A colleague of mine from Lebanon recently gave me a very provocative book. The book, published back in 2001, is titled “Jumhuriyyat Al Baton” (The Republic of Concrete). It essentially is a photo-essay that documents the obliteration of a good part of Lebanon’s natural beauty as well as its elegant traditional towns and cities as a result of the chaotic and unregulated building activity brought about by urban sprawl. Unsightly as well as shoddily built concrete structures have been springing up everywhere in Lebanon over the past 15 years or so, and have heavily — and in many cases permanently — scarred the famed beauty of Lebanon’s mountains as well as its towns and cities.
As I went through the images of the book, I couldn’t help but think how this destruction of Lebanon’s natural and built environments unfortunately is not an isolated phenomenon, but is widespread throughout the region. It occurred to me how unregulated building activity has brought about considerable destruction to fertile land in the Nile Valley and the Delta region in Egypt. Anyone flying into Cairo can clearly see such destruction as the plane descended towards the city. I also thought of the precious fertile forested and agricultural land here in Jordan that over the past few decades has come to be permanently buried under expansive jungles of concrete.
It is not only nature and agricultural land that have suffered. The same applies to the region’s urban cultural heritage. For example, even though serious efforts have taken place in rehabilitating the old parts of Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, these same rehabilitated areas now are suffering from commercial overdevelopment, primarily expressed in the proliferation of restaurants. Not only does this prevent the historical urban cores from reestablishing themselves as areas of diverse habitation that include residential, commercial and cultural uses, but these large numbers of restaurants, when developed without adequate regulatory frameworks and adequate infrastructural services, also result in serious traffic congestion and parking problems, produce significant amounts of garbage, and cause considerable noise pollution, especially during the night when loud music is played and crowds of patrons come for their end-of-day entertainment. All this makes daily life for the surrounding residents intolerable, and will drive away a good number of them. Ironically, such levels of traffic congestion, garbage and noise in the long run also will make these areas unappealing to the restaurant patrons they originally were intended to attract. Attempts at revitalising these areas therefore will regress back to point zero, and will need to be initiated all over again.
The beginnings of a similar phenomenon also are taking place in Jordan, as with the Jabal Amman area of Amman, which boasts a remarkable urban and architectural heritage dating back to as early as the 1920s. Too many commercial establishments recently have popped up in the area. In some respects, this is a positive development. It is an expression of how the area is being appreciated and is being developed as a destination for residents of Amman and also its visitors. The problem is that the area is beginning to suffer from problems of congestion. Driving through the two-way segments of Abu Bakr Al Siddiq Street (popularly known as Rainbow Street) can be a highly unpleasant experience as parked vehicles line up along both sides of the relatively narrow street while two-way traffic attempts to navigate through the little that is left of it.
What basically seems to be happening is that if we have a beautiful forested area, the knee-jerk reaction is to cut down a good part of its trees and build on it. If an appreciation of an urban neighbourhood of great historical wealth and charm emerges, the impulsive reaction is to convert its buildings into shops and restaurants regardless of the ability of the neighbourhood’s existing infrastructure — especially its road network and vehicle-parking capacity — to accommodate them, and regardless of how that may destroy the residential character of the neighbourhood. In the final result, the forests will disappear forever; the historical neighbourhoods will become crowded and congested areas that eventually will repulse people rather than attract them. All this provides too clear an example of how to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
Although the term “sustainability” has become too much of a cliché during the past few years, I still cannot think of a better term to express the framework through which we should treat our natural and cultural heritage, both of which are “non-renewable” resources. They definitely should be enjoyed by all, but such enjoyment should never be allowed to degenerate into abuse. We have to be extremely delicate in dealing with this heritage. Many of us want to enjoy nature and its trees, but this cannot be achieved by cutting trees down and building in their midst. There is a growing appreciation of the historical sections of our cities, but such appreciation should not be expressed through converting most of their buildings into restaurants and shops without effectively managing the movement and parking of vehicles, waste disposal and noise pollution in them. We need to ensure that these historical cores reemerge as habitable neighbourhoods in which diverse sets of people live, work, and socialise, rather than unsustainable restaurant ghettoes for foreign tourists and the local trendy crowd.
Ensuring the protection of our natural and built heritage cannot be left to the goodwill and kindness of developers, entrepreneurs, or even private citizens. The majority of them always will be led by their immediate and short-term interests. Many will not hesitate to damage a forested area or a historical neighbourhood if that would result in instant financial gain. The responsibility of protecting such a heritage will need to be taken on by a coalition of public-sector regulatory bodies and civil society organisations that would work together on safeguarding this heritage from various negative forces, which range from short-term greed to ignorance. Otherwise, there eventually will not be much of a heritage to enjoy, to be proud of, or to pass on to our offspring.
May 4, 2007