Friday, December 12, 1997

LebEnv #43


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

Before the war began, the Lebanese government had a program that was known as "beautification projects" (Mashari'i Tajmeel). No, it was not what you might think. It did not involve planting trees and flowers all over the country. It did not call for painting houses or keeping streets clean. Its intent was to widen roads!

As Lebanon's cars multiplied like rabbits, it became necessary to widen or replace many busy highways that connect large cities and major parts of the country together. This resulted in the loss of countryside to pavement, but made traffic jams less bad than they might have been.

However, so-called "beautification projects" involved the widening of secondary mountain roads meandering through small villages and rural landscapes. In one mountain village southeast of Beirut, plans (which were never carried out because of the war) called for widening the main road. This would have resulted in one property losing a 200-meter-long facade, up to a depth of seven meters, of decades-old cypress, elm, fig, and oak trees perched on high retaining walls built of weathered stone; an ancient Roman sarcophagus (grave) carved into the bedrock would have ended up on the edge of the road. Because the lost land would have been below a certain threshold percentage of the whole land, there was to be no financial compensation for all the damage. The reasoning was that the value of the remaining land would go up because of the widened road and the growth that would follow it. Never mind that the owners treated their land as a de-facto nature preserve, were not interested in subdividing the land or building a row of shops along the road, and did not wish to see multistory apartment buildings invade the area! Farther inside the village, several old houses adjacent to the road would have been destroyed or sliced like a cake. Mature elm trees lining the road would have been cut and would have had to be replaced. The wider road in the village would have been less pedestrian-friendly and more difficult to cross on foot, and would have encouraged cars to drive faster.

Beautification indeed!

This project would have been unnecessary, as the road never (in the literal sense of the word) experienced traffic jams.

Souk el-Gharb was less fortunate. Its downtown of old houses and shops was ravaged by road-widening. Although the traffic here was heavier, some more imaginative solutions might have been possible. Credit should be given for rebuilding the facades of the damaged buildings using the original stones.

And, woe behold the area that results in the election of a President or an important official! The area can expect the "benefits" of not just a wider road, but a virtual boulevard cutting across towns and villages, high-speed traffic, noise, and a construction boom that will destroy the countryside for hundreds of meters on either side of the highway. Examples of such expensive boondoggles include the road from the coast to Bikfayya and the road from Bhamdoun to Shebanieh.

People will wonder, if we don't widen our roads, how are we going to get around as cars and traffic jams increase? The solution will call for the Lebanese to give up their love affair with the automobile, which rivals that of Americans in California, and to temper their aversion to public transportation. (You know, only trash uses buses!) As Lebanon rebuilds after the war, an appealing state-of-the-art system is needed. Passenger trains would run in existing rail corridors along the coast, from Beirut to Damascus (a popular destination for Lebanese tourists and shoppers) via the Bequa'a valley, and from Shtoura to Ba'alback and on into Syria. Buses would serve the various corridors in the mountains as well as complement the trains, and would be an upgrade to the buses that are already available. By cutting down on car traffic, fewer roads would have to be widened, precious countryside (in such a small country) would remain intact, and the hundreds of billions of Lebanese pounds saved could be put to more beneficial uses, environmental or otherwise.

(See other photographs from some of the areas mentioned above.)



Created 980112/bl