Illegality and informality clashes in Lebanon

Taken in 2005 by Sandra Rishani St. Simone Area

“… [N]either cities nor places in them are unordered, unplanned; the question is only whose order, whose planning, for what purpose..." (Marcuse, 1995:244).

The recent Beirut headlines state 2 killed in clashes over illegal housing in Lebanon, April 21, 201 ( Six policemen injured over illegal housing in south Lebanon ( ) among other skirmishes resulting from a decision by the government to stop and eradicate ‘illegal’ and ‘informal’ construction.

With such conditions and varying urban realities we need to critically analyze the approach to the phenomenon of informal housing in Lebanon.

What is an ‘informal city’? A fashionable word that intrigues some, including scientists, architects sociologists, artists, and disgusts others. ‘Formless’, ‘chaotic’, ‘dirty’, ‘self-built’, ‘illegal’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘ephemeral’, ‘productive’, ‘unproductive’, ‘integral’, ‘critical’, ‘tax-free’, ‘lacking public services’, and ‘parasitic’ are some words that can be used to describe it.

So, how does one approach something that can be anything and a concept??

In a continuously changing city, there needs to be a conscious and specific recognition and approach to such spaces by tackling the humanitarian issues whilst addressing and understanding informality as a study of adaptation and innovation. Defining informality as a transitional phase caused by the civil war has allowed this type of production to continue without serious attempts at its eradication.

Background of the Debate:

The informal housing debate has occupied the forefront of urban research for about the past forty years (Fernandez and Varley 1998). During this period, the debate shifted from the viewpoint that informal housing is a temporary negative sign of urban growth, to a declaration during the first international housing conference (vancuver, 1976) that informal housing is a legitimate form of production and acquirement. In addition most of the planning terms that used to describe these areas, as “a “creeping cancer”, or “urban misery belts” filled with politically and socially marginal peasants (Juppenlatz 1970:5), became seen in a different light put forward by john turner and later adopted by Habitat(1969,1972). Underlying this shift in perception is a move away from the assumption that direct public agency contribution will establish formalized market systems that will replace the informal housing provision. (Rodwin1987, Annez and Wheaton 1984). Yet with increase in poverty, the need to tackle these issues increased (Millennium Project 2005).

Therefore, tenure, informality and the law were placed on the head of the development agendas. Several systems have been recognized round the world in different contexts shaped by culture, history politics and the economy and each have their advantages and limitations. It is clear though that globalization and the ‘development / salvation’ movement (Escobar 1995) has enforced and encouraged a single intervention based on western ideals and individualism. (Payne2002

It would be easy to place all the interactions in informal spaces in the city under the illegal category; however all these places have created markets with unique characteristics, different institutional schemes, empowered different groups of people, and serve the access to needs of different groups. Moreover, different levels of security, flexibility and accessibility characterize these markets creating the options required within such diverse contexts. This dual approach of formal/informal and registered/unregistered conceals important market characteristics that can be found, built-on and improved within some cities. 


People cope with what they have. They live and make lives. Informality might seem chaotic to the outsider or even impossible to ‘the other’ to comprehend, yet a closer look at the way physical, social and spatial relationships manifest themselves within these spaces prove that adaptation, regularization and order exist. It is important to recognize that the informal city is not an infected city, or a space of transition, but a different market, and to deal with it accordingly. The informal city is an intrinsic part of any contemporary city in a globalized world.

The Case of Lebanon:

Lebanon’s informality lies in the failure of the government to provide for its people, and the formal institutions and markets to include these people. The success of Lebanon’s informality is in the strength of the groups of people in providing for themselves. With the rise of these groups the formation of these informal enclaves are secured and ways of provision of services are established.

It is obvious that these fragments in Beirut are alive and to a certain degree productive enclaves that affiliate themselves with political groups to ensure security. In this case the state should be challenged to restructure and redesign rules and networks of infrastructure and production to encompass, open up, and connect these segments as an integral part of the rest of the city and not attempt to haphazardly destroy them.

Most importantly recognizing the informal enclaves in Beirut and working with them should not be a top down effort anymore. This is a chance for the Lebanese government to include all these fragments, connect them and allow them to start combining intersecting and opening up to each there and to government institutions.

Housing and community based rebuilding and upgrading can impact people’s lives greatly and the way it is done and the process can be beneficial for the whole city. This can be the intervention Beirut and Lebanon requires removing it from its political deadlock. Housing development is a sector that will include all occupants in the city both by developing their spaces and by giving them the right to manage and decide.

It is a long process which regardless of its end will affect institutions, rights, justice, power relations and the future of a city and country.

Please ask for references if interested


  1. Interesting..although it is unlikely that we can see our weak state truly moving on this issue. the network of elites in power are superstructural to the state and therefore benefit from keeping the status quo and at times interfere to block government action so that they can serve as saviours of their own communities ad infinitum and nauseum. Others are only interested in rule of law and removal of illegal/informal housings for their private business interests..things are rotten in both the formal and informal state of Lebanon!!

  2. Actually, the status quo benefits no one but the informal communities. You have to remember that these communities are taking over properties that very expensive, and any legalisation of their situation will directly drive them out of these spaces. The elite in power are actually pushing for government action, and the communities are on the defense. The solution for this problem in Lebanon is very simple, "efficient public transport". People would rather live in their villages and go down everyday to Beirut if the state can provide fast, reliable, comfortable, and inexpensive transportation.