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Contested Public Spaces in Tyre
Posted on May 07, 2020 |
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The problem of urban planning in Lebanon has long been a topic of interest for scholars and activists looking to understand how postwar nations and cities are re-shaped by experiences of precarity and violence. "The Problem" in this context holds a dual connotation —on the one hand, it refers to the intellectual and physical complexity of planning-as-practice in a sectarian nation; on the other hand, it reflects an opinion on the lack of effective planning policies in Lebanon. Both assertions imply an understanding of space as socially produced; an argument put forward by Henri Lefebvre (1991) in his seminal work The Production of Space.
the Author
Lecturer in the Media Studies program at the American University of Beirut
Contested Public Spaces in Tyre

The problem of urban planning in Lebanon has long been a topic of interest for scholars and activists looking to understand how postwar nations and cities are re-shaped by experiences of precarity and violence. "The Problem" in this context holds a dual connotation —on the one hand, it refers to the intellectual and physical complexity of planning-as-practice in a sectarian nation; on the other hand, it reflects an opinion on the lack of effective planning policies in Lebanon. Both assertions imply an understanding of space as socially produced; an argument put forward by Henri Lefebvre (1991) in his seminal work The Production of Space. As Lefebvre argues, a social space like the city is “the outcome of of a sequence and set of operations”, subsuming “things produced...and their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity” (Lefebvre 1991: 73). His argument implies the existence of contending power dynamics that constantly reshape city- spaces, which, in turn, impact how they are experienced and who has a right to access them.

The last point is of particular interest to this article, which looks to understand how public spaces are negotiated and contested in the southern Lebanese city Tyre. The “right to the city” as a theoretical-spatial concept is closely dependent on the existence of public space (Mitchell 2003), and the boundaries of this right are changing, as citizens grapple with how and when to exercise it. Public spaces —as meeting points and places to connect —take on heightened importance in a sectarian nation like Lebanon. They can be places for postwar reconciliation (Larkin 2012) or reminders of the past; they can also be places through which power dynamics are negotiated (Nucho 2016) and claims to citizenship are made. Tyre —one of the largest cities and administrative districts in south Lebanon— is considered a peripheral space, both in terms of its geographical location and its lagged socioeconomic development relative to central Beirut (Deeb 2006). Its constructed marginality has also produced different expressions and understandings of public space, three of which will be examined in this article: the public beach, Tyre garden, and the flag square.

Tyre’s public beach is among the cleanest in Lebanon, bringing in a notable number of local and foreign tourists every summer. The sea has long been a part of the city’s historical, sociocultural, and economic makeup, creating and/or buttressing narratives of Tyre as a Phoenician port city; as a fishing town; and/or a touristic, leisure space. More recently, the public beach has stood in stark contrast to the increasing privatization of Lebanese shores, providing one of the best maintained, accessible, and affordable swimming venues.

The perceived publicness of Tyre’s beach and it being used to that end is significant on domestic and global fronts. On the one hand, it challenges the failure of local state policies in providing clean and open shores; on the other hand, it affirms the “ungovernability” of the Mediterranean Sea and its environmental implications as a shared natural resource. Thus, when situated within broader power dynamics and contexts, Tyre beach becomes a space for negotiating different conceptions of (inter)national belonging and identity — a venue to contend with cultural forms of citizenship. Another contested public space in the city is the public garden, located on the southern peripheries of Tyre. The triangular area covers approximately 0.2 km2 and is mostly unexploited, despite its potential to link Tyre’s mainland to surrounding towns and neighborhoods. The public garden has become a topic for discussion among some local stakeholders as well as local and international NGOs, the former of whom are reluctant to activate the space and the latter of whom find its activation a public right for citizens. Thus, Tyre’s garden has become an ideological battleground for discourse on civic engagement, participatory policymaking, and social justice in the city.

Lastly, the "Flag Square" (sahet al-‘alam) near Tyre’s northern entrance has become imbued with new meaning following the recent uprisings and mass mobilizations in Lebanon. Named after the large Lebanese flag in its center, the space mainly functioned as a roundabout —dotted with visual culture markers like billboards, posters, and political party flags. The October 17 uprisings, which united Lebanese under socioeconomic demands, transformed the use of the space. It became an area for protestors to meet and hold discussions; tents were erected; and forums for debate were held by different local activists, NGOs, and everyday citizens, thus, transforming from roundabout to public square. “Flag Square” reflects how public spaces are reconfigured and reclaimed during popular uprisings, acting as a stage on and through which discussions of citizenship, inequality and identity are performed. This act was part of a broader, national momentum to reclaim, repurpose, and reinvent public spaces through protest, hence integrating the geographically peripheral Tyre into nationwide debates and discourse.

The aforementioned spaces in Tyre are constantly contested and reinvented by users, reflecting the dynamic nature of social spaces and the ever-evolving discussion on who can access them. Both factors are impacted by underlying power relations—here, nation, citizenship, identity, and socioeconomic considerations are at play. Their push and pull dynamics can create multiple, and sometimes contradictory iterations of public space within the same city-space; they can also create pockets of momentum for social change.
 

References:

- Couldry, Nick. 2006. “Culture and citizenship: The missing link?”. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 9.3: 321-339.

- Deeb, Lara. 2006. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

- Hartley, John & Green, Joshua. 2006. “The public sphere on the beach”. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 9.3: 341-362. - Larkin, Craig. 2012. Memory and conflict in Lebanon: Remembering and forgetting the past. New York: Routledge.

- Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space [trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith]. Oxford & Cambridge USA : Blackwell Publishing. - Mitchell, Don. (2003). The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Press.

- Nucho, Joanne Randa. 2016. Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

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