The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


How can we reimagine public space accessible to all citizens of Beirut?

How can we reimagine a public space that has been divided by civil war, sectarianism, and capitalist redevelopment? Rather than sophisticated urban design, Tanya Gallo argues that allowing public space to retain its indeterminacy, as in the traditional maidans of Arabic and Persian cities, will keep it accessible for all citizens to express their differences democratically.

Tanya Gallo

Cities: Beirut

Topics: Private sector governance, Participatory governance, Community organisation, Social conflict, Parks and green space, Architecture and urban design

Walking past the Martyrs Statue in Martyrs' Square, Beirut. Photo: Tanya Gallo
Looking across the vacant expanse of Martyrs' Square in its current incarnation towards Al Amin Mosque. Photo: Tanya Gallo
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Over the past two weeks I have described how the public space of downtown Beirut has been threatened by commercial redevelopment, and Martyrs' Square in particular, one of the most symbolic and contested spaces in the city, by its politically divisive history. Will the spatial repercussions of the civil war be transformed through the heterogenous spaces conceived of by a master plan? Or through the spontaneous production of social and political demands by citizens themselves?

As Angus Gavin of Solidere, the real estate company responsible for the redevelopment, tells us, the reconciliation of Beirut's religious sects has come to rely on the design that will be implemented for the Square. The company faces a quandary in how to balance their profit motive on this prime site against expectations for a symbolic space that reunites the city's inhabitants. While these goals can be seen as contradictory, nevertheless they are both built into the mandate handed to Solidere by the state.

The form of the maidan stands in stark contrast to the image of an overly manicured and programmed square designed for the consumption of culture and commodity.

Yet reconciliation of the city's disparate groups will not come about through formal design interventions by world-renowned architects. Any movement toward a more pluralistic society happens through the public's participation in the making of the space and their use of it. The conflicts that exist in such a heterogenous society cannot be erased or memorialised, but rather need to find expression in open space as part of defining collective memory and a vision for the city's future.

The Central District of Beirut is currently for many of its citizens a no man's land, a space for the accumulation of foreign investment and transnational capital separate from the rest of the city. Martyrs' Square itself resides in a kind of spatial limbo, in a literal and figurative state of 'between-ness', on a fault line once between the East and West and now between downtown and the rest of the city. The Square endures by its ability to absorb the layers of meaning ascribed to it over time, becoming the repository not only for history, but for the projections of people's memories and experiences. Martyrs' Square is not an empty or dead space but one in flux: a liminal space.

Returning to the maidan

In its indeterminacy the Square now exists in its original form as the maidan, an open, free and negotiable space. As the Beiruti sociologist Samir Khalaf describes, a key feature of the maidan is its ability to give room to diversity and to be both a collective and neutral space, allowing for a greater sense of spontaneity and freedom.

When I asked local citizens how they would design the Square, their vision more closely resembled the maidan than the designed space of Potsdamer Platz: 'I wouldn't build'; 'I would create points of interest'; 'design a meeting point'; 'leave it just like this'; 'just put in a big forum'; 'a small garden, that's it'; 'green spaces, leave it open'; 'greenery and benches, it's very simple'.

The form of the maidan stands in stark contrast to the image of an overly manicured and programmed square designed for the consumption of culture and commodity. Ultimately, to impose order on the space by overdetermining its form and function inevitably closes down the possibility for alternative expressions to unfold; an indeterminate form and permeable space allow for the Square's mutability over time.

Democracy and public space

The provision of democratic public spaces in which to meet and interact is not sufficient for creating a well-functioning public sphere. More often the spaces that emerge as successful spaces for political discourse do so not out of planning and design but through a specific demand or issue as evinced by the uprisings witnessed this past year throughout the Middle East.

These events reflect the enormous importance of public spaces, particularly large public squares, as conduits for engaged dialogue and political protest. Without them, cities and countries lose a key ingredient in the potential for political mobilisation and transformation. While the internet and social media are critical for organising purposes and establishing discourses instrumental to building critical mass, they are not where massive political change occurs.

What began in Cairo's Tahrir Square a year ago reflects what Beirut citizens created in Martyrs' Square in 2005; without these squares, radical change would not have occurred.

Public space continues to be a vital organism in the ongoing struggle towards democracy and structural economic change. What began in Cairo's Tahrir Square a year ago reflects what Beirut citizens created in Martyrs' Square in 2005; without these squares, radical change would not have occurred. And New York's Zuccotti Park has become for the Occupy movement what Martyrs' Square became for the March 14th Alliance.

There is a pivotal difference between thinking of public space as critical to democracy and recognising that public space is not necessarily democratic. Some may interpret the events of 2005 as rendering a public space undemocratic, as groups with a specific ideological agenda took hold of the space. And yet, declaring public rights within public space must be preserved for a functioning democracy.

As spatial divisions remain deeply embedded in the city, they point to the profound need not only for shared spaces that provide leisure and green space, but also for politically transformative spaces. The power of citizens to claim public space is not only critically important for democratic practices to take root, but also serves as an antidote to citizens' polarisation and alienation.

No structure for engagement

With a fragile state in Lebanon and a flaccid municipality in Beirut, the private sector has been given relatively free reign over city-making. In remaking the urban fabric, Solidere has chosen to give only a cursory nod to any public planning process and decidedly not to engage citizens in any process or role in desigining the spaces in which they live.

There is currently no structure for engagement in any form of participatory planning process, and it is hard to imagine how a company like Solidere could be persuaded to do so, given the lack of any institutional pressure.

I imagine citizens' participation in creating, accessing and giving meaning to their built environment will only happen as the political theorist Hannah Arendt described: through empowered, spontaneous, participatory action. If cities are necessarily public and diverse, then the right to inhabit them becomes a strugge for all diverse groups, as they make claims to space, to citizenship and to access the public realm. Perhaps then Martyrs Square could return, as Gavin states, 'as the most significant public space in Lebanon'.


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