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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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