Karantina is a low income and multi-ethnic neighbourhood in the Medawar district of Beirut. It has been deeply affected by Lebanon’s changing political and economic landscape and is often considered one of the most vulnerable areas in the city. It was badly impacted by the Lebanese Civil War and over the years has experienced an influx of refugees from countries including Palestine and Syria. Now, with the growth of art galleries and office buildings, the area is experiencing the pressures of gentrification. On the 4th of August last year, the Beirut Blast thrust yet another tumultuous event on the neighbourhood, drastically impacting its built infrastructure and its residents safety, security and wellbeing.
Karantina Public Garden
Within this neighbourhood, lies the Karantina Public Garden – one of the only few remaining in the city. Once an informal settlement, this plot of land was transformed into a garden in the early 1950s. In 2015 this garden was rehabilitated by the Beirut based landscape firm Greener of the Other Side. As part of this project, they collaborated with the non-profit TandemWorks to open calls for an organisation to design the garden’s play area – us!
We aimed to ensure that the design of these play items was rooted in community participation and engagement. So, while the project focussed on children and youths, we worked with residents from different ages, genders and backgrounds. Through a series of weekly workshops and activities, in which residents could express the urban needs of Karantina, this participatory approach led to a design of play items that incorporated what the community wanted from their local playground.
When the park opened in 2016, we were hopeful about the positive impact it would have on the Karantina neighbourhood. At first, we hosted workshops in the park and regularly visited the community whom we’d developed relationships with throughout the project. However, throughout these visits we began to realise that the garden was not serving its purpose. It had not remained open to the public and many community members did not feel like it was theirs. In 2019, there was a short period in which residents were granted access to the Karantina Garden, however, even this was inhibited by limited opening hours and various restrictions. With the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020, and the closure of the park in response to Beirut’s lockdown measures, this situation only continued.
The Impact of the Beirut Explosion and an opportunity for positive change
When the Beirut explosion occurred on August 4th last year, it led to the large-scale destruction of the city. Neighbourhoods close to the port, like Karantina, were especially impacted and civic infrastructure like the garden was badly damaged by the blast. In response to this disaster, along with other civil society organisations, we have initiated a child focussed project called Kan Ya Makan that seeks to rehabilitate Karantina’s Garden. In the midst of the trauma that the Beirut explosion has caused, this project has provided an opportunity to ensure that this time residents get access to their local park. Indeed, as we embark on the project, both the hindrances to access and the reasons for community apathy are becoming a lot clearer. Throughout the process we are seeing just how important collaboration between different actors is to participatory projects.
As Siba El-Samra highlights, the municipalities’ policies have played a major role in preventing access to many of the only available parks in Beirut. Rather than a place of public ownership for everyone, she states that “these parks have been seen as an asset by both the municipality and the city elite”. This is no different in Karantina.
When we began participatory workshops for the Kan Ya Makan project in August of last year, it also emerged that due to this restricted access to the park, children and their community did not feel like it was their space. Many children stressed that they even preferred the park before it was renovated. These thoughts were clearly echoed by their parents and the wider community, with one Lebanese lady telling us that “it is not a public garden any longer”.
The workshops highlighted that this resentment has also been exacerbated by the negative relationship between the park’s guards and the children. As the park is surrounded by fences stopping children from entering, they have often tried to jump and climb over it to get access. In response, the guards have been reported to act in a hostile manner, even using violence to assert their authority over the space. The result is that children and their carers do not always feel comfortable in what is supposedly their public area.
The Importance of Collaboration
The Kan Ya Makan project in Karantina seeks to address these issues by mediating between residents and the municipality to create opportunities for conversation and trust. We’ve begun this process by suggesting to the relevant municipal bodies that the park guards be replaced with municipal staff from the neighbourhood itself. This has been a crucial step as the previous guards were neither familiar with, or invested in the neighbourhood and its people. Already, we have seen that this change is helping the community to feel more comfortable in Karantina Public Garden.
In addition to lobbying to ensure that the Karantina public garden remains fully open and accessible to the public, we are also engaging the community in urban research. The hope is that this will foster a sense of ownership in the area surrounding the park. As the rehabilitation works are taking place, the residents of Karantina have expressed their excitement about the re-opening of the park. The children in particular often give the team feedback as they watch the construction of the park take place. They are actively participating in the process, and their feedback is being incorporated into how the design develops.
Moving forward, we need to ensure that participatory projects take into account the intersecting actors that allow for public spatial interventions to be successful. For lower-income families, public parks such as Karantina Garden, and areas such as the Corniche, provide some of the only public outdoor space in the city. In order for these spaces to achieve their potential, we need to collaborate with different actors. The municipality, community groups, NGOs and activists must work together to understand what Beirut’s citizens need most.
If you want to join us in this mission, get in touch, we would love to hear from you!
Written by Joana Dabaj, Principal Coordinator at CatalyticAction
Fatima Ghoul, Architect at CatalyticAction