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Declining Sense of Space in Today's Beirut: An Obstacle to Belonging and Civicness
Posted on May 07, 2020 |
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The sense of belonging one may feel about the contexts of daily life largely stems from a sense of place, i.e. a sense of being part of a recognizable environment, of living and progressing in spaces that bear meaning and specific identities. It is also the idea of being part of an ongoing and collective history that has wrought settlements and landscapes. Indeed, belonging is closely intertwined with spaces that are shaped and reshaped by people, spaces they have appropriated and experienced. Of course, it also relies on a sense of community made up of diverse social relationships that can be fostered even in unfavourable conditions. However, when belonging is rooted in both space and community, civicness can emerge and a shared experience of the city can flourish.
the Author
Architect and Urbanist
Declining Sense of Space in Today's Beirut: An Obstacle to Belonging and Civicness

The sense of belonging one may feel about the contexts of daily life largely stems from a sense of place, i.e. a sense of being part of a recognizable environment, of living and progressing in spaces that bear meaning and specific identities. It is also the idea of being part of an ongoing and collective history that has wrought settlements and landscapes. Indeed, belonging is closely intertwined with spaces that are shaped and reshaped by people, spaces they have appropriated and experienced. Of course, it also relies on a sense of community made up of diverse social relationships that can be fostered even in unfavourable conditions. However, when belonging is rooted in both space and community, civicness can emerge and a shared experience of the city can flourish.

Beirut dwellers increasingly lost access to the city’s original landscape and were thus bereaved of many of their social practices. With the expansion of the Port in the Rmeil and Medawar neighbourhoods and the construction of the Corniche in Ain El-Mraisseh, these areas lost public beaches, swimming and fishing spots, restaurants and other leisure and gathering spaces. They were pushed away from most of the coast in Mina El-Hosn and Ras Beirut as the resorts privatized the shore. The banks of the Beirut River had been a terrain for playing, strolling and celebrating local religious traditions before they were turned into a concrete ground. Horsh Beirut (Beirut’s forest) has been closed for decades, and as a result it no longer hosts celebrations and family gatherings under its pines. Barely a few discontinuities in the chaotic urban fabric give views of the surrounding landscape, fleeting reminders that Beirut is a city located between the mountains and the sea.

The disappearance of the architectural heritage from the Ottoman period, French mandate or modernist era is similarly causing a loss of familiarity with the neighbourhood and with a certain way of life. Gardens, verandas, balconies and all sorts of interstitial spaces used to blur the limit between indoor and outdoor, allowing the private sphere to project onto the public realm. Such traditional features are disappearing, reducing the porosity between private and public spaces and inducing growing confinement to the domestic realm. Simultaneously, because of the city’s accelerated post-war transformations, people are losing the buildings, landmarks and places that make up their neighbourhood life, along with their attachment to a collective urban history. Meanwhile, public spaces have increasingly shrunk or become hostile. Parks in Beirut are either neglected or eradicated to make way for underground parking lots, or they are monitored with limited public access. The Corniche abounds with multiple bans on people’s activities, thus limiting their appropriation of the space. The squares of the historic centre, such as Martyrs’ Square, are unadorned and depopulated, while others such as Samir Kassir Square and Saifi Village are gentrified, surveilled and exploited for profit.

Therefore, belonging to Beirut is too often eliminated by a feeling of dispossession and an understanding that the city is being reshaped without and against its people. In reaction, one of the most significant manifestations of Lebanon’s October Revolution is the reappropriation of public spaces in Beirut’s downtown area and in major cities across the country. Protesters express their right to the city and one of their first act has been the remaking of public spaces in such a way that they fulfil their purposes, needs and aspirations. They have collectively introduced the spaces of debates, protest, exchange and politics, and even the spaces of celebration, leisure and joy that they lacked elsewhere. This spontaneous act of civicness should become a roadmap for urban policies that meet the social needs of city dwellers and help cultivate a sense of belonging to a city that is open, shared and welcoming to all its citizens.
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