Urban Agriculture in Beirut

The world is urbanizing continuously and at a vast rate. The United Nations predicts that by 2030 more than half of the world population will be living in cities.  About thirty five percent of Lebanon’s inhabitants live in Beirut and its suburbs. This dense city that continues to densify at a rapid scale raises several concerns one of which is food security.
Food security has taken the forefront in many debates recently and has also been placed in the millennium development goals. Yet except for some student interest and a few workshops and course work funded at the American University of Beirut this debate has not been addressed and no clear action or government proposals or initiatives can be found.
To address food security for Beirut planners, policy makers, and municipal officials need to reevaluate the potential of urban agriculture. 
 1923 map of Beirut  http://s3.amazonaws.com/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_lla146X4eX1qgzjpgo1_1280.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ6IHWSU3BX3X7X3Q&Expires=1310980712&Signature=80Fq66T7dBs5MLH3api4SrFSgXQ%3D
Beirut’s urban agriculture

Beirut had a long and eventful history which makes its city plans and growth difficult to study in detail and categorize. Yet taking a set of maps from different periods shows a growth of the city that can be characterized as unplanned especially from 1980s onward during  which the city’s political problems were exacerbated by a civil war that over‐densified the city and caused the over‐taking of the agriculture zone.

Beirut is compromised of 60% of the urban population of Lebanon and almost five times the population of the second largest city in Lebanon, Tripoli. Its estimated population has reached 2 million, however, only a century ago the population of the city was barely 6000. 
“The scale and scope of urbanization has overcome the city's resources and ability to effectively supply the increasing demand for urban space “(macalester.edu, 2010).

The case of urban agriculture in the city:

This unplanned expansion took over Beirut’s outer suburbs and informally urbanized them. The few urban agriculture plots are located in Chouifat and extend into hay al selloum , the Nahr Beirut area, the "Metropolitan" hotel area and Daychuniyyeh Valley.  The largest of which is Hay al selloum/ chouifat edge.

Beiruts Southern suburbs
Hay El Selloum, a neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut which is an informal settlement that grew from an olive grove to one of the densest neighborhoods in Lebanon. The area houses about 15 percent of the population of Beirut today. 

Hay al Selloum: evolution from a productive land to an ‘unhealthy’ dense urban fragment
Phase 1: INDEPENDENCE (1943) TO 1970
Hay al Selloum is located in Beirut the capital of Lebanon. Lebanon’s history is unique in that its independence from the French rule in 1943 did not introduce a process of nation building characterized by planning agencies and welfare state promises that most post colonial societies attempted on achieving. Instead, the state committed itself to ultimate liberalism with total disregard to the public sector (Gaspard 2004).  The historical and blind faith in the “free market” has continually translated by the reluctance and weak interventions of the Lebanese government and the provision of services, including the provision of housing (Sadik 1996). 
During that 1970s, the olive groves and agriculture land of Hay al Selloum were being transformed into an area for low-income shelter for refugees. The area is between the airport and the industrial zone of Choueifat. A 15-minute car ride takes the residents into the central district of Beirut. The area was mostly controlled by Druze and Christian families that owned the land or inherited it. As land value in the area rose the agricultural  land was transformed into one of the most congested residential areas in Beirut, with a density of 1400people\ha in 1999 (Fawaz, 2005) . 

Barakat Building : A Public Green Space

picture courtesy of al@mashriq http://almashriq.hiof.no/lebanon/900/910/919/beirut/greenline/panoramas/big/pcd3721_13-23.jpg
 The Barakat building is located on what used to be the tramway station on Damascus road. Everyone who has ever visited Beirut has come across this building. Situated on a corner it stands today alone as a memorial to a history that the city and its haphazard developments have been trying to erase. Activists were able to save a number of individual structures one of which is this.

unknown source 

The Barakat Building was designed and built in the 1920s by the Lebanese architect Youssef Aftimus. In the 1930s two story were added to the house. The building is built in the Ottoman revivalist style with Deir el Qamar limestone.
image courtesy of al@mashriq
Yet The Barakat Buildings significance is not only in its architectural uniqueness but mostly in its location. The buildng took a key position in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war outbreak.  The position of the building on the demarcation line,the greenline, that separated east and west Beirut and its location on a crossroad in addition to its large openings made it a sniper haven.The middle class residence moved out and the militiamen moved in.

Today the plans for the building are in limbo.  We still wait and wonder.What will happen to this  skeleton on the Green Line? Hallak, one of the key activists in preserving the building,  has big plans for the museum. The building is planned to become the first  memory museum. Whose memories and whose representation of it and how remain vague to the public. No one in Lebanon can doubt the need for a Memory Museum,  whether we are ready or not is a different topic.

Beit Beirut's websites keeps this issue quite vague, instead it highlights several programmatic entities to be housed in the building, http://www.beitbeirut.org/english/bldgfutureen.html, . These include a library, a lecture space, an auditorium, leisure facility and a museum.  Yet I wonder what will this program add to the building and its space and what will it take away. In such a unique architectural structure, history and location and a city that lacks green and public spaces why don't we just let this building be. Is it possible for a museum to just be a structure that people can visit, picnic in, hang out .... Do we have to over enclose, control  and program everything.

The World Health Organization[1] has established indicators for what makes a city healthy. It specifically established a metric that links open air to public health with an international quota of 10 square meters per person as a benchmark for healthy cities.

A brief look at Beiruts public green space shows the lack of them. Ironically the overgrown green line during the civil war is the greenest Beirut has been since the war!

Source unknown

What if Beirut green line skeletons because simply public green spaces. What if we merely met, talked, watched each other, or just shared a once conflictual space. Will that not be enough of a memorial to a once divided city.

I have to admit that the fight for the preservation of this building was unique and inspiring but the over programming of the building worries me. I feel the skeleton as a public green space is a much stronger memorial to a conflictual history we remain divided upon. Yet sharing the space of the skeleton as a public space on  the green line might allow informal interaction and discussion of history of place, space and the city that noone has succesfly created yet. also it will give the city a semi enclosed public space it so requires.

[1]WHO green area indicators, http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_information/indicators/docs/projmega_en.pdf, http://www.healthycities.ncku.edu.tw/eng/pointer-1.htm