Beirut Design Week | Design & Urban Space
I wasn’t planning on blogging about Beirut Design Week, but I was asked by a fellow Tweeter who saw my tweets from the Design and Urban Space talk and asked if I would write about the presentation as he wasn’t able to attend being that he lives abroad. I hesitated to write about any of the events as I’m not a designer, though having studied architecture for a year in college before deciding to change my major to Italian with a minor in urban planning, the topic of urban design and planning is near and dear to my heart. But, really, you don’t have to have studied urban planning to have thoughts and opinions about it, you just have to be present in an urban setting!
Since moving to Beirut almost two years ago, thoughts of the urban environment of Beirut have been at the forefront of my mind. I am constantly thinking of small (and big) changes that could be made to improve life in this city. Green space, traffic flow, parking issues, sidewalks, and architectural heritage are some of the things that I think about almost daily as I go about my life in this city. So when I saw that one of the talks for Beirut Design Week was about urban space I was really curious to see what the team of designers would come up with for this city of ours.
According to the presentation, titled The Gemmayzeh Microsystem Solution Proposal, the team looked at the whole city of Beirut in terms of urban space, noise pollution, public transportation, and traffic issues. While public transportation was deemed to be a major issue that urgently needs to be addressed in the city, it was something that they wouldn’t be able to make any major (or minor!) changes in without government support and cooperation. So the team decided to focus their efforts on the neighborhood of Gemmayzeh where they could come up with a comprehensive solution to improve the neighborhood.
I have only my memory to go on when writing this so I can’t go into all of the specific details of the proposal, but essentially the idea was to improve the livability of the neighborhood (including the traffic congestion!), particularly on Rue Gouraud, by creating a “shared space” for cars and people on the main thoroughfare of Gemmayzeh. It took me a while to realize that by “shared space” they meant the elimination of sidewalks, the introduction of cafe tables and street furniture, and cars and pedestrians mingling freely together. (The term “mixed-use streets” was also used quite a bit. I even tweeted “Mixed-use streets = the future of Gemmayzeh?” But from my brief online research after the presentation, that seems to still refer mainly to a mix of building uses–commercial/residential, retail/offices, day/night use–which describes most of Beirut. Shared space is something a bit more innovative.)
The theory behind the idea of shared space (mixing pedestrians with cars) is that drivers will be more cautious of pedestrians (and more willing to be polite and yield to them) if there are no rules giving anyone the right-of-way. And we know Lebanese drivers don’t follow any traffic rules! (“Lebanese drivers respect people, not laws,” was what one of the team members said.) Cars will have to slow down, make eye contact with pedestrians, and yield to them, thus creating slow and steady traffic and safer streets that are pedestrian-centered. This shared space will also make more room on the street for cafes to put out tables, for shops to open up onto the street, and even create the opportunity for weekend farmers markets and street fairs, etc. More pedestrian traffic would also benefit business owners because of the increased number of people (especially in the day time) on the streets to shop and dine.
This idyllic shared space would be made possible by the rerouting of traffic in a loop around Gemmayzeh. Cars wouldn’t be restricted from traveling on Rue Gouraud, but it would become much more convenient for them to travel around the perimeter once some directional changes are made on the streets (including making Rue Pasteur a two way road). Additionally, there would be parking garages in the area, neighborhood micro-bus services, and resident-only parking permits for the surrounding streets. And, because this is Lebanon, the valet parking would, of course, stay.
Curious to see some real-life examples of shared streets I went to the internet to see what I could find.
I found several examples of great urban spaces that I would love to spend time in, but I have to wonder, would this really work in Beirut? Will Lebanese drivers really be more polite if there are pedestrians in the street? I look at the spaces in the photos above and can imagine a car (or several) behind one of these pedestrians honking for them to get out of the way while a scooter comes speeding from the wrong direction nearly knocking over another poor unsuspecting pedestrian in the process. Every day I get the here-I-come-you-better-get-out-of-my-way honk when I am walking in the street (to the side with plenty of space for a car to pass, mind you), so I wonder how this new space would be any different.
It was interesting to read about shared space on Wikipedia and see the countries that were listed as already having implemented the concept: Australia, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States. I’m sure we can all agree that Beirut urban spaces are not even anywhere near the same league in terms of design and functionality as these countries. Can Gemmayzeh really be transformed to fit in their ranks so that Lebanon may be added to the list? I hope so.
After the presentation by the design team there was a Q&A session and the very last commenter had quite a few critical remarks, even suggesting that the designers were perhaps a bit naive in thinking this plan would work. Though I do have questions about it myself, I’m excited about any effort to make positive change in this city we all love. Risks have to be taken and new ways of thinking have to be considered in order to effect change. If we don’t try something new, the status quo will remain. I say, why not try it? Tweeks and adjustments will be made along the way and hopefully a lasting solution will emerge that will make Gemmayzeh, and maybe eventually even all of Beirut, the livable city that all Beirutis deserve.
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I’ve made every effort to accurately describe the project based on my own memory of the presentation. If I’ve made any error please feel free to mention it in the comments.