Lebanon's cities are a wealth of heritage, but what can be done to make them sustainable and livable?

Published November 11th, 2012 - 06:37 GMT
What can be done to make Lebanon's cities livable?
What can be done to make Lebanon's cities livable?

Few can agree on the best way to preserve Lebanon’s urban heritage, but most would agree the country is in dire need to come up with a plan for more livable and sustainable cities.

Architects, urban planners and economists gathered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Hamra Friday for a panel discussion organized by the Lebanese Economic Association.

They discussed possible solutions to preserving old buildings and neighborhoods, bringing back green spaces and educating the public on the importance of urban heritage and its long-term economic benefits.

“If society doesn’t appropriate its heritage, the heritage dies,” said Georges Zouein, an economist and founder of GAIA-Heritage S.A.L., an organization that manages cultural heritage in several countries.

“On the one hand, society, private owners and the public sector have an enormous responsibility. It’s necessary to support a common ground on which it can flourish and survive. Is the state doing what’s necessary? No. Is the private sector? No,” he said.

“In Lebanon, it’s not just heritage, but economic policy. The wealthy are creating function against the medium and long term. The basic problem is in understanding and managing heritage.”

Lebanon’s real estate prices continue to rise beyond the means of most residents, and vertical designs overshadow old traditional structures.

Meanwhile, leaders from both the private and public sectors are struggling to find feasible ways to revitalize the cultural and environmental heritage of Lebanon’s cities – often the envy of the rest of the region, and the headache, heartache and health hazard of local residents.

A city once known as the Paris of the Middle East for its beautiful buildings, outdoor cafes and its joie de vivre, Beirut no longer boasts a structure and spirit that resemble those of the French capital. But some think lessons can still be learned from Paris.

Youssef Khalil, senior director of financial operations at the Central Bank of Lebanon, suggested that like Paris, Beirut’s municipality could buy heritage buildings – which now number in the hundreds compared with thousands just 10 years ago – and then resell them for a profit on the condition they remain intact.

“The municipality has hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, and there could be a return on that cash. The municipality could buy dozens of these houses, and then resell them in the future, putting less supply of old houses on the market. It would be a wise investment.”

Others noted that it’s not just individual buildings, but entire neighborhoods that need to be taken into consideration when trying to find comprehensive plans to preserve neighborhoods.

“If there’s a tower on either side of a preserved house, it doesn’t mean anything,” said Habib Debs, an architect and planner, who has worked on conservation projects in Benghazi, Jeddah and Damascus.

“In Ashrafieh there was a whole day without cars. We should have more like this. In Paris, the mentality changed [with similar initiatives]. It’s happening here. Let’s build on it.”

Indeed, the general consensus appeared to be that Lebanon’s policy of trading long-term history for short-term profit was quickly eroding the country’s chance of preserving what was left of its unique urban fabric.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Business/Lebanon/2012/Nov-10/194584-forum-puzzles-over-lebanons-inability-to-preserve-heritage.ashx#ixzz2BtfStHub 
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

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