Friday, October 4, 1996

LebEnv #12


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

This LebEnv article differs from the rest in that it deals with the urban environment rather than the natural. Still, it is an environmental issue. A livable city results in a healthy population and encourages people to stay there rather than look elsewhere (the countryside) for better places to live. I use as an example west Beirut simply because I grew up there; this should not be seen as favoring one part of the city over another.

When I lived in Beirut, I thought of the city as being overcrowded, ugly, poorly planned; as something better off demolished and rebuilt from scratch. When I moved to the U.S., I thought the cities there, with their individual houses and large shopping centers, were the best creation under the sun.

After a decade, my perceptions have changed. The area I live in, the Greater Phoenix area in Arizona, is too sprawled out, covering an area nearly the size of all of Lebanon, and yet the population of the entire area is only twice that of Beirut. The shopping centers are separated from neighborhoods by parking lots, concrete walls, and wide streets with high-speed traffic. The only reasonable way for most people to get there is by car. Shopping and other errands entail multiple trips by car and can take half a day. Every outing requires drawing a mental map of all the places to be visited for maximum saving of time and distance. Workplaces are many miles away, requiring long commutes on freeways clogged with cars and huge, smelly trucks. Bus service is limited. The movie theaters, restaurants, and other entertainment venues are often far apart and surrounded by asphalt so that a night on the town involves driving all over the place. An ugly brown cloud hangs over the area in the winter, to the dismay of the Chamber of Commerce. The streets are laid out in a boring grid, and every intersection looks like the other one. In the neighborhoods, the houses are separated from each other by walls; people drive into their enclosed garages, minimizing contact with neighbors.

This car-oriented urban design encourages people to live anywhere. Thus, the beautiful desert areas on the fringes of the metropolitan area are being destroyed at the annual rate of roughly 35 square kilometers, an area larger than Greater Beirut. Meanwhile, the older sections around the downtown decay and are overtaken by armed gangs.

In short, Car is King.

When I revisited Beirut, I had a different perspective of what a real city should be like. Underneath the ugly buildings and traffic, I discovered a side of Beirut I had been oblivious to. All of a sudden, it seemed to be very small and cozy, almost like a village, and thus easy to walk around. The irregular layout of the city provided for easily recognizable landmarks and added identity to the various neighborhoods. I could reach most parts of Ras Beirut on foot in under 25 minutes. The streets were clogged with cars, but, being narrow, were relatively easy to cross. Any part of Beirut and many parts of Lebanon can be reached by "service" or taxi. Crime is rare (by U.S. standards), and one can actually walk at night without fearing for his/her life!

The shops are lined up along the sidewalks, from which they are easily accessible. It is possible to do all you shopping on foot in a couple of hours, visiting a dozen stores in a distance of perhaps a kilometer. You name it, it's there and you can walk to it: your local grocer ("dikkanji") on the ground floor of the building you live in where you can buy tomatoes or an ice-cream bar; the little stationary store around the corner where you can make a photocopy and buy a newspaper; the small boutique selling the latest fashions; the bookstore where you can dig out books printed before the war; the record shop for the latest music; your barber; the bank; the shoe repair shop; the fragrant flower shop ... Shop owners know their customers by their first name. You always bump into friends and stop to talk. Push carts ("arabiyyat") provide a colorful addition to the streets and a livelihood for people who cannot afford to own stores. Places of worship are part of the city, not surrounded by seas of asphalt, as the majority of worshipers can, and do, walk to them. And, let's not forget the countless restaurants and food stands that keep pulling at your nose with their aromas as you walk by. The movie theaters are everywhere. You can be strolling in the street, see something on display, and buy it on the spot. Above those stores and theaters are office buildings; many people live just a few minutes away by foot from their work.

The reason for the pedestrian-oriented convenience is that most of Beirut was laid out before cars were invented, as well as the fact that Beirut is limited by the sea, and that the country, as a whole, is small so that land cannot be wasted.

Still, Beirut has its faults, all of which can be repaired. These are just a few:

Cars: Unfortunately, many Beirutis consider their city too big and insist on driving short distances, even if it means spending more time going around in circles looking for parking than it would have taken to walk. The bane of Beirut, I came to realize, is cars. Like Americans, too many Lebanese are in love with automobiles. They, cars, are what make it such an unpleasant city to live in. Getting rid of the smelly, noisy electrical generators simply requires that electrical power be reestablished; it will be more difficult to cut down on car use. Public transportation needs to be improved. The streets need to be made safe for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Pedestrian traffic: Pedestrians need to be assured that no cars will park on the sidewalk and block their way, and trees need to be planted to provide shade in the summer. (Both have already been done in some areas.) Pedestrian zones like those of every large city need to be established. Before the war, Hamra Street was proposed as a pedestrian area, but the plan was opposed by merchants. It's an idea whose time has come; some of the most successful businesses are those in areas with heavy foot traffic. (The rebuilt downtown area will have car-free areas.) Most of all, more Lebanese need to realize that it is good for health, and not a shame, to walk.

Parks: Another lacking amenity is parks. Because of poor planning by previous governments, there is a lack of open space for citizens. Thus, children play football in dusty lots and on the streets. More fortunate people with access to the AUB campus use it as an outlet. The government needs to get hold of what remaining large unbuilt parcels remain in Beirut, perhaps through land exchanges, to create parks. The best area that remains is the open space between the Corniche and the sea in the Rawcheh area. It is now being used as an informal park and beach, with litter everywhere and people driving in many places. That area could be a world-class park. Noise: Beirut is a very noisy city. Once generators are silenced, the main major source of noise is... cars! The less cars, the less noise. A ban on bad mufflers and on blowing horns (except for emergencies) is needed.

Air Pollution: Again, cars are the main source. Less cars, cleaner air!

American cities struggle to cut down on traffic congestion, but they are hampered with the legacy of an outdated urban design that elevates cars above all else. Unfortunately, many areas outside Beirut (Examples: Jounieh, Khaldeh-Aramoun) have been built with little planning. Some do not even provide sidewalks, and people there are more dependent on their cars than in the older parts of the city. Just as in America, there are Pizza Huts and Kentucky Fried Chickens that can only be driven to, as they are next to main boulevards and surrounded by asphalt. On the other hand, Beirut proper, for all its faults, has a more ideal urban design. With a little bit of planning and liberation from dependence on private automobiles, Beirut can become one of the best cities of the world to live in!



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