Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
A lack of public space makes the development of the Ramlet el-Bayda beach particularly painful for the poorer residents of Lebanon’s capital city.
It might be hard to fathom a major city on the Mediterranean without a public beach, but it appears that Beirut is heading that way. After decades of private development, luxury apartments and high-end hotels loom over the city’s shore. Access fees range from about $10 to $30. There’s only one public beach, Ramlet el-Bayda, for those who cannot afford the private establishments’ prices. But now it, too, is being developed—into yet another lavish locale.
The Eden Bay Resort, slated to open in 2018, will feature cabins and chalets on 54,000 square feet of Ramlet el-Bayda’s south end. Last month, images of its construction began to circulate on social media. Such development is nothing new along Beirut’s coastal landscape, but because Eden Bay is encroaching on one of the last spaces where residents of the city can gather for free, it has hit a nerve.
Dozens of residents have staged protests at the site, with some attempting to stymie the project by removing hoses that drain pools of water caused by the construction; if left undrained, such pools can cause foundations to collapse. There have been clashes between riot police and demonstrators, and the property development company, Achour, has threatened some protestors with fines of up to $50,000 on the grounds that they trespassed and damaged its property.
This might sound like an overly confident stance, given that Achour may be building illegally on public land—at least according to activists who refer to a 1925 law that stipulates that the shore is public property. But in Lebanon, such laws can become murky. Deals between politicians and corporations can result in decree changes or loopholes. For instance, journalists and activists have pointed to the fact that the influential Hariri family previously owned property on Ramlet el-Bayda that has since been purchased by Achour, with one writer arguing that Achour is a front for the Hariri family’s interests. (Tycoon Rafik Hariri served as Lebanon’s prime minister for two separate terms after the 1975-1990 civil war. Rafik’s son Saad became prime minister for a second time last month.)
The Beirut-based research and performance collaborative The Dictaphone Group, which explores issues of city space, notes that:
…the purchase of property rights by Hariri [in the 1990s], coupled with a legal framework that privileged the interests of real estate developers, was effectively the first step in undermining the communal function of Ramlet al-Baydah and transforming its use from public to private…the strong connection between the political class and seafront developers played an important role in manipulating the ‘public interest.’
Achour has stated that it has the legal documents to back up the project.
Hubris and backroom deals anger many of Beirut’s residents. The development of Ramlet el-Bayda also comes on the heels of massive protests during Beirut’s garbage crisis last year, which saw piles upon piles of trash flooding the capital’s streets after authorities had no plan when the city’s main landfill overflowed with an incredible 13 million more tons of garbage than it was supposed to hold.
The “You Stink” movement that formed in response wasn’t only concerned with the trash. It was a broader critique of corruption and the resultant lack of services for the general public, exemplified by blackouts for hours each day, water shortages, and a dearth of affordable housing while luxury high rises are built ad nauseam. “People started scrutinizing the government’s activities more,” says the Lebanese writer Kareem Chehayeb. “Our taxes are not being used for society. There’s a poor standard of living. People saw the garbage crisis as part of a larger problem.”
A lack of public space for everyday citizens is part of this critique. After the civil war, Rafik Hariri founded the private real estate firm Solidere, which rebuilt downtown Beirut. (Hariri was also Solidere’s largest shareholder and thus benefited enormously from its contracts.) Solidere turned Beirut into a space for elites, of Guccis and Pradas in place of fishmongers and butchers. “The reconstruction was one of buildings that benefit the upper class,” says Chehayeb. “It wasn’t a full reconstruction.”
At the same time, the city’s post-war preoccupation with security constrains Beirut’s residents. “Elements like barbed wire on sidewalks outside public buildings mean that pedestrians have to walk in the street. Dozens of these little encroachments show the authorities’ total disregard for the pedestrian and for public space,” says the urban planning scholar Julia Tierney.
Last year, Beirut’s governor reopened Horsh Park, the city’s only public park, after a 20-year closure due to “security concerns.” For two decades, only Westerners and well-connected Lebanese were allowed in. Lebanese can now visit the park on weekends, but weekday access is limited.
Though it’s unclear whether the protests will spread, suffocating checks on the use of public space demonstrate why Ramlet el-Bayda is so important for Beirut’s residents. “It’s clear there’s been an awakening,” Chehayeb says. ”The movement for public space and the rhetoric associated with it is much more urgent.”