15-year-old Noura (second from left) lives near the newly restored Sanayeh Garden in Beirut and jogs here regularly. “You can feel the air quality change as you enter the park,” she says. Reine Chahine

Decades of conflict left Lebanon without public parks. Now activists are trying to bring them back. 

BEIRUT, Lebanon  —  On a breezy summer afternoon here in the newly renovated Sanayeh Garden, children are climbing the monkey bars, pedaling on bikes, and kicking a ball by the huge water fountain in the park’s center. Their parents watch from shaded benches, while couples go for strolls, teenagers chatter, and older park goers do some people-watching.

Outside the garden in the congested district of Hamra, it’s all tall concrete buildings and the sounds of car horns in the air. But inside, it’s a lush oasis of green grass, pruned trees, and tweeting birds. “You can feel the air quality change as you enter the park,” says Noura, a 15-year old girl who lives next to the park and jogs here three times a week. “You can relax and breathe better.”

While this would be an ordinary scene in Paris, New York or Singapore, it’s practically a new invention for today’s residents of Beirut. Functional public parks have been virtually nonexistent here for decades. Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990 destroyed many parts of the city and encouraged people to stay indoors. While the city today is enjoying a construction boom and going through something of a renaissance, municipal officials have prioritized building infrastructure and internet access over things like parks and greenery.

The Sanayeh Garden, which re-opened in May after a $2.5 million renovation, is the most visible statement yet of an urban park culture in Beirut that is just starting to re-plant its roots. It’s a movement that has been supported by the city government here, but for the most part has been carried out by civic activists, civil society, and donors of money, time, and services. The funds for the timeworn garden’s restoration came from the Azadea Foundation, the philanthropic arm of a Lebanon-based fashion retailer operating in the Middle East and North Africa.

Beirut Green Project co-founder Dima Boulad says many Beirutis she talks to have no idea where parks in their own neighborhood are. Beirut Green Project is trying to change that. (Reine Chahine)

But there is a long way to go. Beirut still has a dearth of green space for a growing metro area of about 2 million people. Most city parks are run down, with scrubby plantings, broken benches, junky playground equipment, and toilets with no running water. The municipality keeps its largest park, a vast expanse of pine trees and wide paths known as Horsh Beirut, generally closed to the public, citing concerns that new clashes will break out between Shia and Christians who live nearby or people will destroy the park if allowed inside. The park was badly damaged in the civil war; the official reason for its closure was to allow pine tree saplings to grow, but those trees have been mature since 2004.

“The reason why we citizens feel detached from those spaces is that we don’t really feel a sense of belonging to them,” says Dima Boulad, one of the civic activists working to improve Beirut’s parks. “They have been neglected for so long and are poorly maintained.”

Putting parks in the conversation

Boulad is leading a grassroots campaign to change how Beirut sees its parks. A few years ago, the multimedia designer began talking with a few other friends in their mid-twenties about their travels abroad. They all had noticed how vital parks seemed to urban life in cities in Europe, for example. Which made them wonder: Why were Beirut’s parks so shabby and barely part of the city’s collective consciousness?

In 2010, Boulad and her friends pulled off a clever stunt to get people talking about parks. On busy sidewalks around the city, they placed tiny patches of grass sod measuring roughly 0.8 square meters—that’s the actual amount of green space per citizen in Beirut. (The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 9 square meters per person.) The grass patches were stuck with brown street signs made to look like official signs from the municipality. They read, with more than a hint of sarcasm: “Enjoy your green space.” (Here’s a video from the project.)

Horsh Beirut, a vast expanse of pine trees and wide paths that makes up Beirut’s largest park, is generally closed to the public. (Reine Chahine)

The installation garnered a lot of local and international attention, and validated the group’s hunches that a lot of other Beirutis shared their feelings about parks. They founded a group called the Beirut Green Project, designed a logo and took to social media to build a bigger following. On a shoestring budget, they ran more public awareness campaigns.

In one, they teamed up with Green Line, an NGO focused on sustainability in Lebanon, to put up a pop-up park in the densely populated neighborhood of Ashrafieh. On a drab concrete plaza known as Sassine Square, they spread out rolls of green grass, covering the entire square. Through social media and radio interviews, they invited people to join them with their park “gear”—anything from a book to a pet to a ball or frisbee. Local restaurants offered food and drink for picnics on the grass. More than 450 people attended this event.

Another campaign is called Green Your Lunch Break. Twice a month from April to September, Beirut Green Project holds a lunchtime picnic in a different park, encouraging people who work in surrounding offices to eat lunch in the park rather than eating at their desks or going out to a restaurant. The events have become quite popular, with office workers posting pictures of their picnics on Beirut Green Project’s Facebook page.

Boulad says that as she talked with more and more people, it became clear that Beirutis had a sort of blind spot about parks—they often didn’t know where parks in their own neighborhoods were. That led Boulad and her friends to perhaps their biggest project yet: identifying and mapping all of Beirut’s city parks.

Scrubby grass and an empty fountain in Sioufi Garden are typical of many parks in Beirut. (Reine Chahine)

They canvassed the city and found 24 of them, noting each park’s size, conditions of amenities such as toilets and playgrounds and the availability of wireless internet access. With volunteer help from a local design and branding agency called WonderEight, they created an interactive online map called the Beirut Green Guide. Hoping to reach people who can’t afford computers or smartphones, they’re currently raising funds to print the map and distribute it widely, especially in schools.

While Boulad says it would be great if Beirut would build more parks, she understands that’s not a realistic goal at the moment for the cash-strapped city government. “Let’s start by seeing what we have as a first step toward making them better,” Boulad says. “Then when we see that this park has missing benches or a poor play area for children, then maybe someone will jump in and say, ‘I can find funding for that’.”

Asking for help

For municipal leaders, seeking help—and funding—from outside donors is actually the primary strategy for improving green spaces. Around the same time that Beirut Green Project began making noise about parks, a newly elected municipality board began studying projects that could improve urban life. The result is a public-private partnership campaign focused on green space known as “Beirut is Amazing.”

Essentially, municipal leaders are acknowledging that they don’t have the wherewithal to fix up Beirut’s parks themselves. While the city owns the parks, it doesn’t have resources to fund the work, and Lebanese law mires cities in bureaucracy. “Lebanon has a centralized government where all municipalities’ decisions have to pass through a series of channels all the way through to the ministry of interior,” says Nadim Abu Rizk, the municipality’s vice president. “It can take up to a year for us to take a small step towards our goal.”

Through Beirut is Amazing, the municipality got a number of Lebanon’s landscape design firms to donate the work of drafting restoration plans for city gardens. What remains is finding donors to pay for the renovations. The first partner in that effort was Azadea, which in addition to paying the cost of refurbishing Sanayeh Garden, also took on maintenance costs for the next 10 years. From the time Azadea decided to take on Sanayeh Garden, it took only a year and a half to get the renovations done—much faster than the city could ever achieve.

Yousra lives close to Sanayeh Garden 
and comes to the park frequently. (Reine Chahine)

The municipality hopes Azadea will be a model for other private companies to invest in Beirut’s parks; a local university has already come forward with funds to renovate the Saint Nicholas Garden in Ashrafieh. A version of this model may finally reopen Horsh Beirut as well. Abu Rizk says the city is working on finding a private company to finish up some infrastructure work there and operate the park. He hopes it will be open to the public by mid-2015.

While some citizens are uneasy with the private sector doing what is essentially the government’s responsibility, they’re pleased to see new public green spaces in their city. Mohamad Ayoub, founder of Nahnoo, an NGO that has been pushing hard to get Horsh Beirut open to the public, says what matters most is the result.

“We have dreams of strong public services and institutes, which is our right as citizens, but our immediate goal is the opening of Horsh Beirut, which is also a right,” Ayoub says. “The battle of how we should have a public sector that is responsible for these projects is for another day.”

In Sanayeh Garden, also known as René Moawad Garden, visitors don’t seem to care who paid for the park—they just like having such a nice place to enjoy the outdoors. Some 40,000 people came the park on the day it re-opened, excited to see what a real garden looks like. The initial frenzy has since simmered down, but the park still sees roughly 400 visitors on weekdays and an average of 3,000 on the weekends. Visitors come from both the immediate neighborhood and from as far away as 20 minutes by car; they’re of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Khalil Dawi, a Syrian who lives nearby, is one of them. “Before, we would sit on the sand, everything was broken and it was a mess,” says Dawi, who says he comes to Sanayeh Garden daily. “Now, it is much nicer! We have the grass to sit on and the fountain is beautiful.”

Another visitor is Tanya Ruweiss, who came to the park recently with her baby girl and plans to become a regular visitor.

“I live far away, but I just had to show my baby what parks look like,” Ruweiss says. “I want her to enjoy crawling on the grass and seeing the trees.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site. 

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