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The Seemingly (un)Planned Urbanization in Chouf: Who Is the Planner?
Posted on Mar 24, 2021 |
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After the civil war (1975-1990), many regions in Lebanon, including the Chouf district, have been perceived as a patchwork of contested sectarian geographies. While the massacres of the civil war and the failed reconciliation and return attempts of the 1990s are not to be undermined, analyzing urbanization trends in Chouf merely from a sectarian lens today doesn’t take us far in understanding the challenges of urban planning in the district. The spatial manifestations of sectarianism ought not to be discussed as a given but rather as symptoms of a much more complex dynamic to be deconstructed through social and historical contextualization. While this is outside the scope of this short article, I aim instead to highlight other causes and consequences of what seems to be an unplanned urbanization in Chouf.
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The Seemingly (un)Planned Urbanization in Chouf: Who Is the Planner?
©Adra Kandil

After the civil war (1975-1990), many regions in Lebanon, including the Chouf district, have been perceived as a patchwork of contested sectarian geographies. While the massacres of the civil war and the failed reconciliation and return attempts of the 1990s are not to be undermined, analyzing urbanization trends in Chouf merely from a sectarian lens today doesn’t take us far in understanding the challenges of urban planning in the district. The spatial manifestations of sectarianism ought not to be discussed as a given but rather as symptoms of a much more complex dynamic to be deconstructed through social and historical contextualization. While this is outside the scope of this short article, I aim instead to highlight other causes and consequences of what seems to be an unplanned urbanization in Chouf. Through three examples of spatial transformation, I show that the challenges of this century are not inherently sectarian. I argue that urbanization is actually very well planned, yet driven by capital, profit, and power. Further research is needed to unpack these dynamics and understand their socio-economic impacts on the region.

Comparing urbanization in Chouf after 1998 (Google Earth imagery) to the maps of the National Physical Master Plan (NPMPLT), the trend seems slower than the rest of the country, especially in the upper villages. The densification of most towns has happened before 1998. Most of these towns do have master plans and cadastral registries, namely Debbieh, Naameh, Damour, and Jiyeh (Verdeil et al., 2007). What makes urbanization seem unplanned then? What are the policies devised and how are they shaping the built environment?

Despite the seeming chaos in the way urban areas in the country expand, urbanization is the materialization of specific public policies. In Lebanon, it is mostly private property that has shaped urban policies and land use in the past decades. For Chouf, some of the impacts of such policies materialize through large scale projects with different land uses (residential, industrial and touristic).

Toggling image dates on Google Earth between 2004 and 2020 shows the massive road network implemented as part of the awaiting Medyar residential project in Debbieh. This project was planned to be developed by the Dalhamiyya Development Company in 2010. While land ownership remains for the company, the shareholders changed across the years (Public Works, 2018a). Most importantly, the classification of a natural reserve was shifted to become a residential area in the master plan to allow the construction of the project (Public Works, 2018a). Today, not a building was constructed.

Another remarkable expansion of an already overwhelming facility is the Sibline cement factory. Established in 1974, the factory has become larger than the village. In 1995, the government granted the factory exclusive rights to use the Jiyeh port (decree 6797) on the basis of the decree 4810/1966 that allows the State to rent its maritime public domain. In 1998, a master plan for Sibline industrial area was ratified. The plan allowed factories in this area to be exempt from tax income on the basis of the decree 127/1983 that aims to set “incentives to revive rural areas and expand industries in all regions”. In 2002, the company holding the factory was able to change its bylaws to be able to expand its land ownership portfolio (decree 7993/2002). The factory also gets authorization to exceed legal constraints in water wells depth and capacity (decree 146/2014). With this series of decrees, the factory has been expanding its production and increasing its profits while literally feeding the construction frenzy of the past decades in the country.

The third example is the proliferation of beach resorts along the Chouf coast. The number doubled since 2005 to reach around 40 resorts by 2020. An increase in the scale of these projects can also be discerned on satellite imagery. In Damour for instance, this shift was supported by a modification of land use in the master plan from agricultural to touristic along the coast (Public Works, 2018a). Owners of these lands are mostly investors or real estate companies. Even large parcels of Waqf land previously used for agriculture were raked in 2019 to build another resort that did not see the light yet (Verdeil et al., 2007). The impacts of such changes on agriculture are paramount especially when looked at across the country. Shifting land uses from agriculture to tourism is one of the results of the rentier economic model that has been adopted in the country after the war.

The way state actors, but also land owners and local zouamas influence land use planning go beyond sectarian tensions (Public Works, 2018b). The large companies pushing forward megaprojects in Chouf are owned by individuals from different sects and sometimes from seemingly opposing political groups, if not multinational companies. The private interests of these individuals have replaced the role of the State in planning its territory. However, it is through these projects that current leaders reinforce sectarian discourse and local clientelistic channels (e.g. discounts on apartments’ prices and resorts entrance fees for the “locals”, employment in the Sibline factory). Spatial sectarianism and the reproduction of contested geographies are hence the result of a more complex web of political private interests rooted in land and private property. Megaprojects in Chouf, whether residential, touristic, or industrial, show the shift in the way land is used as a generator of profit. Today, with the economic crisis, there are further impacts of the circulation of capital and accumulation of land that have not materialized yet and are to be closely followed in the near future. In the meantime, Medyar project is on halt, and the resorts will have less financial viability with the health and economic crises, yet Sibline factory continues its expansion above and beyond the reinforced sectarian geographies of the Chouf. This “hybrid state” (Fregonese, 2012) will never be capable of devising urban policies that promote the land vocation of each town or cluster of towns as the NPMPLT aspired to.

References

·   Dar & IAURIF (2005). The National Physical Master Plan for the Lebanese Territories. Beirut.

·   Fregonese, S. (2012). Beyond the ‘Weak State’: Hybrid Sovereignties in Beirut. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30(4), 655–674. https://doi.org/10.1068/d11410

·   Public Works (2018a). The Apprehensions of the Past in Building the Future: Do the Master Plans for Damour and Dibbiyeh Encourage Return? Beirut.

·   Public Works (2018b). The Legislative Framework for Urban Planning: No Voice for the People. Beirut.

·   Verdeil, É., Faour, G., & Velut, S. (2007). Atlas du Liban: Territoires et société. Presses de l’Ifpo. http://books.openedition.org/ifpo/402

 

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