There are many lessons for Aleppo from what happened in Beirut:
• Rebuilding driven by the few for the few will fail.
• The core values must be accountability and transparency.
• Aleppo should not focus on investor-led fantasies of what the city might be but concentrate on rebuilding families, their businesses and the local economy.
• Economic resilience should be a key part of any reconstruction.
• Rebuilding the city centre is essential, but so is an integrated plan for the whole city.
• Reconstruction will not mend deep political divisions, but can be used to rebuild common public spaces that promote reconciliation.
• Democratic control may mean reconstruction takes longer, but it will be done better and is less likely to deepen social divisions.
LESSONS FROM BEIRUT
- Reconstruction in Aleppo must be focused on local economic and social needs rather than those of globalised capitalism. The vast sums spent developing Beirut Central District (BCD) into an area for international investors and tourists have left it particularly vulnerable to geopolitical and economic shocks. The war with Israel in 2006 and the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 both seriously undermined the Solidere redevelopment. Gulf investment is fickle; it moves quickly and can be withdrawn for any number of economic or political reasons.The price Beirut has paid for selling its city centre to the highest bidder is immense. Those who promote this form of development will always blame outside shocks for their problems but the reality is that it is a very poor way of rebuilding cities in that it meets the needs of only a very narrow group of the population and only by taking enormous financial risks.
- The priority must be on re-developing a city centre in Aleppo that is lively, inclusive and as important to city residents as it is to investors and tourists. The fact that there is no major new school, university, social housing, popular market or popular gathering place in BCD is a major problem. If a city fails to attract people it will not provide the returns to investors. Cities require heterogeneity to succeed.
- Private models of redevelopment exacerbate inequality, which was already a serious problem in pre-war Aleppo. Public-Private partnership may work on a smaller scale but it is clear that they cannot deliver on the wider set of benefits needed in a post-conflict city. Social harmony, equality, representation and memorialisation need to be considered along side business interests or narrow political views.
- Redevelopment must be realistic. Aleppo will not be a new global or regional centre, it will not recover quickly and rebuilding some of its core will not mend a ravaged society. The focus of rebuilding must be on more modest aims – recovery of families and communities, the return of small businesses and the development of a sustainable economic base.
- Ownership models should not be seriously disrupted. Ending the effective ownership of thousands of people and then handing them shares in a company over which they had little control was not a satisfactory arrangement. By insisting on very expensive reconstructions and a rapid timetable for rebuilding – which it often could not meet itself – Solidere put additional pressures on owners to accept shares rather than reclaim their property. In Aleppo, ownership issues are going to be very complicated after the war. Large number of buildings, particularly in the Old City, are formerly owned by religious foundations but are let on long leases. Other buildings have multiple owners, some of whom would have been died intestate or may not return. Solidere ultimately ran roughshod over ownership culture, even if it was able to bend the law to its side.
- Concentration of control. Urban planners tend to admire systems that sweep away planning law and put schemes in the hands of all-powerful special agencies or public-private partnerships. However, although they are often able to turn infrastructure problems around rapidly, they tend to concentrate power, eschew any accountability and run roughshod over public opinion. From the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to the London Docklands Development Authority to others in Berlin, Etablissement Public d’Aménagement de la Défense in Paris and in the Middle East, these powerful organisations have not always delivered much more beyond big office parks isolated from their cities and not much loved by their residents. A serious debate is needed about how much democratic control to cede to these authorities, particularly in a post-conflict situation where any mechanisms of judicial or public oversight are likely to be extremely weak.
- Funding for the reconstruction of Aleppo is going to be a challenge. Most of the money and work will be done by owners themselves, not by foreigner investors. Regulations must be tailored to support the interests of city residents above any narrow group of investors. Investment money is going to serve narrow interests – in the case of Aleppo probably the eventual redevelopment of tourism infrastructure and industry. International support should allow for the establishment of effective credit mechanisms to support reconstruction and new businesses. This should not be left entirely to the private sector as experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that banks are often corrupt and mostly involved in money laundering and lending to the politically connected.
- Tourists and investors are more impressed by an authentic city that retains its culture and identity. Paris will always have many more visitors than Dubai and they will likely stay longer and spend more. Aleppo should focus on restoration of its historic centre not just as a tourist destination but also as a living city. This means maintaining a mixed economy, a range of social groups, public space that is defined in different ways and attracts mixed groups and few efforts at exclusion on the grounds of excessive security.
- Reconstruction takes time whether it is done as a public-private partnership or through individual investors. Berlin and Beirut started rebuilding their city centres at around the same time and both are incomplete and evolving processes. Both put commercial interests too much to the front, creating lifeless central districts designed by famous architects that are overshadowed by their more interesting and creative neighbours.
- Despite the long history of violence in Beirut, security features seem to have been ignored in the planning of BCD. Rather than building in relatively inconspicuous security devices, they were added later, cutting off large areas around government buildings and preventing life from returning to the centre. Some new buildings, for example the United Nations regional office are relatively insecure despite blast proofing and other efforts. If government offices or embassies are to be located in sensitive areas then security needs to be considered from the start.
- The memories of those who left Aleppo and take many years to return will be quite different from those who stayed and endured the full hardships of the war. Those who lived in the east and west will have different experiences and memories. Reconstruction and memorialisation of the war needs to be an inclusive process that brings together as many voices as possible. Amnesia and amnesty have been the choices of the powerful in Lebanon but not always of the victims of war and their families. Even if memories cannot be addressed right after a war, there still should be some effort to document what happened in order to address these issues in the future.
- Finding appropriate memorials after conflict can be a struggle. Lebanon has done little to deal with its past and so redevelopment has felt more often like erasure rather than recovery. The peace process did not allow for any real examination of what had happened in the civil war as the participants were all in power. Any memorialisation was likely to dredge up memories that the powers wanted suppressed. Consequently even places of great significance in the war are unmarked. All peace processes are flawed and Syria’s eventual peace is likely to come at the cost of truth about the brutality of war. But Lebanon shows us that erasure is not the solution. Rebuilding cannot hide what went before.
- Many private corporations are not known for their inclusiveness or sensitivity to the needs of women or minorities. Solidere, for example, does not have a single woman on its board. It does have eleven Lebanese men, all with backgrounds in business, finance or law. The narrowness of decision making in the private sector and the lack of transparency or processes of appeal make it an unsuitable mechanism in a post-conflict society.
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