Beirut’s last public beach has become a battleground in the fight to expose Lebanon’s disappearing public spaces, privilege and rampant development. Protesters have been taking to Ramlet al Baida beach to oppose construction of the private Eden Bay Resort, which describes itself as having, “A privileged sense of style”.
Lebanon’s coastline is being swallowed up – and activists fear this project could be the death knell for Beirut’s only remaining public beach.
“These spaces are being threatened by real estate developments, suffocating the city even more,” says urbanist Nadine Bekdache. Already, the city only has 0.8m2 of green space per person, when the minimum according to the World Health Organization, the minimum should be should be 9m2.
The Lebanese summer is hot, and electricity for air conditioning scarce: in Beirut’s concrete jungle, life can become unbearable. So Ramlet al Baida is the only place for Beirut’s many less-privileged families to escape and socialise. When the makeshift houses of fishing families were destroyed two years ago in Dalieh, not far from the beach, it was seen as the beginning of the takeover.
This year the World Monuments Fund listed Dalieh in its annual watchlist. Two of the 50 global cultural heritage sites the fund says face “imminent threats” are in Beirut.
“Used as a public space for more than 7000 years, the Dalieh of Raouche may become the latest victim of a development frenzy that has destroyed or privatised many of Beirut’s open spaces,” the fund says.
In Lebanon, protecting open spaces means challenging the power of the elite to co-opt common land. The revolt against the Ramlet al Baida development is part of a new political flame sparked by last year’s garbage crisis, during which trash rotted in the streets as ministers failed to address the city’s lack of garbage dump. Many people from the “You Stink” movement the garbage crisis spawned have mobilised to protect the beach.
Whard Sleiman, a 24 year old architecture student who was injured during a recent confrontation with construction workers at the beach, is sick of the loopholes that enable political cronies to help each other out at citizens’ expense. “When you’re living in a city that has no public space, save for one park, and no public beach, save for one shore that’s being polluted by sewage and garbage and plastic – the state of Ramlet al Baida is awful – you can’t stay quiet,” Sleiman says.
Shore developments in Lebanon are always legally murky. Mona Fawaz, an associate urban studies and planning professor at the American University of Beirut, details at some length the “lack of transparency in public records and their numerous contradictions”.
“I found a 1925 law [144/S] which clearly states that all sandy beaches are public and inalienable,” Dr Fawaz wrote for The Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. “Then I found a  property record that supposedly inscribes Beirut’s large sandy beaches as the private property of a handful of individuals.”
There’s more: “…a 1954 regulatory framework that states as one of its basic principles that all zones between the seafront Corniche and the sea are unbuildable, then numerous changes, revisions, exceptions, exemptions, incentives, and modifications of this regulation that reverse protections, intensify exploitation, and encourage privatisation.”
All this makes it very difficult to work out what the law even is.
New kids on the political block, Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), comprises a large number of urbanism professionals. The new party’s programme is thoroughly focussed on improving the city’s liveability – the second aim of its 10-point program is to increase green space.
Bekdache is part of their seafront taskforce, and argues that the city’s social and cultural soul was suppressed when its public spaces were privatised. She says public spaces were deliberately neglected by authorities to dissuade people from using them, which excluded those who couldn’t afford to pay for private facilities.
“[T]he right to enjoy free, dignified and open access to nature is an indicator of a healthy and dynamic urban life,” Bekdache said. “Every empty plot in Beirut is under threat of development.”
This problem is concentrated in, but not isolated to, Beirut. There are just a few patches of public beach in the southern cities of Sidon and Tyr, and in the northern city of Tripoli there is an ongoing battle over its seafront and an historic square that could fall prey to the pursuit of central car parking.
For Sleiman, the streets are the only place to go when your city is being robbed of its public space. “We have no public space, what do you want us to do, just sit down at home and take it?” he says.
“It’s pathetic that we have nowhere to breathe. If I want to have a cup of coffee or sit down and breathe some air in the city, there is nowhere for me to do it. Literally nowhere.”