Beirut’s city centre is now mostly rebuilt. A quarter century after it was destroyed during the Lebanese civil war, the area is now a polished mix of restored buildings, ancient ruins and glass towers. But a place that once drew all of Lebanon’s diverse people to its souks, cafes, cinemas and hotels is a somewhat rootless zone of empty luxury stores and unoccupied apartments. Rebuilt as a destination for international money and tourists, it is no longer the heart of Beirut but a very costly monument to vanity and self-delusion.
Lebanon’s capital long ago lost its place as the “Paris of the Middle East” and its current efforts to compete with the oil-fuelled Gulf cities were doomed from the start by changes in the global maps of money, travel and business. Outside of the Beirut Central District (BCD), the city is suffering from the deep failures of governance that afflict the whole country. Public transport is almost non-existent, there is no social housing, a half comfortable life relies on generators and private tankers to bring in water and more people look to confessional groups for help than to the moribund municipal government. The city often ranks low in international liveability surveys, even falling behind its Middle Eastern neighbours like Amman and Cairo. In the summer of 2015 garbage piled up on the streets while protesters waved signs telling the government “You Stink.”
The reconstruction of BCD has thrown up dozens of books and articles and near torrent of denunciations by local architects and activists. Solidere, the private company that runs the downtown, undermined the public good, violated the constitution, demolished too many buildings and acted only in the interest of international investors, according to the critics. Solidere responds by asking what other mechanisms would have worked amidst Lebanon’s polarised politics and shortages of money? The company also points to the buildings that stand where trees grew in the rubble. Beirutis in turn ask “At what cost?”
There are many lessons for Aleppo from what has happened in Beirut:
- Rebuilding that is driven by the few for the few will fail.
- Core values of accountability and transparency in planning matter.
- 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 essentially but so is an integrated plan for the whole city.
- Reconstruction will not mend deep political divisions but it 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.
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