Saturday, December 13, 2008

La Foret des Pins

This week my Landscape students were learning about Greenfields and Brownfields. In short, greenfields are the green spaces within a city (this can include natural green spaces as well as constructed gardens) and brownfields are the derelict spaces. Our job often includes turning BF into GF, although in Lebanon we have often done the opposite. Blame the war.

Beirut is one of the brownest cities in the world. There is something like one tree for every 30 plus inhabitants. There are very few maintained green spaces of any significant size. The notable exceptions are marked in green polygons in the photo: The campus of the American University of Beirut (near the sea) the Forest des Pins (to the right of the photo), and the Golf Club (the biggest space, to the south).

The 73 acres AUB campus is fascinating, because it has remained very close to what the original vegetation must have been: oaks, pines, carob and wild pistachios. However, entry is restricted to AUB students and alumni and cats. Cats receive special treatment at AUB, a situation that has not escaped some Beirutis who always ask the wrong questions.

The other large green space is the Golf club. It is situated smack in the middle of one of the poor areas of Beirut, the Southern Suburb. I didn't even know it existed (it is surrounded with walls), until I noticed it as my plane was about to land in Beirut's airport. The landing goes like this, coming from the north: sea-tall ugly rich buildings-tall ugly poor buildings-slums- super green space with beautifully manicured lawn-slums-landing strip. Needless to say the poor are only admitted to the Golf Club as caddies.

The third green space is the Forest des Pins, or the pine forest. This forest, which is located in what used to be the southern edge of Beirut has trees of Pinus pinea (the one with edible nuts) that are over 230 years old. It has the bad luck of being in the center of a demarcation zone between the predominantly Shi`a Gobeiry area, the predominantly Christian (mixed confessions) Badaro area and the predominantly Sunni Qasqas area. The forest itself is about 70 acres and belongs to the municipality of Beirut. Before the war, the tree cover was so dense that the sun would not pass through the canopy. The" villagers" of Gobeiry used to hunt wild pigeons there, and people were scared of passing through during the nighttime. Then the municipality rehabilitated it as a public garden with gates and fences. The park's rehabilitation was completed in 1973, right in time for its destruction. In 1991, the Ile de France municipality offered a grant to Lebanon to rehabilitate the Pine Forest Park. This was completed almost 10 years ago.

This is where I took my students today to learn about the rehabilitation of greenfields. The place is absolutely beautiful. It is green and lush and extremely well maintained. It has nearly a hundred tree varieties, many of which are native and edible like Arbustus unido, which looks like lychees and tastes kind of sweet. It even has a place named incongruously named "The Oasis" where, I am told, a charitable foundation teaches schoolchildren how to plant seeds.

But the place is a desert. It is fenced (but people can look in) and has never been officially opened. My students and I were able to get in, because the former curator, who is a very nice man, came with us to give us a sauf conduit and show us the grounds.

While walking, we encountered a few people who were walking fast, in this very concentrated manner people who are here for-sport-not-for-fun have. I was told they could come in because they obtained a special permit from the Governor of Beirut (the Muhafez). I asked if the permit was delivered to whoever applied, but the answer was unclear. It looks like you have to know someone, or be a "respected" person to get in there. We had a discussion with the students and the former curator about whether it was right to keep the place closed or if it should be opened to the public. All were in favor of opening it, although many voiced fears that it would quickly be downgraded if people came in. The issue of the park being surrounded by 2 "poor" neighborhood was not really raised, to my student's credit. But it was sometimes underlying. Some one suggested that there should be a fee for the entry, but we agreed that this would exclude the poor. The ex-curator wa extremely progressive: in his opinion, parks were for the people, and with proper management and rules (which are possible to implement as no one is actually forcing their way into the park although they could, the present security being minimal) it should be possible to establish a use-for-all mechanism. People had to be educated, he said, and it starts by them being allowed to use the facilities as long as they abide by rules. He told us that when they first started planting flower beds in the streets of Beirut before the wars, half the plants would disappear during the night, but that they kept replanting until those who were taking them were satiated.

Around the time of the discussion, I met 2 people who were power walking in the park. I knew one of them: a TV journalist who interviewed me once. Her partner used to be the adviser to the leader of one of the most racist and extremist right-wing sectarian militias in Lebanon. They stopped to talk to me briefly and told me that they come here everyday to walk, because it is so beautiful and convenient. They asked me if I usually come. I said that I will come when the park will be opened for the rich and the poor alike. The journalist's partner answered: "well I hope it will never be. They will come in and ruin it". He added that he did not like the poor anyway.

It is good to see that there are still people in this country whose politics are reflected in their everyday attitudes.


Leila said...

Didn't one used to drive through this park on the way into Beirut from the South? I remember in my childhood how the traffic noise suddenly dropped off. There were birds I believe. The pine forest was a stark contrast to the streets around it. Or maybe it was just a stretch of pines along the road?

Great post, thank you.

Anonymous said...

In the now-booming area of Jnah, and right across from the BHV/TSC Plus, there lies the Ghobeiri Municipality Park. In my 12 years of residence in that area, I have never seen the park open for use, except for the occasional photo shoots for scouts (don't they go out of the city anylonger?). There are trees, benches, and the park is ideal for this otherwise residential and family-oriented neighborhood. Like Rami, I am quite frustrated by the lack of green space in Beirut, and the fact that this exists in my neighborhood, but is closed, makes it difficult to understand why such deprivation exists. Alas, the only reason I have been given when I have tried asking is that the park may end up being attracting lots of "poor" people, taxi drivers, vegetable and fruit sellers, etc, and consequently running down the area, and causing additional traffic bottlenecks.

In other words, I agree that people should be educated and the proper enforcement mechanisms should be put into place. This is called civic education!