The following article was originally published on the Mashallah News website (www.mashallahnews.com)on November 23, 2010, written by Jenny Gustafsson
On this year’s World Environment Day, Beirutis got a chance to do something rare: put their feet on soft grass. This owing to Nadine Feghaly and Dima Boulad, who had placed small patches of lawn across the city. The pieces of grass were complete with the typical brown sign that marks traditional and beautiful areas in Beirut – only these ones bore the ironic text ‘Enjoy your green space’. The message: Beirut is in dire need of more greenery.
In a city like Beirut, with dense infrastructure, widespread economical disparities and a strained social composition, increasing green spaces ought to be a top priority. However, residents of the Lebanese capital can reaffirm that this is not the case. The lack of parks, playgrounds and public gardens is striking throughout the city. This bleak picture is confirmed by statistics: Beirut’s 0.8 m2 per capita of greenery is 50 times less than what the World Health Organisation recommends. Adding to this is a shameful neglect of many existing public spaces and zero political initiatives to creating new ones.
For designers and bloggers Feghaly and Boulad, this situation sparked their motivation for doing something constructive together. “The lack of green, everyone feels frustrated about it”, Feghaly says. “The point with our project was to make people think, and to become aware that they too can do things like this”. And the installations – placed on nine locations across the city: from Hamra in the west to Furn el-Chebbak in the east, Ain el-Mreisseh in the north and Cola in the south – met with overly positive reactions. Especially in busy locations like Cola and Ain el-Mreisseh, people who passed by shared their appreciation. “One lady on the Corniche agreed and commented that out of symbolism, we should have made the pieces of grass even smaller”, says Boulad.
Others showed their support differently. Feghaly and Boulad were surprised to see many of their installations left intact in the streets for several days. People even helped look after them. “A taxi driver told us that, when he saw that a sign had fallen down, him and his colleagues put it back with a pile of stones.” Then, there were those who contributed to the works themselves. The day after the installation was placed on Bliss street, Feghany and Boulad found the grass bestrewn with roses. And, the Ain el-Mreisseh one got a prolonged life from someone hanging the ‘Enjoy your green space’ sign on a nearby tree.
For the two of them, increasing greenery is an important issue. “Being in a park is among the most amazing things. Getting more green space in Beirut is a must”, says Feghaly. True, trees and plants make us feel well: there is lots of research confirming the positive impact of greenery on a city and its inhabitants. Parks and gardens work wonders for our physical and mental well-being. They provide safe areas for physical activities, cheap entertainment and a common ground for all residents to socialise and reconcile. Also, they have numerous positive effects on the urban landscape. They reduce heat, absorb dust and smog, regulate air quality and reduce noise pollution. And, according to new research, green spaces decrease the health gap between rich and poor, since their positive impact is independent of other factors.
As a result of urbanisation, consumerism and untamed construction, most of the parks that once made up Beirut’s city fabric have been paved over in order to make way for high risers and roads. Today, the best option for Beirutis wanting to boost their green energy, is heading to one of the two gardens Sanayeh and Sioufi, small public parks that are open during the day. However, the maintenance of them is quite poor, and their very existence is under threat from the urban sprawl. Only last year, the municipalities presented plans to build parking lots underneath the gardens, a proposal which met with protests and now is on indefinite hold.
Also, taken together, the Sanayeh and Sioufi gardens make up only a small part of the city’s total amount of green space. The vast majority, 72% of it, is south of the central area in the large pine forest Horsh al-Sanawbar. This park however, is not accessible even to those who live next door to it. Except for a short while in the mid-nineties, two thirds of it have been fenced of and closed to the public. Now, only those over 35 years old and with enough wasta (connections in high places) can apply for a special permit to visit the largest and greenest part.
For Beirutis who like Feghaly and Boulad long for soft lawns, lush trees and flowering vegetation, prospects remain scarce. Despite activism like the ‘Enjoy your green space!’ installation and campaigning by environmental groups, few political proposals manage to compete rivalling commercial and private interests. The need for greening the city remains.