Beirut's last public beach has become a battleground in the city's fight for public space

The locals enjoy Ramlet al-Baida beach in 2007. Image: Getty.

Beirut's last public beach has become a battleground in the fight to expose Lebanon's disappearing public spaces, privilege and rampant development. Protesters have been taking to Ramlet al Baida beach to oppose construction of the private Eden Bay Resort, which describes itself as having, “A privileged sense of style”.

Lebanon's coastline is being swallowed up – and activists fear this project could be the death knell for Beirut's only remaining public beach.

“These spaces are being threatened by real estate developments, suffocating the city even more,” says urbanist Nadine Bekdache. Already, the city only has 0.8m2 of green space per person, when the minimum according to the World Health Organization, the minimum should be should be 9m2.

The Lebanese summer is hot, and electricity for air conditioning scarce: in Beirut's concrete jungle, life can become unbearable. So Ramlet al Baida is the only place for Beirut's many less-privileged families to escape and socialise. When the makeshift houses of fishing families were destroyed two years ago in Dalieh, not far from the beach, it was seen as the beginning of the takeover. 

This year the World Monuments Fund listed Dalieh in its annual watchlist. Two of the 50 global cultural heritage sites the fund says face “imminent threats” are in Beirut.

“Used as a public space for more than 7000 years, the Dalieh of Raouche may become the latest victim of a development frenzy that has destroyed or privatised many of Beirut’s open spaces,” the fund says.

In Lebanon, protecting open spaces means challenging the power of the elite to co-opt common land. The revolt against the Ramlet al Baida development is part of a new political flame sparked by last year's garbage crisis, during which trash rotted in the streets as ministers failed to address the city's lack of garbage dump. Many people from the “You Stink” movement the garbage crisis spawned have mobilised to protect the beach.

Whard Sleiman, a 24 year old architecture student who was injured during a recent confrontation with construction workers at the beach, is sick of the loopholes that enable political cronies to help each other out at citizens' expense. “When you're living in a city that has no public space, save for one park, and no public beach, save for one shore that's being polluted by sewage and garbage and plastic – the state of Ramlet al Baida is awful – you can't stay quiet,” Sleiman says.

Shore developments in Lebanon are always legally murky. Mona Fawaz, an associate urban studies and planning professor at the American University of Beirut, details at some length the “lack of transparency in public records and their numerous contradictions”.


“I found a 1925 law [144/S] which clearly states that all sandy beaches are public and inalienable,” Dr Fawaz wrote for The Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. “Then I found a [1933] property record that supposedly inscribes Beirut’s large sandy beaches as the private property of a handful of individuals.”

There’s more: “...a 1954 regulatory framework that states as one of its basic principles that all zones between the seafront Corniche and the sea are unbuildable, then numerous changes, revisions, exceptions, exemptions, incentives, and modifications of this regulation that reverse protections, intensify exploitation, and encourage privatisation.”

All this makes it very difficult to work out what the law even is.

New kids on the political block, Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), comprises a large number of urbanism professionals. The new party's programme is thoroughly focussed on improving the city's liveability – the second aim of its 10-point program is to increase green space.

Bekdache is part of their seafront taskforce, and argues that the city's social and cultural soul was suppressed when its public spaces were privatised. She says public spaces were deliberately neglected by authorities to dissuade people from using them, which excluded those who couldn't afford to pay for private facilities.

“[T]he right to enjoy free, dignified and open access to nature is an indicator of a healthy and dynamic urban life,” Bekdache said. “Every empty plot in Beirut is under threat of development.”

This problem is concentrated in, but not isolated to, Beirut. There are just a few patches of public beach in the southern cities of Sidon and Tyr, and in the northern city of Tripoli there is an ongoing battle over its seafront and an historic square that could fall prey to the pursuit of central car parking.

For Sleiman, the streets are the only place to go when your city is being robbed of its public space. “We have no public space, what do you want us to do, just sit down at home and take it?” he says.

“It's pathetic that we have nowhere to breathe. If I want to have a cup of coffee or sit down and breathe some air in the city, there is nowhere for me to do it. Literally nowhere.”

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More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.