Outside is Outlawed: Lebanon’s All-Or-Nothing Approach to Public Space Access

Posted · Add Comment

by Sara Hamzeh

While cities around the world are working to provide their citizens with more public space to safely practice social distancing, Beirut approaches COVID with a harmful all-or-nothing approach.

Not only is Beirut notoriously lacking in terms of green spaces, it is also reeling from the aftermath of a deadly explosion in August 2020 that ate up much of its most bustling urban spaces. That, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic collapse that saw its currency devalue by almost 600%, leaves one outlet for the common person: the outside.

The Beirut Corniche during the lockdown. Photo by Matthieu Karam.

But the outside is outlawed. And then it’s not. Then once again, it is. This is the binary that Lebanese people have been living with since the beginning of the pandemic. While Lebanon was applauded in March of 2020 for its strict lockdown and its ability to keep COVID numbers down, it has rapidly moved on to having the highest number of cases per capita in the middle east, with mid-January numbers peaking due to the lifting of all restrictions for the holiday period.

Many excuses were made to justify the “reopening” of the city in December, mainly that Lebanon and its businesses “need” the influx of expat dollars that they bring in during the holidays. Thus, restaurants and bars were allowed to operate normally under the guise of boosting the economy, but at the cost of the health of its citizens.

Lebanese people celebrate the 2021 new year in Beirut.
Photo by Hussein Malla/AP for NPR.

Now, in January, the expats and their dollars are gone. What remains is a shortage of hospital beds to host those in dire need of them and new guidelines that restrict citizens’ access to any public space. On January 14th the country went into a full lockdown, with reports that people have been fined for taking walks and for simply existing publicly in any capacity. This is in stark opposition of the very legal and public concerts and events that were held over New Years, with no restrictions or limitations.

Not only does this all-or-nothing approach exemplify the prioritization of cash flow over the public health of citizens, it shows that the impact of public spaces on mental health is still majorly disregarded.

The Corniche in the Central District of Beirut by day on 15 March 2020, Lebanon.
Photo by Alarabiya.

For many, especially the poor, public space is important for their livelihoods. In a country where the average person is now pushed under the poverty line and can no longer afford simple luxuries, people are in dire need of public spaces, yet the city of Beirut continues to fine people for doing safe and distanced activities such as cycling, running, and walking on its spacious seaside promenade. The same activities that are allowed and even encouraged in countries that have been leading in the fight against COVID.

Lebanese people are drained, they have witnessed one of the toughest years since perhaps the 1975 civil war. What they have lost in 2020 surpasses the loss of morale, they’ve lost their purchasing power, they’ve lost loved ones, and they’ve lost the spaces that have helped shape them.

Moving forward, Lebanon is in dire need of an approach that takes into consideration mental health, and that cannot fully happen until public spaces are seen as instrumental to public health.

About the Author: Sara Hamzeh is a Lebanese Fulbright Scholar currently working in the NGO sector in Beirut, Lebanon, focusing on post-disaster rehabilitation efforts. She received her MUP in Urban Design from the City College of New York and her BLA from the American University of Beirut.