In previous blogs we’ve highlighted the importance of public space in Beirut, the various participatory design methods that help ensure they’re reflective of residents’ needs and the role citizen scientists can play in representing these. But what we haven’t drawn attention to is the continued closure of public spaces – particularly public parks in Beirut. While we’ve tried to explain our participatory approach, and best practice towards creating and enhancing public spaces for residents, these efforts are rendered futile if parks aren’t allowed to open. In this blog we make an attempt to explain this situation. But more importantly, we use our experiences to offer guidelines for steps that could rectify the situation.
As Covid-19 gathered pace in Lebanon in February 2019, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown which involved the closure of all public spaces – including public parks. While in cities like New York and London, public parks remained open throughout the strictest of measures, in Beirut the government believed that closing public parks could play a vital role in quelling the spread of the disease. Siba El-Samra tries to understand the logic: “it made the government’s job slightly easier, especially on local levels…after all, if there are no parks, people cannot be gathering in the parks!”. But with the country’s gradual reopening, these arguments have become less and less plausible. This has been highlighted by Public Works, a multidisciplinary research and design studio, that have started a petition around the opening of parks. While businesses (cafes, bars, restaurants) have been allowed to open, city parks have remained closed. As Public Works point out, this completely negates any legitimate argument for keeping the parks closed.
If the closure of parks is not inextricably linked to Covid-19, then why aren’t they being opened? Samra argues that the closure of vital public spaces in Beirut can be linked to policies enforced by the municipality that have always favoured profit and elite groups over availability of public space for those who need it most. She provides the Horsh, Beirut’s largest public park, as an example. Indeed, up until recently, the park could only be accessed by those who had a permit from the governor. It was only after a ‘long battle’ led by civil society groups that this changed. Yet, many of Beirut’s parks still remain closed, and not just parks that have economic potential or provide benefit to elite groups. In fact, many of the parks we’ve rehabilitated are located in low-income and vulnerable neighbourhoods and their closure can’t just be linked to Covid-19 and the profiteering outlook of the municipality. Indeed, the opening of two parks we rehabilitated recently, were attended by the governor of Beirut who believes the parks should be opened.
While Covid-19 and the Beirut Blast may have highlighted just how important it is that we open public spaces, we’ve been fighting the closure of parks since 2016 when we first contributed to the rehabilitation of Karantina Public Park. After the implementation of new play infrastructure, the park remained closed to the public. The reason for closing public parks is therefore interlinked with a number of factors, that we believe are underpinned by a general attitude of apathy towards the importance of public spaces – if their true necessity was understood, then perhaps the municipality would take the decisions needed to enable their opening. Until this happens, we’ve built on our recent experiences to come up with various approaches that we think could foster the gradual opening of public parks.
A lot of our work as an organisation has involved rehabilitating public parks – this has included parks across Lebanon, but most recently it has centred on Beirut. One of these parks is Karantina Public Garden, which experienced damages in the context of the Beirut Port explosion in August last year. As with all of our projects, our rehabilitation initiatives aren’t only about the finished product – the play items we build or the infrastructure we fix – but rather about the process and the ongoing use of the spaces. This was no different with Karantina and as part of our rehabilitation of the park we ran a programme called Kan Ya Makan which explored children’s relationship with both safe and personal space. Spanning the course of six months, these workshops also enabled us to observe the barriers and opportunities for opening public parks.
When we began our workshops in Karantina Public Garden, the park was manned by guards, some of whom weren’t interested in the park or the children who used it. They could be violent with the children and their priority was ensuring that they remained outside the park. What we realised was that the guards stationed at public parks like Karantina, were not invested in the spaces – they weren’t from the area and often they’d been placed in the parks as part of a rotation which could have seen them end up anywhere in the city. Adding to this, it became clear that the role of guarding the park was seen as one of the easier appointments – leading to a sense of idleness amongst the guards when on duty. After bringing this to the attention of the municipality, these guards at Karantina Public Park were changed, replaced by guards who were local and therefore invested in the neighbourhood. We’ve seen the huge difference this has made, with the current guards now situated in Karantina actually opening the park on their own volition for the children. The desire to do this is illustrative of the importance of having a keeper who sees both the value and benefits of both opening and maintaining the park.
In contrast, the situation with the guards at two public parks we’ve recently completed in the neighbourhoods of Basta and Kaskas, cement this view. In Karm Al Arees Park there is only one guard – he’s not there most of the time and when he is, the space is too large for him to manage on his own. In Kaskas, there is a guard, but his shift ends at noon, denying residents the opportunity to play in the space beyond this point. If anyone wants to get a hold of him, his number can only be found on a piece of paper by the entrance. As the example from Karantina shows, if parks are staffed with dedicated guards then the situation could be very different. The municipality could ensure that the guards at each park are invested in the upkeep of the space, are trained in child protection and that there are enough of them to ensure regular access to the parks.
Maintenance and Upkeep
Another aspect we think could encourage the opening of parks, is their proper upkeep. We’ve worked in many public parks in which the infrastructure has been neglected, causing it to break and creating derelict and abandoned parks. To ensure that parks are inviting and welcoming to all, and that they are seen as safe spaces for children and their caregivers to come to, we think it is vital that their rehabilitation budget includes a fee for maintenance. We’ve proposed this to our donors for rehabilitation projects. For the Karantina public park we will be overseeing the maintenance for the next 6 months. We believe that if this were implemented across all projects it would not only ensure that anything broken could be easily fixed, but that it would also leave residents feeling more invested in a space that they saw had a future. This is an easy step that could be implemented across Beirut to ensure its park’s avoid slipping into a cycle of neglect and underuse.
For us, activation of public spaces has been transformative. In the context of park closures, engaging children, young people and their caregivers in activities around parks has provided the opportunity to foster positive relationships with them. The benefit of activation initiatives including workshops, parades, games and scheduled play times is the development of personal investment in public spaces, as well as an understanding of their importance. We’ve seen this very clearly in Karantina public park, where we’ve worked with various local organisations to bring life to the space. The effect these activities have had can be seen in the desire of children to continue using the park when the workshops have finished. Indeed, the children have begun showing up at the house of one of our local facilitators as they associate her with their access to the park. This cannot be a solution but it does highlight the way activation initiatives can create ties to public spaces.
This kind of action is being taken by our partner organisation Himaya NGO who are running a two year programme with children in the parks of Karm Al Arees and Kaskas. Himaya’s programme sets an example of how communities can use this space. Until parks are fully opened, we believe activation initiatives like this are beneficial both for local residents and for the broader struggle to highlight the importance of these spaces.
Key stakeholder Action
In Karantina, there is a bi-monthly coordination meeting. Organised by UNDP, the meeting is a chance to coordinate responses to the park. It is attended by key stakeholders invested in projects in the Karantina neighbourhood including ourselves, UNDP, ILO, UNHabitat, BUL and Public Works. A key action the group is currently working on is the opening of Karantina public park. Coordination efforts like these enable different actors to create momentum around the opening of parks, as well as voicing problems and suggesting solutions that may contribute to the opening of parks across Beirut. By working together we can put pressure on the local authorities to re-open the public parks. Public Works are leading the advocacy efforts in support of the public parks opening and we are joining forces with them to share our learnings from the rehabilitation of three public parks in Beirut.
While parks remain closed to the public, we think that acting on these guidelines might help improve the situation. While they are not an answer to the continued closure of public parks in Beirut, we hope they offer some insight as to how we can highlight the importance of public parks, ensure their continued upkeep and longevity, and address some of the barriers for entrance.
Written by Aishath Green – Communications Coordinator at CatalyticAction