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Lebanon’s capital has been built in a violent cycle of destruction and rebuilding, exposing circular ecologies of profit, toxicity and waste
Waste and rubble have fuelled the reconfiguration of the Greater Beirut coastline through land reclamation projects that were designed as early as the 1950s. As a result of chronic mismanagement and recurring violence, loads of unexpected refuse and rubble have been indiscriminately channelled to coastal sites strategically located on the footprints of future extension projects. Precluding the establishment of any sustainable waste management strategy, the contrived alchemy between destruction and waste accumulation became the prized model for transforming tonnes of garbage into prime real estate.
The Ain Mraisseh seafront, some 10km north-east of the capital, bears examples of the transformation of demolition debris generated by the 1975–1990 civil war. Close to the Beirut International Airport, the Costa Brava landfill site was consolidated following the destruction of more than 200 buildings during the 2006 Israeli invasion. Further north, rubble from the Nahr-el-Bared conflict in 2007 was used to expand the port at Tripoli. It stands to reason that a similar fate awaits the Bourj Hammoud and Jdeideh coastal dumpsites that flank the northern edge of Beirut: both fall within the projected perimeter of the controversial Linord reclamation project, a mixed-use developmental vision spanning 2.4 million square metres of reclaimed land along Beirut’s northern coast. First conceived in the early 1990s, Linord was supposed to address the toxicity of the waste dump facing the Bourj Hammoud residential neighbourhood, while introducing much-needed infrastructure for public services, as well as real estate and commercial functions. The project was halted in 1998 for political and economic reasons, then relaunched during the 2015 waste crisis, when the establishment of the Jdeideh landfill site was proposed as a stopgap measure to address rising ridges of trash around the city and the country.
Opaque legal practices have allowed these projects to materialise, including the abuse of the Property Law, which stipulates that ‘small and large landforms resulting from accumulating sedimentation in lakes and seas are considered private state property’ – waste dumping as a form of anthropogenic sedimentation. Throughout the construction process, these sites expose construction workers, engineers and fishermen to serious health hazards, as waste sorting is not regulated. Such practices damage coastal ecologies and micro-economies and, once executed, spaces are often restricted to those who can afford them. Architects and urbanists, in providing creative visions and blueprints for these projects, legitimise them as paths towards modernisation, innovation and progress.
Meanwhile, Beirut’s property boom has, since the 2000s, largely been based on demolition and redevelopment: an estimated 78 per cent of Beiruti constructions authorised in this time were planned on already built parcels of land, requiring demolition before construction. This was exacerbated by changes to the Building Law, which increased building allowances, raised land prices and caused a growing rent gap. Intensified by the ease of obtaining demolition permits in municipal Beirut, where safety and environmental regulations are not enforced, the urban fabric has been violently transformed by commercial developers, often pooling small plots to erect ever-larger projects. This mode of peace-time urbanisation, in which architects and planners also have a key, albeit increasingly constricted, role, generates significant amounts of demolition waste, subject to illegal dumping in valleys and along the shoreline. Demolition-based development feeds land reclamation projects and accelerates the displacement of city-dwellers as the state increasingly hands over urban space to private developers, and repeatedly deregulates the urban sphere through neoliberal policies and legislation.
Low and middle-income dwellers evicted in the early 1990s and in the mid 2010s sought affordable housing in suburbanising satellite towns, often located in the vicinity of polluting industrial zones, illegal quarries and lethal powerplants, caused by a lack of land-use planning outside Beirut and other major urban centres. This has generated sprawling landscapes of generic construction where rates of chronic illness and cancer soar. By operating in this context without challenging it, spatial practitioners contribute to these gradual, delayed forms of violence that determine spaces of life, creating spaces of death. They become instruments in a ‘necropolitical’ – to borrow Achille Mbembe’s term – mode of spatial production, premised on the selective erasure of worlds and futures for the benefit of visions of floating dreamlands.
The ruling class’s control over the cement, banking, construction and waste sectors since the early 1990s ensured a circular ecology of unfettered profit for decades. When urbanised areas doubled in size between 1994 and 2005, and following the Iraqi reconstruction in 2004, over 1,200 quarries (only 75 of which were licensed) spread in less urbanised areas. Until the economic and monetary meltdown of Lebanon began in 2019, cement was being converted into financial assets through the built environment. As a condition and consequence of a colossal appetite for construction, the cement industry systematically wreaked havoc on local landscapes, communities and livelihoods. During the 2019 uprisings, decentralised mobilisations disclosed the entanglement of Beirut’s urbanisation with national and transnational circuits of extraction and capital. This had propelled spatial injustices well beyond the blurry confines of the urban agglomeration and reaffirmed the subjugation of the peripheries to the capital.
In this increasingly pressured environment, urban neighbourhoods that managed to retain parts of their historical fabric offered affordable yet precarious living conditions to those who could not find a place elsewhere in the city. Marginalised communities such as migrants, workers, refugees and queers were able to construct worlds in common by establishing spaces in neighbourhoods such as Karantina, Badawi, Mar Mikhael, Rmeil and Geitawi, claiming their narratives and visibility, and practising forms of solidarity. All this crystallised in the popular occupation of the city in October 2019. Located at the north-eastern perimeter of the capital, these neighbourhoods sat in close proximity to a ticking time-bomb of festering refuse: Hangar 12 in Beirut’s port.
‘As a direct result of the explosion, an estimated 100,000 to 750,000 tonnes of contaminated materials were dispersed into the air, soil and water’
On 4 August 2020, 2,750 tonnes of unclaimed ammonium nitrate caught fire in Hangar 12, causing one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. It wiped out half of the city, damaging 11,952 buildings, claiming more than 200 lives and leaving over 6,000 people injured. Although the initial source of the fire is still widely disputed, the explosion was aided by the proximity of highly flammable confiscated materials, stored in the same hangar. As a direct result of the explosion, an estimated 100,000 to 750,000 tonnes of contaminated materials were dispersed into the air, soil and water, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, lead and heavy metals. Rumours also spread that buried stocks of hidden weapons, ammunition and toxic waste dating back to the late 1980s had been unearthed by the detonation. In the weeks that followed, fire returned to the port, indicating that the conditions that had led to 4 August had not been addressed. A month later, the Lebanese Army revealed that an additional 4.35 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been removed from the port and destroyed. Under much closer scrutiny, the government signed a $3.6 million contract with a German industrial handling and storage company to clear toxic materials from the port, and 59 containers of hazardous waste were collected to be shipped to Germany, including large quantities of hydrochloric acid and other toxic, cancerous, flammable and highly reactive chemicals that had been stored in the port for decades.
Within seconds, the explosion caused as much material damage as the 15-year civil war, and turned decades of intensive construction into demolition waste. Beirut found itself once more with large quantities of debris: nearly two million cubic metres of rubble and about 80,000 tonnes of broken glass. Located in the vicinity of the port, its two main sorting, recycling and composting facilities sustained heavy damage due to the blast and were no longer operational. Although the Jdeideh and Costa Brava landfills had closed down because they were already full beyond capacity, decision-makers ordered the temporary re-extension of the Jdeideh landfill, a measure that was still not sufficient to absorb the surge of waste and debris. In the absence of any state response, community-led clean-up efforts meant that largely unsorted debris was piled up in temporary locations in local districts. Eight months on, reports by environmental activists claimed that the blast also dispersed quantities of asbestos, used in the construction of the port hangars. Residents of Beirut are currently still exposed to this hazardous substance, which continues to contaminate other waste while awaiting adequate treatment.
‘Returning rubble to the mountains from where they came only serves to greenwash the cement extraction industry’
In contrast to previous approaches to rubble disposal through land reclamation, UN-Habitat, in partnership with a handful of multinationals and other local entities, launched the Rubble to Mountains initiative in an early attempt to address the large quantity of solid waste generated by the blast. Their website explains that in the timespan of 18 months, the consortium ‘aims at sorting the quantities of rubble, concrete, iron, plastic, glass and nylon, and turning them into material for landfill in mountains severely eroded by quarrying’. While portrayed as an environmentally friendly and sustainable solution for dealing with both the debris and the abandoned quarries, returning rubble to the mountains from where they came only serves to greenwash the cement extraction industry, which has failed to seriously rehabilitate any sites it has ever occupied – despite being legally obliged to do so. The explosion also displaced more than 300,000 people, and aided the infiltration of politically affiliated real-estate vultures into the damaged areas, prolonging the cycle of destruction, dispossession and (re)construction that is by now all too familiar.
In the wake of the disaster, academics, architects and urban planners rushed to recommend guiding principles for approaching the recovery process. Their calls rightly sought to influence the reconstruction process on two essential fronts, which had been handled disastrously in previous reconstruction experiences such as Wa’d in 2006 and Solidere in 1994. They aimed to include the voices of residents resisting spatial cleansing and erasure, and refused to adopt the geography and temporality defined by the catastrophe and its immediate repercussions.
That said, these calls also exposed challenges that spatial practitioners have yet to overcome. On the one hand, experts’ demands for civic engagement require a radical reconfiguring and broadening of our methodologies, tools and language to allow us to truly engage with the spatial experience and knowledge of others. On the other hand, the need to break out of the space and time of the destruction requires that we come to terms with the slow, unspectacular cycles of violence upon which the city has depended to sustain itself.
The intimate relationship between urbanisation and the political economy illustrates how spatial practitioners’ expertise has been utilised by power and ideology to determine the shape of the world. Faced with this metabolic nexus of toxicity, labour and destruction, we are forced to assess how architects and planners directly contribute to economies of extraction, environmental deregulation and slow violence, and to accept that urbanists and spatial practitioners more widely have a responsibility towards the shared spatial imaginaries that determine possible futures. As articulated in the call by Charlotte Malterre-Barthes and b+ for a Global Moratorium on New Construction, the complicit role that design disciplines play in environmental degradation and social injustice can no longer be ignored.
‘To learn from Beirut is to realise that this condition is far from local’
Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon’s political economy has been characterised by its hegemony over imaginaries, whereby the conceivable future is made inseparable from the commodification and construction of land. Beirut’s model of urbanisation had long been coveted by other major Lebanese cities, who saw in its rentier practices an easy way out of engaging with any real social, economic or political world-building.
To learn from Beirut is to realise that this condition is far from local, and that it may be time to rethink the validity of both the city and of urban growth as the primary mode of collective planetary inhabitation. At this moment, it is crucial that practitioners counter the defuturing processes that have been governing spatial production by advancing political, social and spatial imaginaries that can expand the realm of possibility and bring about new socio-material forms and infrastructures of life. Compounding urgencies – ranging from the geopolitical to the geological – compel us to converse across scales and disciplinary bounds to instigate processes of imagining life beyond the city, the state, the market and the natural, and to reclaim time and futurity, not as more of the same, but as sites for ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ that are capable of radically re-engineering the now.
Lead image: During the eight month waste crisis in 2015, a river of rubbish formed in Jdeideh, a suburb of Beirut. The waste was eventually moved to the reopened Naameh landfill. Credit: Anwar Amro / AFP / Getty
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