In the 1990s, roughly 1.600 traditional homes and buildings existed in greater Beirut; now only 300 remain. Are we seeing an urban awakening in response to the changing social fabric of Arab cities?
New York’s built environment is continuously being made and remade. The 1950s and 1960s was a particularly dramatic period for construction in the big apple, and a single man, Robert Moses was responsible for much of the reconstruction. For twenty years, Moses constructed huge highway infrastructure projects and urban renewal projects that dislocated hundreds of thousands of people. In 1961, Jane Jacobs published the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and led activist campaigns to fight against Moses grandiose projects.
The rise of Jacobs and the activist groups that supported her vision of preserving historic building and the preference for low-rise housing changed the way people and policy planners thought about cities. Good cities, Jacobs argued, encouraged: social interaction at the street level, public transport, pedestrianization and mix development. Jacobs also noted the criticality to the social life a city of old, as well as architecturally significant, buildings.
In the Arab region, the ghost of Robert Moses has cast a large shadow. In the streets of Beirut, Lebanon the evidence of his legacy is evident in the reconstruction process following the civil war. The parallels between Robert Moses and Rafik Hariri are startling. In Cairo, Moses’ legacy is seen through the creation of the multiple desert cities and highways, in addition to the – attempted – dislocation of hundreds of thousands of urban poor. Indeed, if Moses had not died in 1981 it would not be hard to imagine he personally wrote the grandiose Cairo 2050 proposal for the future redevelopment of Cairo.
Activists, architects, social planners and residents of Arab cities have not been quiescent to the onslaught of these large-scale projects. Indeed, some have argued that the Egyptian uprising was fuelled by government attempts to remove the urban poor from downtown Cairo to the desert cities.
In addition to large-scale projects there have also been piecemeal reconstructions by developers and speculators to reshape the urban fabric. Whole districts have been transformed building by building through the tearing down – often illegally – of low-scale buildings and replacing them with high-rises. The economic benefit is simple to understand, but the cost to the social fabric of the city and its inhabitants devastating and complex.
In response, social movements across the Middle East are calling for a new urban consciousness among citizens. For example, in Egypt, various initiatives have emerged and call directly on citizens to document, examine and participate with their urban context. Megawra, an “architectural hub”, has recently opened its doors to act as a platform for holistic debate to promote a sustainable and socially responsible built environment. Cairobserver, a blog, aims to start a conversation about Cairo and encourages Caireens to claim their right to the city. Heliopolis Eye is an activist group that seeks to involve the local community in safeguarding historic buildings in the district of Heliopolis in Cairo.
In Lebanon, social movements have also emerged to protect the country’s urban fabric and heritage. Save Beirut Heritage is a group that is pushing for, “a genuine popular awakening.” The group notes that in the 1990s the government census noted that 1600 traditional homes and buildings existed in greater Beirut now only 300 remain. The homes are largely knocked down and replaced with large residential towers. Save Beirut Heritage encourages people to photograph and film buildings that are knocked down illegally. The Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage is also working to protect the rapidly disappearing urban heritage of Lebanon.
At the core of this battle over the built environment are the two competing visions of Moses and Jacobs. The former envisaged redevelopment with a “meat-ax” and the latter envisaged urban transformation through consultation and the active participation of urban inhabitants. The parallel in the fight over the city and urban redevelopment and the current battle between autocratic regimes and their citizens throughout the Middle East is not a coincidence, or indeed a parallel. It is the same system.
Subsequently, the power of the local is clearly articulated in the battle over the built environment. To take control, to observe, to protect your house, your street, your district is to claim it. And to claim your right to these elements of the urban fabric, you claim your right to the state and to participate in its institutions and decisions.