Urban Vacant Parcels as Opportunities to Reclaim Public Spaces in Times of Crises and Austerity

Dana Mazraani - 09.12.2020
Urban Vacant Parcels as Opportunities to Reclaim Public Spaces in Times of Crises and Austerity
Photo: Dana Mazraani
While Lebanon experiences multiple crises and its people struggle more every day, solidarities are direly needed, and spaces where people can meet and connect would play a key role in nurturing these solidarities. Vacant parcels can be such spaces, where playgrounds, food banks, and basic infrastructure can emerge, and where new forms of communal life can be experimented with.
In March 2020, Lebanese authorities closed off parks and gardens as part of a wider set of measures in an attempt to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. They were only reopened three months later, along with daycare centers, cinemas, pubs, nightclubs, and gyms. This conflation of open public spaces with enclosed gathering places needs to be challenged.
This article stems from a research partially funded by the University Research Board of the American University of Beirut.It was originally published in the UNDP's Peacebuilding in Lebanon News Supplement on December 9, 2020.You can read the full article on the Peacebuilding in Lebanon website. 
Because of their vital roles in cities, open public spaces should have been the first sites to reopen, while ensuring physical distancing. Indeed, public spaces improve physical, and mental health, promote social interaction, support economic development, and aid in forging inclusive urban citizenship. In the aftermath of the August 4 Beirut Port explosion, vacant parcels and abandoned structures have proven to play a vital role in disaster management by acting as venues for relief provision, mobilization, and gathering. Beirut is a dense and rapidly urbanizing city, with scant and ill-managed formal public spaces: these consist of 21 parks and gardens with an area amounting to less than 1 m2 per resident, a seaside Corniche, and a few publicly accessible coastal sites. Given Lebanon’s current socio-economic and political crises, grand plans and projects are impossible to implement. Yet, as planners aware of the crucial importance of green open and inclusive public spaces, we need to advocate their presence in the city and work with what is available rather than what should be available. In a city prioritizing people’s wellbeing, municipalities should champion urban change and lobby for the reactivation of public life. They have the legal prerogatives to elaborate city-scale urban strategies and neighborhood-based plans that can engage residents in improving their built environment. Mobility needs to play a central role in this strategy, and link existing formal public spaces with unbuildable and vacant parcels, abandoned buildings, and cultural and civic sites, forming a network of open communal spaces that serve and connect multiple neighborhoods. Such a network can foster belonging and a sense of ownership, and hence improve inclusion. If the municipality of Beirut were to adopt such priorities, public life in the capital would thrive, and provide dwellers with some respite from their daily challenges. But, in the absence of a responsible municipality, it is up to urban activists to keep advocating for improving their city. The four sets of recommendations below present pragmatic interventions that can be implemented relatively easily, through partnerships with the private sector and civil society groups, along the lines of partnerships already taking place in various neighborhoods, albeit in uncoordinated ways (e.g. food markets, temporary souks, pocket gardening). First, existing public spaces need to open and be rehabilitated as needed; and the seaside park by the Zaytuna Bay should be implemented. Second, indoor public spaces, such as the national and municipal libraries (where the user is not expected to be a consumer) should be made accessible. Third, streets need to be redesigned in ways that prioritize pedestrians. Taking cues from the impact of COVID-19 on Beirut, many people took to biking and walking, transforming the car-dominated city in very pleasant ways. Using tactical urbanism tools, simple and affordable measures can be introduced to give more leeway to soft mobility. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, is the repurposing of urban vacant parcels (public and private, built and unbuilt), temporarily or long-term, for communal and shared use. In these sites, planned (and unplanned) social interactions and spatial practices can flourish. Today, due to multiple reasons—namely the commodification of land and building regulations that favor real-estate speculation, municipal Beirut is rich with a wide variety of vacant properties. In a study we are leading at the AUB Beirut Urban Lab since Summer 2019,our findings revealed 932 vacant publicly owned parcels in municipal Beirut, having a total area of 210,000m2The value of urban vacant land lies in its flexibility. Unlike formal public spaces, urban vacancies are “loose spaces”, encouraging spontaneous and creative activities like open-air playgrounds, community gatherings, or urban agriculture. In addition to furthering the social value of land, if used in conjunction with green infrastructural systems, urban vacancies can help advance ecological needs. Devising inclusive modalities for the use and management of urban vacant land provides remarkable opportunities for increasing the stock and range of open spaces in dense cities. Furthermore, vacant parcels are particularly relevant in times of economic downturn and uncertainty. They usually do not require much capital investments or maintenance, can be managed communally and operated temporarily, yielding fast results. Programmatically, initiatives in urban vacancies can respond to the needs of the neighborhood, ranging from infrastructure to agriculture, and thus generate a sense of collective ownership. Prior to the Beirut Port explosion, some groups had been experimenting with initiatives of varying scales and ends: an afforestation project was being developed in a vacant lot by the Beirut River; an outdoor movie screening for children had set shop in a dead-end street in Geitaoui; a small neglected municipal garden in Caracas was cleaned up…After the blast, several open lots became sites of relief provision and community support. For instance, the Geitaoui Municipal Park acquired this role organically and spontaneously as a garden well-incorporated in the urban fabric and used by many dwellers. A vacant parcel including an abandoned and dilapidated gas station in Geitaoui was appropriated by a local community group (“Nation Station”) to provide free food and other forms of aid. Against all odds, socio-spatial practices play a vital role in Beirut. We can witness this, albeit fleetingly, in how they are resurfacing again in the areas affected by the explosion, even if people have not yet fully returned to their homes and neighborhoods. This is noticeable through neighbors sitting on plastic chairs outside grocery stores, small businesses acting as focal points within the neighborhoods as their owners greet familiar passersby, residents drinking coffee on their balconies while watching the reconstruction activities, and children playing football in empty parking lots. All of these instances demonstrate how people are slowly reclaiming their neighborhoods and communal spaces. Surely, the repurposing of urban vacant land will not redress the causal roots of systemic inequalities, yet such interventions can still be pertinent for daily public life in cities. While Lebanon experiences multiple crises and its people struggle more every day, solidarities are direly needed, and spaces where people can meet and connect would play a key role in nurturing these solidarities. Vacant parcels can be such spaces, where playgrounds, food banks, and basic infrastructure can emerge, and where new forms of communal life can be experimented with.