The Karantina neighbourhood intervention is a project developed to provide the area’s residents with a safe, inclusive and playful public space. In Karantina, the availability of safe and accessible public space is highly lacking – as is the case in much of Beirut. By transforming an area of neglected and unused public land into a safe and child friendly public space, this project seeks to tackle this absence. To ensure the space accurately reflects both the needs and desires of its users, the project employed co-design methods that allowed the neighbourhood’s diverse voices to be heard. The project is a partnership between CatalyticAction, Terre Des Hommes Italy and UNICEF Lebanon, and is in collaboration with the American University of Beirut’s Neighbourhood Initiative and the municipality of Beirut.
Phase One: Identifying the site of intervention.
The first phase of this project involved finding a suitable space for the intervention to be carried out. To do this we used various selection methodologies including participatory observation, mapping, and interviewing local community members and key stakeholders to find plots of public land that would ensure accessibility to all. The plot that was finally chosen was located at the intersection of Rmeil street and Mashghara street in close proximity to residential housing where many children live with their families. The site needed a lot of work but as it was already used by residents we knew it had a lot of potential to become a positive space for the children and families living next to it.
Phase 2: Participatory design process
The project began with a community clean-up activity as the site was filled with rubbish and it was important to start activating the space so that the visualisation and transformation of the space could begin. With the help of volunteers, recruited citizen scientists and the CatalyticAction team, the site was gradually cleared. The clean up of the space also provided an opportunity for us to ask children and other residents what they’d like from this new space. Their key concerns were around safety and having somewhere nice to play which they expressed through a desire for colour and levelled tiling to make the space more usable.
After the clean-up and focused research of the space and its surroundings, our team put together a preliminary design to be shown to Karantina’s residents at a community design consultation on site. The consultation allowed us to gauge the different priorities of the community and what they sought from the space. This included calls for greenery, seating areas in the shade, lighting to keep women safe, and a safe place that could be used by all age groups.
Phase 3: Designing the space
In response to this consultation we identified three priorities that informed the final design of the space: a space that was child friendly, leisure infrastructure that could be used by all and somewhere that felt safe. The public space was thus designed to create a safe space that both enabled adults to gather with their friends, and children to have a fun and exciting place to play. We encouraged this by designing features that could be left to the interpretation of their users. For instance, we designed a long, wide and colorful bench that cuts across the space and could be used for seating, changing diapers, running along, sliding down, cycling on, and even jumping off. We also put in bicycle racks which could be used to sit on, rest on or climb under.
As part of the design we also chose materials that wouldn’t need high or frequent maintenance to ensure easy upkeep of the space. The materials that we chose were all sourced locally so that when repairs were needed they could be easily repaired by local skilled labourers. The design of the space was also influenced by the abundance of old trees on site which we wanted to incorporate into the space and prevent being cut down.
Phase 4: Construction
For the construction phase of the project we hired workers from the local area, including residents who lived in the building by the site. Throughout the process we also negotiated with residents in the immediate surrounding to ensure that decisions around the construction worked for everyone. For instance, we collaborated with the most senior resident in Karantina to address his concerns around the space by fixing the facade of his building, mending his balcony and fixing the plumbing work to ensure his safety, but also the safety of the future users of the public space.
For the concrete bench, we also tried and tested different pigmented concrete samples and selected the final colours together as a team. The site was momentarily transformed into a colourful concrete mixing station which caught the attention of many people passing by.
Phase 5: Activating the space
As part of our activation of this public space and our ongoing Kan Ya Makan project, we organised a mural activity with the street artist Ghiath Al-Robih. He painted a mural with the children which incorporated tactile features such as a cat and a bird to encourage sensory play. We also invited a group of Beirut Skaters from the Lebanese skateboarding association to teach children some new moves and to show them different ways in which the space could be used. In collaboration with the art collective Zayraqoun, we also had an open parade in which children and community residents in colourful costumes passed through the space.
Since the space has opened it has been exciting to see how children and other residents have chosen to use each of its elements. Their new ways of interacting with it continue to surprise us. But, most of all we’re pleased that this space is an area Karantina’s residents can use without needing to abide by opening hours and prohibitive restrictions. We hope it will mark the beginning of similar interventions that ensure the neighbourhood’s streets are safe and welcoming for its children and their families to enjoy.
This Karantina Neighbourhood Intervention was implemented in parallel with the Karantina Participatory Spatial Intervention (Karantina PSI) research project. Part of the GCRF project “Assessing vulnerabilities for urban recovery solutions in Beirut post-explosion” with the Relief centre, IGP and DPU at UCL, this project aims to ensure a longer participatory process with residents by following an inclusive citizen science approach. These citizen scientists continue to monitor the use of this spatial intervention, to learn from it for future interventions and to reflect on the benefit of co-design processes for Beirut’s recovery.