vendredi 8 février 2013

Can beirut become a city full of trees? (Art.72bis) In BEYOND Magazine.

Posted on February 8, 2013 in Beyond the Misty Haze, Horizons, Winter 2013 - Issue 10


What is striking when one arrives in the Lebanese capital is unquestionably the lack of greenery! There are four types of greenery in a city: the forests, which depend on Mother Nature; the parks and the sidewalk trees, which depend on the public authorities; and the various private arrangements, which depend on the goodwill of the citizens. Without a doubt, we are cursed by the gods because the four types of greenery are cruelly missing in Lebanon.

1. FORESTS. They are shrinking rapidly. Between fire (often of criminal origin), the illegal trade in firewood (with the romantic fad of certain Lebanese for fireplaces, the savage felling of trees by the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon (for their own consumption of wood, especially after the increase in the price of diesel), the intensive concreting and climate change, the forests of Lebanon today represent no more than 7 percent to 13 percent of the surface areas of the country, as compared to 35 percent in 1965. Experts estimate that if nothing is done to stop this decline, the land of the cedars could definitively lose its ecological heritage by around 2030. It is therefore evident that Lebanon has to declare a state of emergency with regard to ecology and establish a wide-ranging national plan in order to save that which remains of our forests of yesteryear. This is obvious to certain people, but not yet to our elected officials!

2. PARKS, GARDENS, AND PUBLIC SQUARES. They are a rare commodity in Lebanese cities. We currently have nearly 393,000 square meters of green spaces in the 20 square kilometers of the megalopolis of Beirut, where 1.4 million inhabitants reside. It is not necessary to tell you that this represents a very low amount.

By comparison, for nothing is more telling than figures, a stop in some megalopolises in the world will show the extent of the disaster. First stop in Paris. In the capital of France, there are 5,550,000 square meters of green spaces in the city center, 450 in total, divided among 16 parks, 137 gardens, 274 squares, and eight promenades. This figure does not take into consideration the kilometers of sidewalk trees, a considerable surface area, and above all the two big peripheral woods of the French capital (created by Napoleon III in around 1850), the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, which by themselves total 18,410,000 square meters. In total, Paris offers 24 million square meters of greenery to the 2.2 Parisians, whereas Beirut offers only 0.4 million square meters of greenery to the Beirutis. Impressive. However, on the other side of the Rhine River, Paris cuts a sorry figure as compared to Berlin: It has 2,500 green spaces; 18 percent of the urban territory covered by woods and forests; 14 percent covered by parks, gardens, and squares; that is, an overall surface area of 64 million square meters for 3.4 million inhabitants! While the price per square meter was worth gold in the Western capitals, urbanization has never taken place to the detriment of green spaces. In the heart of Berlin, the big park of Tiergarten (developed in around 1835) offers 2,100,000 square meters of greenery that is accessible at all hours and in all seasons. This park was completely destroyed in the course of the Second World War (fires during the bombardments of the city by the Allies and during the fighting in 1945, felling of trees for firewood, clearing of land for planting crops, etc.) Less than four years after the end of the war, one million trees were planted to bring the park back to life from its ashes. In the heart of London, Hyde Park, which was established in around 1820, offers 2,500,000 square meters to the English. Finally, Central Park, which is located in the center of New York, has been offering 3,410,000 square meters to the residents of the city since 1837, when the Big Apple was only a little fruit with a few hundred thousand inhabitants!

In Lebanon, there is quite simply a lack of green spaces. Currently, there is only one park and two gardens worthy of the name in Beirut: The Bois des Pins, Sanayeh Garden, and the Sioufi Garden. The latter, which covers a surface area of 20,000 square meters, even in its current state, has no reason to be jealous of the gardens in Paris and Berlin. However, certain Lebanese geniuses had nothing better to do than to envisage the construction of a parking lot in the subsoil of the plot of land. Understand by that that trees will be replaced by bushes and bushes will be replaced by thoughts. Pitiable. Today the Sioufi Garden is abandoned both by the Municipality of Beirut, which has other priorities, such as the recuperation of municipal taxes from honest citizens, and alas, by the Beirutis as well, on the pretext that it is not up to standards. The other important green space in Beirut is the Sanayeh Garden, 22,000 square meters. It has no reason to be jealous of Sioufi, even topographically, except that it is more frequented. However, the scandal of scandals concerns the Bois des Pins.

It is the largest green space in the capital. A triangle of 300,000 square meters. To have an idea of what this represents, know that in Paris, the Tuileries Garden consists of 280,000 square meters and the Luxembourg Garden consists of 225,000 square meters. How lucky we are! Well, it so happens that the Boise des Pins is closed to the Lebanese public. To penetrate this important site, which is safeguarded by the Municipality of Beirut, one has to be more than 35 years of age and demand a special authorization, or be of French nationality. How dismaying! The Bois des Pins is what remains of the vast pine forests of the Ottoman Era. It was created in 1968, but the civil war of 1975 put a stop to its development and transformed it into a “demarcation zone” between the belligerents. It was ravaged by fires at the time of the Israeli invasion in 1982. Since 1992, it has been closed to the public. This is a brief historic overview, not very glorious, of the largest green space in the Lebanese capital. It is nothing to write home about. An agreement that was concluded between the region of Ile–de-France and the Municipality of Beirut provided for its redevelopment and its re-opening to the public in 2002, that is to say, ten years ago! The municipal elected officials of the capital did not seem to be in a hurry either to register it as a “public space,” which would have made its being opened to the public obligatory, or to make firm commitments with regard to it. However, yes, let’s see, why communicate with the good citizens and honest people so long as they pay nicely their municipal taxes without protesting! Some people fear damages [to the Bois des Pins]. Yes, it is known, the Beirutis are a bunch of riffraff. Other people fear that the Bois des Pins will be the scene of confrontations among the communities that surround it: Christian (Badaro side), Sunni (Kaskas side), and Shiite (Goubeiry and Chiyah side). That’s it, yes, again the little savages of Beirut. Never mind the pretexts, the phony excuses, the negligence, and the priorities, it is high time that the complete and definitive opening of the Bois des Pins becomes an issue that is at stake during the next elections in Beirut.

3. THE SIDEWALK TREES. They are being systematically mutilated. In a hot country, with 300 sunny days per year, where summer temperatures are around 30 degrees Celsius, with a rate of humidity that surpasses 70 percent, almost no rainfall during half of the year, dusty, polluted, covered with concrete, ugly, and disfigured, the Municipality of Beirut has found nothing better to do than to transform the fig trees of the capital into ridiculous decorative bowls and cubes! It’s distressing.

4. THE BALCONIES AND TERRACES. They are desperately deserted. The Lebanese dream of a terrace, not to cover it with pots and with gardens and to make it a jungle of greenery, but only to hang around in the open air!

This is the miserable situation in which we currently live. It is true that all of that is depressing. A comparison with Dubai would be to our advantage, except that the emirate is not a reference in this domain. What is certain is that he who does not sow, does not reap anything! We can find 1,001 ideas to remedy the situation: Embark on pharaonic projects, (such as the development of the Beirut River and gardens suspended on rooftops). Demand millions of dollars to realize these projects. Curse at not being heard. Spit on our politicians. Get involved in seasonal events (such as days without cars). Throw taxpayers’ money out the window. Eat falafels in the manner of Baal. Argue endlessly in a semicircle, in the municipal councils, in the newspapers, on the television, and on Facebook.  And yet, it does not require much to transform our infernal city into a pleasant city. Here are some guidelines for our decision-makers with respect to green spaces.

1. LAUNCH CAMPAIGNS FOR THE REHABILITATION OF TREES, by getting ecologists, ministries, politicians, journalists, religious figures, and teachers involved. Explain to our compatriots and to our children that trees are not enemies, but rather the contrary, they are friends who wish us well. And more precisely, it will be cooler under the trees, temperatures will decrease in the areas that are planted with trees (even at the level of all of Beirut!), trees will prevent the road and the buildings from transforming themselves into radiators that accumulate heat at night during the summer (it has never been this hot in Beirut, and for good reason!), trees will make it possible to run the air conditioning less (therefore, less consumption of electricity), we can plant deciduous trees near buildings (to let the winter’s sunrays pass), trees will depollute the city, they will make the air in apartments more healthful, they will diminish the rate of pulmonary diseases, they will be a comfort for the eyes and a comfort for the soul, they will make it possible for people to unwind, they will be great feather dusters to remove the dust from the atmosphere (therefore, less housework!), dead leaves will not ruin cars (the sun will!), leaves and debris will serve to make compost in the fall (which could be distributed to people in the springtime to better decorate their balconies with flowers), insects will prove that we don’t live in a sterilized environment, the more trees there are the less bird excrement there will be (by the dispersion of the animals over a large zone), etc. To talk about the rehabilitation of trees in Lebanon, it is nevertheless crazy to come to that!

2. STOP MUTILATING THE EXISTING TREES, in particular the sidewalk fig trees. Even the two fig trees in Samir Kassir’s garden did not escape the mutilation. By wanting to lighten them, we have made these giants of greenery into scrawny trees. At the University of Saint-Joseph, it was a massacre. In front of the stadium in Jounieh, it was also a massacre. In front of the University of Louaizé, it was also a massacre. Everywhere, it is the same desolation. Is it too much to ask of our benevolent municipalities, in particular that of Beirut, to stop mutilating the fig trees and to let these poor trees flourish? A municipal decision is enough to completely change the life of Beirutis! To cap it all, this “project” would not cost the taxpayers one Lebanese pound.

3. STAY STOP TO THE HIDEOUS TOWERS that are proliferating in Beirut, and particularly to the developers without scruples, to the worshippers of Benjamin Franklin, and to the archaic architects, who are joining their forces to spread ugliness in the city, to the detriment of green spaces.

4. PANT, WATER, AND PROTECT. NO to small, pathetic projects where three bushes and seven thoughts battle in a duel on a roundabout! NO to pharaonic projects, such as the development of the river and the rooftops of Beirut, and to seasonal projects, such as days without cars. YES to ambitious projects! YES to efficiency at the least cost. “Big trees in all of the streets of Beirut” is a project that meets these four constraints. Yes we can. Let us appeal to the Lebanese Army to make this project achievable in a short time. Let us mobilize the resources of the Municipality of Beirut and of the State. We will transform the river and the rooftops of Beirut, when we will have realized this ambitious project and when we will have re-developed the existing gardens and the squares, and when we will have opened the Bois des Pins permanently to the public. We have the unheard of luck of having ground water in the subsoil of Beirut and sewers that are in bad condition, which can be useful for an accelerated development of trees! Enough pine trees, symbol of dryness, and enough palm trees, symbol of aridity. Enough plum trees from Japan, enough olive trees from the Mediterranean, and enough ailanthus trees from Mount Lebanon. All of these trees are stingy with shade! I dream of poplar trees from Italy, sycamores from Provence and the Orient, linden trees from Ile-de-France, cedars from Lebanon, sequoias from California, fig trees from Beirut, eucalyptus trees from Australia, oak trees from Mount Lebanon, and walnut trees from yesteryear. And yes, I dream, of big trees for Lebanon in general, and for Beirut in particular, with majestic appearances and with generous shade!

IN CONCLUSION, in order to increase significantly and easily the surface area of green spaces in Beirut, there are two ways that cost little: stop pruning severely the existing sidewalk trees and replant with trees all the streets of the capital. Letting the sidewalk trees grow taller will not cost anything and it will change completely the life of the inhabitants! Disseminating in all of Beirut 15,000 poplar trees from Italy will cost less than a short-lived day without cars ($150,000 for the day of September 2, 2012 in Ashrafieh!), and it is of greater utility for the people! It is necessary to make our elected officials, whether they are deputies or municipal councilors, and those who plan to become elected officials, used to being accountable and becoming involved with the citizens of this city. The next dates for elections are 2013 for the legislative elections and 2016 for the municipal elections. They still have time to act concretely and to attain these two objectives or include these elements in their campaign platforms. Failing that, a fishing rod is an excellent parting gift for an early retirement…and the Mediterranean abounds in sardines!

Can beirut become a city full of trees? Bakhos Baalbaki. In BEYOND Magazine, 8 Feb. 2013. Shortened version.

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