BEIRUT: For its numerous charms – which helped bring nearly 2 million tourists to Lebanon in 2009 – Beirut, to speak politely, is not famed for its greenery.
New developments on lucrative plots crop up like concrete mushrooms as Lebanon’s capital undergoes further regeneration as uniform grayness homogenizes the city with scant regard for the environment.
Beirut possesses very few areas that could legitimately be termed “green spaces” – all of which are in various states of disrepair, and only periodically available to the public.
But help may be at hand for the estimated three-quarters of Lebanese who call Beirut and its wider suburbs home.
Lebanon’s Green Party is leading a drive to furnish Beirut with more verdant spaces starting, it hopes, with the ambitious Green River project.
The plan is to transform the 8.5-kilometer stretch of the Beirut River between Qarantina and Hazmiyeh from its current dumping-ground status to something far more environmentally and aesthetically pleasing, as Green Party president Philippe Skaff tells The Daily Star.
“We saw this so-called river and for about 8 months of the year it is dry and used as a big sewage dump. It’s unhealthy, has no use and is an eyesore.
“Our idea is to cover [the river] thus creating a green line with parks, cycle paths and have a lot of [areas for] activities. The river is huge and it can magically be transformed into a huge green space in Beirut. It could be a good example for other cities.”
It is, Skaff says, a vision borne out of frustration at Beirut’s apparent inability to tolerate green spaces as Lebanon’s urban population swells.
“Beirut lacks urban planning. There was no vision for Beirut when we took our independence,” he says “Of course you also have corruption. There might be some laws governing urban planning but these were not respected because of corruption. This contributed to the chaos that we see.”
The project is still in its planning and survey stages, but tentative movements toward political persuasion have been made, Skaff says.
“We have started lobbying and this is creating some public interest. We already rallied some MPs and the next step will be a much more in-depth study in order to assess the cost,” he says.
If given the go-ahead, the Green River will span seven municipalities, but Skaff is confident the cross-ministry consensus required for the Green River’s go-ahead is achievable.
“There will probably be no objections. This should be a project that flies above political agendas. It is of major public interest and one thing we should know is that it’s feasible. There is a lot of red tape and that should be broken.
“It is not costly at all for the government. All it needs to do is create a regulatory environment and pass the necessary laws, then this can go ahead.”
The project will be funded entirely privately, alleviating financial concerns from a government currently grappling with the second-highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world.
Land will be bought from relevant municipalities and developed in an environmentally sustainable way. The profits generated by such real-estate opportunities will finance the river’s revitalization, according to Skaff.
“Instead of developers destroying cultural places, this will be a designated place for high-rise construction on both sides [of the river],” he says. “If this project sees the light, the value of the land will increase dramatically and encourage investment in real estate.
“What is the cost [of the project]? We don’t know yet. The devil will be in the details.”
Potential plans could include the proposed removal of an abattoir between the Dora highway and the sea, as well as the intended incorporation of Sin al-Fil’s popular Sunday Market into Green River blueprints.
In addition to parks, cafes and leisure facilities, Skaff hopes to endow Beirut with its first high-speed electric train route, to follow the shape of the river from the Mediterranean to Hazmiyeh.
Once complete, the Green River will sit aside the existing Green Valley, an initiative by Metn MP Ghassan Mukhaiber, which guarantees the river is protected from development along a further 15 kilometers of its course.
Skaff believes the Green River project is the ideal antidote to the allergy to green spaces developers in Beirut seem to display. He adds that political spats continue to deny citizens of recreation areas.
“When there is corruption, money wins and the land in Beirut is so expensive that economically it doesn’t make sense to use it other than to build on. It’s very hard to see how you can protect plots of land without a master plan and without municipalities buying land to turn it into green spaces.”
Exactly that needs to occur for the Green River to come to fruition, Skaff says.
“It is the Cabinet that should take care of the regulatory environment. If there is a will there’s a way. There is nothing stopping it. You are not moving people from their homes, you’re improving their lifestyle, you’re solving an environmental project and the funds will be self-generated by the private sector,” Skaff says, before adding pensively: “If small politics start interfering, there might be a problem.”
Skaff estimates that 600,000 people living in east Beirut would directly benefit from the Green River project, with millions more free to enjoy its recreation areas. The plan could be completed within 10 years, he adds.
“This is not a lot. This means that whoever is eight now, at 18 he can take his bicycle and ride [along the river]. You cannot be against a project like this because all positive aspects will be shared by more than 600,000 people.”