Initiatives in Response to the Beirut Blast

How to ensure a people-centered holistic recovery process, in ways that are inclusive, gender-sensitive, and environmentally sustainable, in order to redress deep-rooted socio-spatial inequalities and reclaim the public domain?  

On the 4th of August 2020, the huge explosion that detonated in the Port of Beirut killed more than 200 people and wounded 6,000, and left dozens missing. Surveys show that 300,000 homes and livelihoods have been affected in several neighborhoods adjacent to the Port. The Beirut Urban Lab mobilized in response to the blast to support efforts on the ground and to initiate its own work upon site visits and early assessment of the situation. It is possible to identify some of the typical patterns associated with earlier post-disaster responses. In a context where state institutions play at best a subdued role and are failing to position themselves as the custodians of a common good, the challenge of coordinating a people-centered recovery is massive (see Fawaz and Harb, 2020). Many actors operate in the absence of coordination and shared vision or framework. The de-facto reconstruction approach set in place through the involvement of most stakeholders is generally based on quantitative and physical assessment of damages, in which buildings are the focus. While the approach is important to introduce the necessary physical repairs, it falls short from understanding urban recovery as a holistic and multilayered process, one that goes beyond the physical and the humanitarian to include an actual reconciliation of people with place.  

Leads: Mona Fawaz, Ahmad Gharbieh, Mona Harb, Howayda Al-HarithyResearch Team: Abir Cheaitli, Luna Dayekh, Ali Ghaddar, Dana Mazraani, Dounia Salamé, Isabela Serhan, Omar Sirri, Joeyline Tannous, Batoul YassineStudent Affiliate: Mohamad El-Chamaa (MUPP, MSFEA-AUB)GIS Database Guardians: Chaza Jazzar, Shareef TarhiniMaps and Data Visualization: Ismail Hutet, Nour Zoghbi FaresResearch Collaborators: Habib Debs, Serge YazigiInstitutional Partners: Lebanese Order of Engineers and Architects-Beirut; UNDP; UNHCR and ACTED; Rice University; Columbia World Projects and GSAPP at Columbia University; Open Map Lebanon; Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP, University College London)Funding: International Development Research Center (IDRC), Fondation de France, Institut Français du Proche Orient (IFPO), Columbia World Projects (Columbia University)Time Frame: September 2020-October 2023 

It further fails to locate the blast within historical urban processes that have shaped the production of the severely affected neighborhoods, addressing it, instead, as a momentary rupture (See Al-Harithy, 2020, Fawaz, 2020). However, unlike previous patterns, and given the political landscape in Lebanon before and after the actual moment of the blast, the Lebanese Army emerges in this case as the lead in coordinating efforts on the ground. This unprecedented model for Lebanon has many uncertainties and creates a new top-heavy influence on the recovery process. Building on its experiences in urban policy advocacy, mapping, and post-war reconstruction studies, and supported by generous funding from the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in Canada, the Fondation de France, the Columbia World Projects, the Institut Français du Proche Orient, and others, the Beirut Urban Lab initiated multiple interventions that challenge the dominant framework of post-blast reconstruction and redefine it along the lines of a holistic and inclusive recovery. Within this larger objective, the Lab is leading on three tracks, in coordination with multiple partners. These tracks are: The Observatory of the Reconstruction, Neighborhood-Scale Recovery Interventions, and Visioning the City in the Post-Blast Period.

The Observatory of the Reconstruction

Using the Beirut Built Environment Database, we are producing a platform of shared geolocalized information which helps provide visibility to damage assessment and recovery efforts within the historical development trends and the layers of information available about the neighborhoods surrounding the Beirut Port. Work is conducted with partners, including Rice University, the Lebanese Order of Engineers and Architects, UN-Habitat, Open Map Lebanon, and the NGO Nusaned. The platform’s goals are to facilitate coordination among multiple stakeholders, as well as to produce and disseminate maps, data analysis, and findings that inform city dwellers about ongoing reconstruction processes, and support setting in place a framework of urban recovery. This platform is the basis of an Observatory of the Reconstruction. The Observatory will also provide information about a number of urban indicators related to housing, infrastructure and public space, at the scale of the neighborhoods affected by the blast. To this end, The Beirut Urban Lab has collaborated with ACTED and UNHCR to produce six Neighborhood Profiles: Karantina, Mar Mikhail, Geitawi, Badawi, Karm el-Zeitoun/Fassouh, and Bachoura. In each of these neighborhoods, we identified trends affecting urban transformations at the moment of the blast and further documented ongoing modalities of repair. These form the first elements of an Observatory mapping, soon to be published with our partners. In addition, the Observatory will work on mapping the actors, governance and funding mechanisms of reconstruction at the national scale, in order to identify potential opportunities to influence the decision-making process and make it people-centered and inclusive.    
As a first step, the Lab's mapping team overlapped relevant available information about the affected neighborhood to produce a more comprehensive image of these areas
As a first step, the Lab's mapping team overlapped relevant available information about the affected neighborhood to produce a more comprehensive image of these areas

Neighborhood-Scale Recovery Interventions

Karantina is serving as a first case study for the initiation of a bottom-up, inclusive and people-centered recovery process. This work at the neighborhood level relies on surveys aiming to highlight economic networks, tangible and intangible heritage as well as socio-spatial narratives of residents. In addition, capacity building workshops are supporting and facilitating shared information, vision, and participation in co-designing the local recovery framework. Strategic interventions at the scale of the neighborhood will be elaborated, integrating low-tech innovative green and sustainable systems for the advancement of healthy urban environments and futures, with the participation of professionals and residents in community-based multidisciplinary workshops. Mapping plays a central role in these processes, as maps serve as a basis for community discussions and then as documents visualizing designs and interventions. The work is ongoing in partnership with the UNDP based on a common methodology of research, field work, community engagement, and recovery framework design. Strategic spatial interventions are carried out in collaboration with other actors including the Near East Foundation and the Institute of Global Prosperity (IGP) at the University College London.

Twelve residents of Karantina were trained to participate as Citizen Scientists in our community-based participatory urban recovery research (Photo: Ali Ghaddar, December 2020)
Twelve residents of Karantina were trained to participate as Citizen Scientists in our community-based participatory urban recovery research (Photo: Ali Ghaddar, December 2020)
Trained Citizen Scientists conduct interviews in Karantina to better inform the recovery process (Photo: Ali Ghaddar, December 2020)
Trained Citizen Scientists conduct interviews in Karantina to better inform the recovery process (Photo: Ali Ghaddar, December 2020)

Visioning the City in the Post-Blast Period

This track seeks to engage colleagues in Lebanon and beyond to contribute to a collective investigation of possible pathways for a successful post-disaster recovery process and engage in a visioning exercise of the city’s recovery. In partnership with the Columbia World Projects and the GSAPP at Columbia University, the Beirut Urban Lab initiated the organization of seven roundtable sessions from November 2020 to January 2021, hosting academics and professionals with experience in post-disaster recovery in Lebanon as well as in sites as diverse as Chile, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The series of workshops addressed (i) Neighborhood Connectivity and Synergy, (ii) Heritage Preservation, (iii) Rebuilding the Port of Beirut, (iv) Environment and Quality of Life, (v) Housing and Land Policy, (vi) Governance and Funding Modalities, and (vii) Activating Public Spaces. These roundtables have elucidated some of the main convergences across urban recovery experiences in the global south. These include the need to articulate viable economic models of recovery, define and take advantage of synergies for actors (e.g., private, public, non-profit) while clearly outlining established roles for each, and identify the critical modalities through which communities affected by the blast can be involved in the recovery of their neighborhoods.  Findings from these closed workshops will be taken to the public platform of City Debates 2021, which will be organized later during the Spring 2021 term. In parallel, and in partnership with the Institut Français du Proche Orient (IFPO) and the MUPP/MUD programs at AUB, the track initiated a first visioning exercise of the city’s recovery at multiple scales in early November 2020. This exercise addresses spatial concerns, focusing particularly on the connection of the city to the port, the connections between and across various neighborhoods (particularly the reintegration of the severed historical core and the historically isolated Karantina), as well as the reactivation of several urban-scale projects fully developed in the previous decade but never implemented (e.g. the Plan Vert, the Soft Mobility Plan, Liaison Douce, and the proposed Fouad Boutros Park where the partially expropriated lots presents an extraordinary opportunity). A second meeting, taking place as part of an Urban Thinkers Campus is scheduled for March 17, 2021, will be open to the public. Through and beyond these tracks, we seek to advance and disseminate values of inclusion and social justice, as well as principles of integrated, gender-sensitive, and environmentally-responsive approaches to recovery through informing and influencing public debates and narratives. We do so through op-eds in a variety of local and international outlets, and through our regular contributions to the media and to academic and policy webinars (see this media round-up for a summary).
The "Fouad Boutros highway" area was expropriated by the government and then abandoned after protests by activists, residents, and professionals (Photos: Dounia Salamé)
The "Fouad Boutros highway" area was expropriated by the government and then abandoned after protests by activists, residents, and professionals (Photos: Dounia Salamé)