say it takes a long time, we have been waiting even longer!
4.    The city needs to be recognized as a lived space. About one in five apartments in Beirut is empty. Their owners are exempted from paying taxes and use them as safe deposit boxes. Numerous policies have encouraged them to follow this track. Meanwhile, city dwellers are suffering from a rampant housing crisis that locks the poor in dangerously dense conditions and hurts urban livability. Housing is a right; the municipality has jurisdiction to support this right and it can start there. Beirut’s apartments are not just assets to be hoarded, they are primarily homes that need to be inhabited.
5.    The city needs investments in green open space: Horsh Beirut is a wealth for all, so are the smaller parks and the other leftover spaces. They are not the places to build hospitals or police stations. They are the city’s preventive health infrastructure because they secure its clean air and provide a place for people to be physically and socially active. However, Beirut has so little public space that it even had to close its corniche to avoid crowds. To remedy this, the governor can implement the Plan Vert that was hung for years in the previous governor’s office. This is not a decorative painting, it is a template for a greener and healthier city. Residents must be encouraged to clean and plant their neighborhoods’ empty lots. Businesses should be encouraged to sponsor public parks, without privatizing any of them. It is high time to invest in the public.
6.    The city needs to protect its coast and keep it for the public. The coast is Beirut’s main economic magnet and a fabulous social outlet. The sea is not a view to be sold by private developers for millions of untaxed dollars. It is also not a sewer where the city’s refuse can be directly channeled, as is the case now. It is a shared public wealth. It should be free of illegalities, its continuity and transparency restored, and economic activities encouraged. No building permit should be granted on it. Regulations protecting our coast have been distorted throughout the years, but their correct interpretations are on the side of the public. The governor should not let them down.
7.    The city needs to protect its urban heritage. It is time to recognize the importance of Beirut’s urban identity. The governor should not let developers turn Beirut, the city of numerous layers of history, into a new desert development without culture or identity. Our heritage—natural and built—our cuisine, music, and our little libraries and theaters are what make our city unique. They distinguish us from many other places. Very little is left to save, we must act immediately.
8.    The city needs to be recognized as an economic engine. Numerous studies have demonstrated the ability of urban economies to support national growth. To do so, however, cities need a vision for development. The utopia of privatization upheld since the 1990s has reached its logical end: Beirut’s historic core, its downtown, is a massive parking lot. Youth emigrates when it can, protests when it is forced to stay. These spaces must become productive, and the governor can make this happen. He should make sure those who profit are the young people eager to work and block the types of deals we saw last October when Solidere handed over the waterfront to a handful of banks. A healthy urban economy creates jobs and spaces to work, it doesn’t sell pieces of the city.
9.    Governance is necessarily shared. Beirut has hundreds of thousands of residents waiting for a champion of the public sector, ready to support, and eager to expose and shame anyone who blocks initiatives for recycling. People are waiting for this person to protect green spaces, open the coast to the public, and secure affordable housing, among many other things. Participation is not a weekly three hours exercise where people come to ask their governor for favors. Shared governance happens in the public realm: He can rally stakeholders to protect the future of the city from the private interests of the few, institute arrangements that bring urban dwellers as active participants in the making of their city futures, and empower the many who want to make a difference.
10. Governance is about collaboration, not bickering. City dwellers are sick of hearing mutual blame between the municipal council and the governor. Surely, the council could do better and its performance has been dismal. The governor should, however, reject the principle of the municipal council paying extra revenues to him win him over. Instead, a working partnership must be put together. The governor is the stronger party in this relation, and he can exercise leadership to move forward.
Despite the hard times we are going through and the distasteful process through which he was appointed, I want to believe that the piling miseries that make our everyday lives can be brushed away by the incredible courage, resilience, and knowhow that so many of our compatriots have demonstrated. His office has at its disposal the good will and efforts of numerous citizen groups advocating for environmentally sound and socially responsible futures. Thousands have taken to the streets for the past months, frustrated with the absence of a public representative who can champion their claims and channel their energies to improve the livability of their city. The governor has here a powerful asset to build on. We need to be able to count on him.

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