Public Spaces and Spatial Practices: Claims from Beirut

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Public space seems to be back in vogue these days, especially in relation to social protests taking place in city squares and along major streets, occupying and claiming spaces, often violently. Why do public spaces matter in cities? Is the absence or presence of public spaces in cities related to the rise of political and social movements? Can protests happen in cities that lack public spaces? Do public spaces lead to radical spatial politics? Are public spaces a means for political and social change?

Many scholars argue that cities without vibrant, dynamic, interactive public spaces do not breed collective action, as they do not allow people to meet, exchange, disagree, debate, and make claims (Ghorra-Gobin 2001; Low and Smith 2006; Mitchell 2003). Henri Lefebvre (1992) underscores how people should own the city, have a take in its process of spatial production and claim it as a right, through their practices and experiences, especially in the cities’ open spaces. He tells us how the loss of this ownership, seized by ruling authorities who conceive and manage the city according to their own capital-based interests, have made most people disconnect from its spaces and abandon their rights to practice and its public domain. Mustafa Dikeç (2002) reminds us how ruling authorities develop narratives, strategies and mechanisms to naturalize their domination over the city and its public spaces, and their exclusion of ordinary dwellers, especially poor and marginalized groups. Through elaborate techniques, ruling authorities, planning agencies and media outlets, criminalize the groups they identify as threats to the political, social, urban and moral orders of the affluent, and legitimize the urgency to secure, fortify, control and restrict public spaces to their own use (Caldeira 2000; Coaffee 2004). Streets and squares become sealed off, under strict and permanent surveillance, and controlled with regard to behavior. Possibilities for diverse and multiple spatial practices and experiences within such spaces become constrained and contingent. Public spaces and squares turn into places of consumption and aesthetic zones, patronized by the well-healed people. Local authorities make sure to further assert them as such, cleaning and beautifying them as well as consolidating their visual and formal features (Deeb and Harb 2013, Kaviraj 1997, Taraki 2008). Behavior within their confines becomes predictable, disciplined, and ordered. Possibilities for surprise, messiness, unruliness or dissonance are foreclosed. Public spaces in cities thus become depoliticized (Amin 2006, Mitchell 2003).

However, as anthropologists remind us, people resort to a wide array of forms of resistance to overcome such techniques of domination and submissiveness, ranging from silent infringements to timid appropriations and violent protests (Bayat 1997; Keith and Pile 1997). This is not new, and cities have historically been the sites of many urban protests and social mobilizations. What is new is that urban protests in cities across the global south and the global north are taking place more or less synchronously and intersecting over similar issues related to unbearable levels of socioeconomic inequalities, and increased social and spatial injustice. From self-organized communities in Barcelona, Occupy movements in New York, urban protests in Rio de Janeiro, reclaiming housing rights in Amsterdam, to uprisings across the Middle East, an increasing variety of organized collective action are using public space to claim their rights to the city and to the process of spatial production. More research is needed to understand how these various forms of collective action understand, utilize and strategize space in their political and social mobilization actions.

I have recently become interested in investigating these questions in Beirut–a city known for political protests that filled its central squares in 2005 after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and continued intermittently until 2008. Political protests of that scale returned in spring 2013 and were led by the labor syndicate, which demanded the adjustment of wage scales. I am not interested here, however, in political or socio-economic protests on that macro scale. I am more concerned in investigating local-scale spatial practices in the city, especially the ones that are more “procedural” in nature, as dubbed by Iveson (2007). Procedural public spaces are those that are practiced and experienced but whose legal categorization as public is not met or is ambiguous. They are different from “topographical” public spaces, which are designated as such, and are often (but not always) publicly owned and managed. Procedural public spaces celebrate spontaneity, contradictions, messiness and disorder (Sennett 1992, Iveson 2007). Indeed, the less a public space is planned and designed into an abstract space generating specific types of socio-spatial practices, the more it has the potential to be politically subversive–in the sense of having the possibility to become appropriated and claimed through spatial practices and experiences in the Lefebvrian sense. How does Beirut fare with regard to procedural public spaces? To what extent is the city prone to radical spatial politics? To answer this question, I start by a brief survey of both topographical and procedural public spaces in Beirut. I will refer to the former by public spaces and to the latter by spatial practices. I then move to documenting the relatively recent actions undertaken by civil society groups to debate and reclaim public space in the city–defined in broad sense encompassing both dimensions, investigating the potential of these initiatives to build up towards collective action centered on a commons movement. This is a first take at a research project that raises more questions than it answers, and that calls for an in-depth investigation of such issues by urban students and scholars, beyond the now typical interest in the city’s center and the city’s peripheries.

Beirut’s Public Spaces and Spatial Practices

Beirut is a city with few public spaces and a shrinking public realm, regularly usurped by ruling authorities without much resistance. After the end of the civil war (1975-1990), government officials and planners in Beirut systematically privileged infrastructure-led urban development, in the name of reconstruction, modernity, efficiency, economic growth and security. Highways sliced up neighborhoods, hiding away poor peripheries and consolidating sectarian divides. Ruling elites and their partners surely benefited from significant real-estate dividends generated by such developments. Conversely, dwellers did not benefit at all from such interventions, and were even displaced from their homes. Even the open spaces created by these highways, bridges and tunnels were not designed in ways that could have serviced the needs of those who remained in nearby neighborhoods–although such possibilities could easily have been undertaken by the rich municipality of Beirut. More so, such interventions did not account for public transportation schemes or soft mobility solutions, leaving ordinary people dependent on private cars to navigate the city, locking them up further in their neighborhoods and consolidating socio-spatial segregation in the city. Apart from infrastructural planning, government officials privileged large-scale public projects in the city, mostly geared towards social services (hospital, schools), and transient events (e.g. the sports stadium). They initiated few cultural and public projects. The few ones that were established, such as the network of public libraries (as-Sabil) was pushed forth by civil society groups. Telling was the choice of the municipality of Beirut to keep the largest public park in the city, Horch Beirut, closed-off to the public, for reasons ranging from the potential threat of sectarian explosion, to that of moral disorder, and people’s lack of civility.

So what are Beirut’s existing public spaces? The famous seashore Corniche of course, which is a vibrant and dynamic strip where various publics, rhythms and temporalities allow various and multiple groups to interact. A recent addition to the Corniche is the adjacent Waterfront—the sea edge of the landfill bordering Beirut’s rebuilt central business district (CBD). It was opened for public use a few years ago by the real-estate company Solidere, responsible for the development of Beirut’s CBD. Progressively, it got appropriated by a mix of people and is now functioning rather similarly to the Corniche. Beirut is also home to a few small neighborhood parks (Sanayeh, Sioufi), which are extensively used by nearby dwellers, and become particularly crowded on weekends as people coming from other neighborhoods patronize them. Mostly used by working-class and lower-middle class groups, of diverse gender groups and age ranges, they are characterized by vibrant socio-spatial practices including walking, sitting, gazing, picnicking on the green lawns, biking and playing.

[Beirut Corniche. Image by unknown via Wikimedia Commons.]

Beirut’s CBD incorporates several landscaped open spaces and pedestrian areas, dubbed public spaces by the Solidere company.[1].Heavy surveillance and control operated by security guards restricts significantly however a range of uses in such spaces, such as biking, skating and picnicking. In addition, not all people are allowed access into these spaces: people who appear dubious to the security guards can be questioned and asked to show personal papers, and could also be denied entry. Also, vendors and beggars are forbidden access to keep the space secured, ordered and clean.[2] A main objective behind these unwritten regulations is promoting a suitable environment for capital investments and high-end consumption. Here public spaces are about raising real estate values through their aesthetics and urban design (Carmona 2002). Several urban planners, decision-makers and elites in the city do not critique these regulations. I have heard on numerous occasions people applauding these policies justifying them with statements that go as such: “We do not want downtown to become like Dahiya, Bourj Hammoud, or Corniche!”[3] For them, public spaces in downtown Beirut should be exclusive of lower income groups whose practices do not qualify as tasteful according to their social position.

[Beirut Souks. Image by n.karim via Wikimedia Commons.]

Beirut is also rich in spaces that are not designated or considered public, and are not necessarily owned by public authorities, but that I qualify as public, I argue, via their patrons’ spatial practices and experiences. Spaces under the bridge mostly occupied by male migrant workers looking out for jobs, and serviced by mobile fast-food vendors, which sometimes include a makeshift café and juice bar. The flea market erected on Sunday along the Beirut river bringing together poor people as well as curious local and foreign tourists and expats, enjoying cheap buys and kitsch objects. Empty parking lots mostly used on Sundays by kids and teenagers playing football, skating or biking. Numerous sidewalks and street corners occupied by table and chairs, where guys smoke arguileh and watch the street during the day. Many street chunks taken over by youth groups smoking, eating, drinking, and hanging out during late hours. Large sidewalks circling middle-class residential blocks used by middle-aged people exercising during early evening times. Weekly organic food markets bringing together middle and upper urban classes in hip areas. And, several left over lots, taken over by greenery, squatted by working-class families and couples, migrant and domestic workers, hanging out, walking and playing.

[Souk al-Ahad, Beirut. Image by Dip_44 via Flickr.]

One public beach is available to Beiruti dwellers: Ramlet al-Bayda, a beautiful sandy strip of coast, dirty with garbage and poorly taken care of, mostly patronized by working-class men, and (very few) women who come with their family or in groups on weekends. Some young males also swim in the rocky parts of the coastline next to the Corniche. The sea is also spatially experienced in Dalieh, a hill overlooking the Pigeons Rock (in Rawcheh), which provides the city with a wide-open space, occupied by a diversity of patrons, including a small community of fishermen.[4]

[Dalieh, Beirut. Image by author.]

In and around these spaces that flirt with the public/private boundary, noteworthy spatial practices and experiences are taking place, albeit in messy ways and for temporary periods of time, which are distinguished from those found in the city’s central public spaces or in Corniche. These practices bring together people from different countries, ethnicities, and places, and allow them to interact without much concern to gender, religion, age, income and sexual behavior. These spaces materialize particular and, perhaps temporary, substantive interactions with the city, based on active exchange, on the right to claim space, to appropriate it and to make it one’s own. Little information is known about them, despite their socio-spatial richness and vibrancy, which certainly invites worthwhile ethnographic research.

Civil Society Claims on the City

Civil society groups in Lebanon are known to be rather well-mobilized vis-à-vis a variety of public issues, such as education, health and the environment. Until very recently, public space issues–and urban issues more generally–were completely absent from the agenda of NGOs and activists. People are rather unaware of urbanism as a professional practice and of topics related to the city, such as housing, urban services, public transportation, informal settlements… In the past decade, however, urban issues have become more and more debated in the public sphere, albeit in restricted academic and intellectual circles, probably under the impulse of the multiplication of urban planning programs in various public and private universities. An increasing number of youth groups and activists critical with the ways authorities have been managing urban policies and concerned with making the city a more livable place, have been voicing their opinions, via blogs and social media, as well as through actively mobilizing in NGOs or looser types of networks.

Nahnoo is an NGO that has been actively involved in empowering youth and promoting their participation in public issues, through fostering public life via city parks, which they believe provide “a new platform for behavioral change and citizenship.” Masha3 seeks to reclaim public properties and operates via a covert strategy aiming at the dissemination of a radical understanding of property rights, and the advocacy of the rights of people to the commons. Dictaphone Group investigates urban spaces in Lebanon through live art interventions that comment on urban landscapes and are based on multidisciplinary collaborations between people. They seek “to celebrate and ‘use’ public landscapes and to prioritize communal spaces within the context of political, social and spatial injustices in Lebanon.” Paint Up is an NGO made up of designers that want to “make Beirut brighter and more beautiful, through color.” They are known for their vividly colored public staircases and benches in the city. Beirut Green Project aims to voice “the right to have [green] spaces in our city.” They have started the “Green your Lunch” initiative where people take their lunch break in the city’s existing parks, and are also organizing other “hang-outs” in gardens. Other interesting initiatives, less spatial in their scope but intellectually relevant to the promotion of the concept of spatial practices and rights to the city, include projects like Mansion, where activists have occupied a private house for collective use, in coordination with the owners, and Outpost –a magazine promoting a substantive understanding of the commons and collective action.

In addition to these civil society’s groups, public space is a main topic of discussion in many blogs and online postings of social media sites, such as Beirut the Fantastic, which “fantasizes on Beirut’s urban what ifs.” Other initiatives and actions on public space include visual art and graffiti, which have been multiplying throughout Beirut’s neighborhoods. We note the works of Ali Al-Rafei, Ashekman, PGCrew, Arofish among others –widely disseminated on Instagram. Such artists contribute substantively to activating public spaces across the city, and politicizing spaces through tagging and visual appropriation.[5]

All these initiatives reveal the emergence of new young voices actively concerned about their rights to the city, to spatial practices and experiences. Certainly, they are fragmented and uncoordinated, and their understanding of public space and rights is quite differentiated. While some favor visual aesthetics and beautification in their work, others are disseminating a critical understanding of public space in the aim of initiating at least a debate about public space, and at best the reclaiming of the commons. Iveson tells us how public action in the city ought to be investigated and assessed through “the ways in which publics combine a variety of public spaces in their action” (2007: 13, his emphasis). He urges us to appreciate “the multidimensional nature of the public/private distinction and its various application across different realms of social life” and notes how “public space [should] not [be] reduced to a fixed set of topographically defined sites in the city which act as a kind of ‘stage’” (2007: 11-14).

With this in mind, and through this essay, I invite an investigation of public spaces in cities that documents people’s spatial practices across neighborhoods, and that identifies civil society’s initiatives seeking to impact the city and the commons, either practically or intellectually. The aim of this invitation is to encourage intersections between reflection and intervention, via a better understanding of how different kinds of public spaces and spatial practices can provide possibilities and opportunities for collective action (Staeheli and Mitchell 2008). Such an investigation is particularly challenging in the case of cities like Beirut where spatial practices are largely restricted by regulations and practices prioritizing private property rights, at the expense of a substantive understanding of the commons. Interest groups dominating the neoliberal spatial production process in the Lebanese capital may well rapidly shut down potentials for mobilization and collective action within procedural spaces and by civil society initiatives such as the ones I discussed above. How can we inform civil society initiatives and planning advocates to rethink open and public spaces in cities, and relevant planning regulations and policies, in ways that make them more amenable to radical as well as transient spatial politics? That is the next stage of my research project, which seeks to investigate strategies to crossbreed civil society projects and initiatives with the city’s most diverse spatial practices.

[The author would like to thank Hiba Bou-Akar for valuable comments, and Farah Al-Nakib and Eric Verdeil for useful input. An earlier version of this piece was presented at the ACSP-AESOP 13th Congress, “Planning for Resilient Cities and Regions,” Dublin, July 15-19, 2013.]


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Asef Bayat, Street Politics: Poor People’s Movement in Iran (1997) Columbia University Press.

Teresa Caldeira, City of Walls. Crime, Segregation and Citizenship in Sao Paulo (2000) University of California Press.

Matthew Carmona, “Stakeholder Views on Value and Urban Design,” Journal of Urban Design 7-2 (2002) 145-169.

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[1] There are many types of open spaces with various levels of accessibility, closely associated to their ownership: some are for the municipality and public agents (but are not necessarily public), others are for theawqaf, still others are for the Solidere company and other private owners. The list of open spaces in Solidere is available here.

[2] On Corniche, but also in other streets and the small parks throughout the city, several types of vendors walk and sell a range of goods to people: food such as kaak, candy, juices, beans, coffee, as well as balloons and other gadgets… They create an attraction to tourists and locals alike. Kids are particularly fond of them. They are forbidden of accessing Solidere’s perimeter, adding to the formality of public spaces provided in this part of the city.

[3] Dahiya is the south part of Beirut, in which a majority of Shi’a people lives. Bourj Hammoud is the northeastern neighborhood of the city, housing a majority of Armenians. Shi’a and Armenians are commonly stigmatized as lower-class people who are late migrants to the city, do not know how to live urban life, and have no taste. Both places materialize this low life and are labeled as a chaotic, ugly, illegal and poor ghetto.

[4] Dalieh has been always practiced as a public space although it is private property and is undergoing as I write the threat of being the site of a major touristic resort development, similar to Movenpick Hotel situated few meters to its south.

[5] See Shawn Saleme’s piece on the topic, as well as Al-Jazeera World’s feature on the street art in Lebanon.