In collaboration with the IGP-RELIEF Centre at UCL, this GCRF funded research project seeks to provide insight into the changing landscape of local vulnerabilities following the Beirut explosion on August 4th 2020. The project focuses on the badly affected neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael and intends to generate in-depth understanding of the evolving vulnerabilities of the neighbourhood to help inform future interventions and public policies that can address them. This research brings together urban economists, social scientists and urban designers to collect quantitative survey data, as well as community consultations data through focus groups and semi-structured interviews. The research project builds on the Prosperity Index work that the IGP-Relief Centre has been conducting in Lebanon for the past three years and focuses on the three thematic areas of Livelihood and employment, Housing security and Mental health and wellbeing. The research was conducted six months after the blast.
After the Beirut port explosion, the lives of residents in Mar Mikhael were severely impacted with livelihoods affected, many forced to leave their homes and others bound to heavily damaged properties. This research project sought to understand these vulnerabilities and give residents the chance to voice their needs, not only by acting as interviewees, but also by conducting research themselves as citizen scientists. Vulnerabilities were assessed using a mixed methods approach including household surveys, focus groups and interviews. The household surveys were conducted in 275 buildings, with questions oriented towards understanding areas related to livelihood, housing needs and mental health, but also focussing on areas more specific to the blast including building damages, aid and relief efforts. The research findings from these household surveys were analysed in tandem with citizen scientists who were able to shed more light on the issues that affected their neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael.
Citizen scientists contributed to understanding vulnerabilities through two focus group sessions using mapping and brainstorming. The first of these was aimed at mapping spaces of exchange, such as public spaces where social activities happen, to gain an understanding of how residents in Mar Mikhael experience their neighbourhood. This involved observing spaces and social encounters where people give and receive care, and where they may express their thoughts and feelings. The second of these consultation sessions was centred around creating problem and solution trees about the issues that affect the residents of Mar Mikhael. Some of the issues they identified included a lack of job opportunities, a dependence on NGOs and a feeling of isolation within their households. After reflecting on these issues, citizen scientists were able to begin creating solution trees and ideas for addressing these issues. Some of their suggestions were the creation of a council to protect workers rights, a campaign to create and rehabilitate meeting spaces to foster a sense of belonging, and a solidarity fund which could help those who have difficulty paying rent. These findings were shared and discussed with other stakeholders in Beirut, who added their thoughts and ideas to possible solutions.
The insights from this research project intend to enhance an understanding of urban recovery that goes beyond just reconstruction projects, but acknowledges that urban recovery is a process that must entail the restoration of social and economic networks, as well as recovering spaces of social significance. By actively encouraging citizen-led research, this project has also sought to realise the ways in which residents can contribute to the development of solutions to address the challenges they face, as well as participate in the design and co-production of these interventions.