How Beirut is breaking down the divisions of its past

St Georges Hotel photographed in 2015. Credit: Ammar Azzouz.

Barriers, walls, fences and checkpoints – whether in 20th century Berlin and Belfast or 21st century Aleppo, these do more than divide the built environment. They destroy social and cultural connections, divide societies, separate families, and create barriers not only in cities, but in inhabitants’ minds.

Yet the scars of war often remain even after the conflict is over. During the war in Lebanon, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, Beirut was divided by the “Green Line”, a clear demarcation dividing the east of the city from the west, and the Christian population from the Muslim one. “With a few exceptions,” Aseel Sawalha wrote in Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City, “Many of those who lived on one side of the city never crossed this dividing line.”

In 1993, in the early years after the end of the war in Lebanon, a reconstruction plan was put in place which included rehabilitating the ruins of downtown Beirut. But critics of the programme argue that reconstructing the city’s centre has created new divisions.

“The rehabilitation of the central district was by standards of post-war regeneration successful in producing state of the art quarters along with public and green spaces, business districts, souks and residential areas,” Nasser Yassin of the American University of Beirut (AUB) writes of the reconstruction. “The development programme, however, over-emphasized the city centre, de-linking it from other areas in the ever growing city, and excluded from rehabilitation its backyard areas and neighbourhoods.”

Indeed, the downtown of Beirut floats like an island in the city. A short walk away, neighbourhoods remain far less developed.

In arguments familiar to anyone who lives in an area marked for “gentrification”, the reconstruction was criticised for excluding the average citizen in favour of the more affluent ones. But the reconstruction was also criticised for demolishing a huge proportion of buildings that were still standing after the war and could be repaired. Beirut, famously known as the Paris of the Middle East, was given a new unfamiliar face.

The erasure of these buildings has also erased memories of Beirut. As the Lebanese architect Hashim Sarkis put it in The Resilient City: “The clearing of the downtown created a collective homesickness for Beirutis even if they still resided in Beirut.”


This sense of loss and homesickness may help to explain why local architects and activists are increasingly vigilant about Beirut’s buildings and heritage. Today, on St. Georges Hotel, built in 1932, a large banner says ‘STOP SOLIDERE’ in a reference to stop ruining the still standing buildings of Beirut. The hotel holds a symbolic meaning for residents: one of the first beach clubs on the coast of the city, it represents a golden age in Beirut.

Others have called to preserve the ruins as museums of war and memory. Beit Beirut (the House of Beirut) is one of these examples. Built in 1924 and located on the former Green Line, it became a sniper base during the conflict. With the gradual disappearance of the war ruins from the city since 1990, local architects campaigned to preserve this scarred building. Today it has been transformed into a museum and urban cultural centre, which addresses questions about the war, memory, social justice, and forgiveness. It is hoped that this project will foster togetherness, bring people back together, and help the Lebanese to face their past.

Despite its wounds, the destruction of memory, and the painful past, Beirut is a “city that refuses to die”. When I visited Beirut in 2015, I was fascinated by the city – its energy, the weight of history and the incredible level of friendliness of the Beirutis. In Al Hamra Street, at the heart of the city, people stayed late in the evening in the local cafes and restaurants. In a visit to the Corniche at 6am, the side of Beirut on the Mediterranean, people were running, walking, fishing, or having coffee. The city was alive, fresh, and beautiful.

One day, I joined a yoga session organised in one of the public parks, Horsh Beirut. There were over a hundred of people, all following the instructor’s directions, which were in English. Here there was no division – it was a place for everyone. 

As if it did not have its own scars to heal, Beirut is helping its neighbouring cities at the time of crises (the distance between Beirut and Damascus is just 53 miles). Beirut and its surroundings have become the sanctuary to 267,143 registered Syrian refugees (as of November 2017) in a country where the population is just over six million. In total there is around one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

For Syrians separated in different countries, with families and beloved still in Syria, Beirut and other Lebanese cities have become one of the main destinations to meet. Couples get engaged and married. Families reunite.

Almost three decades after the end of the Lebanese war, Beirut no longer displays the physical reminders of war. The young post-war generation, Nasser Yassin of the AUB told me, does not talk of East and West Beirut anymore, although the city is still divided by sectarian lines in some areas. There are spaces in the city where people from all sorts of backgrounds mix together - the souks and markets, universities, public parks, gardens and work institutions. “But to bring people back together is not only about creating spatial spaces for people to mix,” Yassin added.

For the city to truly come together, its residents need to overcome more than just physical boundaries. “To break divisions between people is much more about understanding the social relations between people that may take different forms on different spaces,” said Yassin. “This understanding is essential to open an honest conversation about the war; for people to remember, reflect and come to terms with our past’.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.