Emerging Trends in Urbanism: The Beirut Post-War Experience

An Essay on a presentation made by Robert Saliba to Diwan al-Mimar on April 20, 2000

Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad and Majd Musa in association with Robert Saliba, 2001




Saliba was asked whether the reconstruction of Beirut's Central District is responsible for the continuing deterioration of the peri-centers that surround it, even though those centers were able to survive the Lebanese civil war. Saliba answered that the planning approaches that took place in Lebanon over the past 75 years have gone through successive phases of "centralization, decentralization, and re-centralization." During the late Ottoman and the French Mandate periods, the centralization approach to planning was adopted with the rebuilding and reinforcement of the Central Business District. In the 1960s, the decentralization approach came into being with the decay of the Central Business District and the rise of competing sub-centers such as al-Hamra district. Finally, during the post-war period, planners have been returning to older practices of centralization by applying a kind of "re-centralization" that is evident in reviving the Central Business District. This, in turn, is resulting in the decay of metropolitan centers that boomed during the war-period such as the port-town of Jounieh. On the other hand, the phenomenon of Solidere has not halted the rise of such peri-center districts as Furn el Hayek or the fashionable Verdun area. Saliba adds that Beirut's southern suburbs, for example, have became well-established and will not be much affected by the reconstruction of Beirut's Central Business District because they have developed their own industrial, economic, and population base. As for other sub-centers such as al-Hamra or Mar Elias, they are currently undergoing a period of transition and it remains early to determine exactly how they will end up.

Saliba was then asked whether the reconstruction of Beirut's Central District is expected to bring back to Beirut its residents who immigrated during the civil war to surrounding towns such as Jounieh. Saliba answered that it would be better if those immigrants stay in places such as Jounieh. To him, the war was able to achieve something important that planners have not been able to achieve for the past 25 years, which is the effective implementation of decentralization. He adds that 80% of Lebanon's population is located in the coastal zone while large inland areas, such as the Biqa' Valley, remain under-populated. According to Saliba, when one discusses the issues of centralization and decentralization, one needs to address these issues at a national scale rather than simply at the scale of the city or metropolitan center. The preparation of a national plan for Lebanon has been addressed frequently since the end of the war, but has yet to be successfully realized. In fact, the European Union finalized in early 2000 a national plan for the development of southern Lebanon, but the implementation of that plan has been held up as a result of the continuing political tensions affecting that area.

The last question inquired about the extent to which reconstruction efforts in Lebanon depend on encouraging Lebanese immigrants to return from abroad. Saliba stated that the reconstruction process is dependent on bringing Lebanese capital, but not Lebanese immigrants, back into Lebanon. In the case of Solidere's project, for example, a certain percentage of the company's capital was assigned to foreigners. In this context, Saliba added that it should be kept in mind that a large numbers of Lebanese traditionally have immigrated abroad, long before the outbreak of the civil war, and it is estimated that the Lebanese living outside Lebanon are three times as many as those living inside it.


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