A migrant worker picks okra from the planters along the Burjawi staircase in Nasra, Achrafieh. Beirut, Lebanon. 2018. (Dana Mazraani/Beirut Urban Lab)

A migrant worker picks okra from the planters along the Burjawi staircase in Nasra, Achrafieh. Beirut, Lebanon. 2018. (Dana Mazraani/Beirut Urban Lab)

Why Socio-Spatial Practices Matter to Urban Recovery

The blast on August 4, 2020, in the port area of Beirut devastated lives and livelihoods and disrupted vibrant socio-spatial practices that used to unfold in many shared spaces within neighborhoods by the port. While Beirut is a dense city with high levels of urbanization and scant open public spaces that are poorly designed and ill managed, the city still boasts a rich and vibrant public life, albeit one that is dwindling slowly. The capital’s municipal territory includes 21 public parks and gardens, a seaside corniche, and a few publicly accessible coastal sites whose total area amounts to less than 1 sq.m. per resident (Figure 1).1

However, most socio-spatial practices take place in less formal urban locations and are often marked by their own rhythms and temporalities. We can capture them in the early morning sunlight on a street in Geitawi. A jeweler walks out of his small shop, a metal tray between his fingers with two cups of hot coffee that he bought from the coffee vending shack. He sits on one of the two plastic chairs he placed on the sidewalk, waiting for his travel agent neighbor to come for a chat before the start of his work day. We catch them across the Burjawi staircase in Nasra, where men sit nonchalantly on their balconies overlooking the staircase, women congregate over afternoon coffee at the entrances of their buildings, and female migrant workers who live along the staircase pick the okra they have grown in the nearby built-in planters to make dinner (feature image). We notice them in the shade of a large, fifty-year old ficus tree in Mar Mikhael, where taxi drivers hang out and play backgammon in-between jobs.

Such socio-spatial practices are deeply rooted in the urban history of Beirut, experienced through streets, markets, and multiple public and private open spaces that are more or less hidden, including alleyways, historical staircases, building entrances, vacant lots, and other appropriated sites. 

  • 1This map is compiled from: (1) a list of parks and gardens acquired from CDR, (2) a list of publicly owned parcels from 2004 (including parcels owned by the municipality and by public institutions) acquired from URBI, (3) a 2018-dated list of municipal parcels acquired from the municipality of Beirut, and (4) data based on the BBED. The information shown in the map still requires fieldwork verification.
Figure 1: Publicly Owned Parcels and Open Sites Used by the Public

Figure 1: Publicly Owned Parcels and Open Sites Used by the Public in Municipal Beirut

  • coastal space
    Coastal recreational space
  • seaside park
    Projected seaside park
  • parks
    Park / Garden (21)
  • vacant
    Vacant (932)
  • built
    Built (136)

Source: Beirut Urban Lab, 2020.

Socio-spatial practices matter as sites of sociability and social interaction, where children play safely, the elderly socialize, women meet and converse, migrants, refugees and other vulnerable groups hang out and forge communities. They foster what some authors call “city-zenship,” a sense of inclusive urban belonging where “the right to the city [...] extends to all residents, regardless of origin, identity, or legality.” But even though these example are often good indicators of a valuable public life, socio-spatial practices ought not be romanticized as they can incorporate several exclusions vis-a-vis women, migrants and refugees, especially in the context of patriarchal, heteronormative and discriminatory institutional systems as in Lebanon.  

Socio-spatial practices matter as sites of sociability and social interaction, where children play safely, the elderly socialize, women meet and converse, migrants, refugees and other vulnerable groups hang out and forge communities.

As mentioned earlier, prior to the blast, the city’s vibrant socio-spatial practices were slowly eroding because of many intersecting factors, including financialization and gentrification. The historical neighborhood of Mar Mikhael, for instance, has been undergoing drastic urban transformation for the past decade at the expense of its lively daily spatial experiences. Indeed, the neighborhood became a hub for the “creative-class” and a night-life entertainment destination, attracting both local and global tourists and the many expats who sought its vibrant lifestyle. These transformations led to the gradual displacement of many neighborhood dwellers and the degradation of socio-spatial networks for those who stayed. Old-time residents and people who used to work and live in Mar Mikhael became the exception, not the norm, replaced by a new social category of dwellers who introduced new spatial practices to the area, particularly on Armenia Street in the night.

The blast has severely impacted much of these practices, which are known to characterize much of Mar Mikhael, Gemmayzeh, Geitawi, and Karantina. But, during our field visits, we noticed that some of these practices were resurfacing, demonstrating the strength of the socio-spatial connection of people to their neighborhoods. For instance, in Karantina, among the ruins of destroyed homes, dwellers placed some chairs and sat together in the alleyways and along the sidewalks, and further away from the main street, children played football. In Geitawi, a neighborhood group called Nation Station squatted an abandoned gas station, taking it as a headquarters. There, young women and men were providing free-of-charge aid, food, and relief to all residents regardless of nationality and ethnicity. In the western part of Mar Mikhael, several older men regularly gathered in a damaged appliance store owned by one of them to catch up and reminisce about old times, moving outdoors to the sidewalk when the heat became unbearable inside. Nearby, women gathered around a local grocery shop run by one of them. We also noticed others drinking coffee or tea on their balconies, greeting passers-by who noticed them with a kind “Bonjour!” and following carefully the commotion of volunteers on the street rushing to fulfill their relief work. Perhaps the most remarkable encounter was with Elie, a middle-aged dweller who lived in an old building on Pharaon Street. Elie raised a few chickens in the empty land behind his building. That the chickens waddled carelessly by the debris of destroyed homes and livelihoods was a particularly eerie experience, but it conveyed a sense of timelessness and normalcy that was soothing against the backdrop of the blast. 

[I]n Karantina, among the ruins of destroyed homes, dwellers placed some chairs and sat together in the alleyways and along the sidewalks, and further away from the main street, children played football. In Geitawi, a neighborhood group called Nation Station squatted an abandoned gas station, taking it as a headquarters. 
We contend that socio-spatial practices are an essential component of an active public life that can bring dwellers together, enhance their shared lived experiences, and pave the way for a shared sense of togetherness. Existing socio-spatial practices should be identified, documented, and protected so they persist. Disappearing or bygone socio-spatial practices ought to be excavated, recovered, and reclaimed. Urbanists, in close partnership with city dwellers (and city lovers), could play a crucial role in organizing for the celebration and reclamation of sites where socio-spatial practices unfold, alongside concerned public and private stakeholders.

In order to recover these socio-spatial practices, dwellers who make and practice them should stay in place, especially the most vulnerable among them. Toward this end, we need to urgently address the institutional and legal barriers that threaten their displacement, especially with regard to property tenure (e.g., are they on an old or new rental contract? What is the currency used to pay rent? What is the position of the landlord regarding repairs?). Afterwards, we need to prioritize a participatory urban strategy that seeks to re-activate anchors of socio-spatial practices across the neighborhoods. These anchors are sites that play a role in bringing people together, like a small garden, a street corner, a small store, a building entrance, a stairs landing, etc. Such sites play a key role in allowing socio-spatial practices to unfold and even flourish, depending on an array of socio-economic conditions. Therefore, urban research and interventions ought to investigate how to consolidate these anchors to further cultivate shared places and public life.

At the Beirut Urban Lab, we compiled the number of unbuildable vacant parcels throughout municipal Beirut: these are small lots that cannot be built because they are either too small or have awkward geometries that do not meet building law requirements. We thus identified, on paper, 1,640 unbuildable vacant parcels (80 percent of which are privately owned) — their vacancy still needs to be verified by fieldwork. Additionally, we counted 1,045 public lots, 80 percent of which are vacant (Figure 2).1

  • 1Data in the map is extracted from Municipal Beirut’s cadastral maps and zoning regulations (1954, and as amended in 1966). Parcels were generated according to the minimum allowable constructible plot size per zone, based on zoning regulations. Aerial photographs were used to determine whether a parcel is built or vacant. Fieldwork is still needed to corroborate the parcels’ actual vacancy. The surface areas of the lots are slightly exaggerated for legibility purposes. 
Figure 2: Vacant UnbuildableParcels in Municipal Beirut

Figure 2: Vacant Unbuildable Parcels in Municipal Beirut

  • Purple
    Public (492)
  • built
    Private (1,148)

Source: Beirut Urban Lab, 2020.

With dwellers and stakeholders, we seek to facilitate a co-imagining of how to reclaim these public and unbuildable lots for public use, infusing them with much-needed communal life and civic services, especially in these dire times and a multi-faceted crisis. Such activities can bring dwellers together to heal and recover collectively and to rebuild neighborhoods, incorporating its shared spaces. Starting from these small neighborhood-scale interventions, we can then advocate for city-scale urban strategies that the municipality of Beirut is already interested in pursuing. These include the Plan Vert of Beirut and the Soft Mobility project, the Liaison Douce, which put forward the social function of land as the main value of policy-making.

This research was partially funded by the University Research Board of the American University of Beirut. Views expressed in this essay are those of its authors and interlocutors.