Special report: Construction in Beirut

Redesigning land reclaimed from cars © Sandra Rishani/Beirut the Fantastic
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Zachary Burk
Last updated: April 30, 2013

How to make Beirut green

While many of the new construction projects in Beirut conform to the familiar mold of monochromatic high rise towers, one proactive resident is reconceiving the cityscape in a whole new light.

Sandra Rishani, architect, urban planner, and design teacher at the American University of Beirut, writes in her new blog, Beirut the Fantastic, of a more cohesive and environmentally friendly city where public space actually exists.

The blog showcases some of her novel ideas, and allows readers to dream of a Beirut that encompasses open green spaces while staying true to the authentic, dense nature of the city.

Sandra, a native Beiruti who holds degrees from AUB, University College London, and Princeton, originally became intrigued in the development of public green space after reading a World Health Organization brief that established a healthy city as one with at 10 square meters of public space per person.

“Green space in urban environments is very important”, she says. “It allows you to relax and breathe more slowly.”

She points out that, “10 square meters is a European standard, and a European way of looking at green space. Do we really need to have large parks? Or is it about small parks and green surfaces?”

Indeed, given Beirut’s extreme density 41% of the city would have to be demolished to meet the WHO recommendation. Instead Sandra envisages a Beirut of garden rooftops, green elevated walkways, and vertical vegetation. She views the city’s density as more of an impetus to innovative design than as a hindrance to development of green space.

“We started stacking apartments on top of each other because we needed more space. We have same the issue with green space, then why not do the same?”,  she says. Furthermore she adds, “Most buildings from the side are blank. That’s a surface that can be utilized in many ways in the city to insert a lot of green.”

Some of Sandra’s resourceful ideas for Beirut may have been influenced by her thesis advisor Elizabeth Diller, one of the architects of the famed ‘High Line’ park in New York City. Like for the ‘High Line’, central to Sandra’s conceptualizations is the idea that “You don’t have to frame the landscape, you interact with it. You should be able to experience the landscape at different points”

For her, a crucial aspect of this imagined space is that it must also be public. She laments the fact that new housing developments in Beirut allow residents to close off their balconies, leaving would-be planted areas out of view. Aesthetic benefits arising from viewing plants on balconies can reach everyone. “People don’t realize how much it will affect their lives that they are losing their balcony space”, she says.

Public space is also important for the promotion of social blending. She highlights Beirut’s waterfront “Corniche” as a successful example of public space where people of all sects and economic classes intermingle on a regular basis.

She addresses the issue with some of her quasi-surreal blog posts, complete with intricate diagrams and illustrations. In one, she proposes a “series of green surface experiences in the air, creating a mini eco-system and presenting the paradoxical notion that as diversity increases both in nature and society so might cohesion.”

Despite the fantastic images that her work evokes, Sandra admits that there are numerous obstacles standing in the way of public-green space development. In addition to the fact that Beirut building codes make no mention of green space, for many looking to buy an apartment in Beirut, green space is simply not a priority.

“People’s standards are so low because they are desperate to get housing and to get the basics, so developers do whatever they want. There is less respect for design, and attention is only paid to real estate forces”, she says. 

While she notes that the positive impacts that green public spaces may have on citizens’ quality of life remain largely unacknowledged, she is hopeful for future improvements and sees raising the debate on green space as a first step.

“In architecture school there is a lot of debate going about urban space and green space within a city. I feel that it goes out to the public, and that is also the aim of the blog”, she says.

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