The Corniche is Beirut’s prime-site for the locals to socialise, exercise, enjoy the sunset and generally “see and be seen”. It is a broad walkway along the Mediterranean seafront, where parents take their toddlers for a stroll, young fellows practice stunts on their bikes and old men sell candies while runners channel their way through the crowd. The Beirutis are not only attracted to gather in this vivid place because of the sea view and the nice breeze, but also because of its elaborate accessibility and enough space for everyone to move.
It occurs that spacious, accessible sidewalks like the Corniche are very limited in Beirut. Travel guidebooks describe Lebanon’s capital in general as a pedestrian-unfriendly city, speaking of the narrow and hardly maintained sidewalks as well as the chaotic junctions. The traffic lanes take most of the open space in this car-dominated city and traffic signs are posted in the middle of the already tiny sidewalks, making it impossible for a bicycle, stroller or wheelchair to pass. According to the statistics comparing website Nation Master, Lebanon ranks number 8 of countries with the most vehicles per populated land area. On the other side Beirut faces a huge lack of parking spaces, for which reason drivers often use the sidewalks as parking lots, abusing the traffic law and building an additional obstacle for the walking percentage of the population.
One attempt to create an additional pedestrian area to the Corniche was made during the 1990ies, when Beirut’s Downtown area was restored after the destruction of the Civil war. Solidere, the Lebanese company for the development and reconstruction of Beirut Central District, painstakingly restored the old Ottoman and French Mandate period buildings and closed off the zone around the Place de l’étoile for traffic. This vast area for pedestrians was built after the image of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. One actually feels like walking along a Parisian street when looking at the windows of all the high-end fashion and furniture shops lining the pavement. Mainly families utilize the space during the evening hours to sit in one of the fancy cafés and smoke nargile while the children play in the alleyway. But despite the stunning architectural efforts to build a recreational space within the city, the restored area is missing the soul of history and has not been fully embraced by the locals. Solidere’s project to restore Beirut’s Central District is still in progress. Nevertheless, next to the tall buildings planned, the sidewalks remain narrow to the disadvantage of the population. Apparently there are no urban planning laws in Lebanon which relate sidewalks to street measurements. It all depends on the region, municipality and the history of one particular street.
The lack of open walking space in Beirut makes it really difficult for the disabled citizens to move around town. The city’s veins are blocked for people confined to a wheelchair, who are not able to squeeze between two parked cars or jump over a pot-whole in the pavement. The international organization “Wheelchair Foundation” provides wheelchairs for people in need who cannot afford to buy one. Their website states the number of 2,430 pieces delivered to Lebanon since the project started in 2000, which is a large number compared to the country’s small population of 4.1 million. But if one takes a look around the capital’s streets, there are hardly any handicapped inhabitants seen. Besides their unfortunate social isolation is it also too much of a strain to get around the city with the given traffic situation. Even at the Corniche, where everyone finds space and disabled people can move with (almost) equal advantages, they rely on private means of transport to reach the boardwalk, as there is no accessible public transport system in Lebanon either.
The Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union (LPHU) fights on a national basis for equalization of persons affected by any kind of disability. Sylvana Lakkis, the organization’s Project Manager, says they are aware of the problematic situation in Beirut’s streets. In their on-going community development projects they target among other topics the environmental rehabilitation for people with disabilities. This means the removal of physical obstacles from public and private places across the country. The main part of their work consists of drafting policies to strengthen the disabled’s rights. A future project in cooperation with other NGO’s will aim to draft a government policy to make public transport in Lebanon accessible for handicapped persons, which will grant better mobility and therefore more independence to people with physical limitations.
The Lebanese Parliament approved a general legislation in May 2000, which abolishes existing laws restricting the rights of the disabled and provides a legislative framework designed to enable all kinds of disabled residents to live like citizens with all abilities. This law is a result of a long-term campaign lead by NGO’s like the LPHU. Part of it grants physically disabled people access to public transport and other facilities. More than a decade has passed now, since the adoption of this law and despite the support by the ministry of social affairs, institutions like the poor national transportation system are still not equipped for disabled people. Little has been achieved to simplify a handicapped person’s everyday life, even though physical disabilities are nowadays taken into consideration through compulsory building codes and parking allocation. According to these regulations, it is mandatory for any new building hosting public (official buildings, malls, schools, restaurants…) to be fully accessible with ramps and elevators including Braille signs for the blind.
Sensory disabilities are usually even more neglected in urban planning than physical impairments. A recently launched campaign to raise awareness in this case is called “Your city in sight” by the young Lebanese architect Balsam Madi. It targets the blind, aiming to sensibilise the society of their strain getting around in the narrow streets of her hometown Beirut. Well-developed cities in Europe for example feature traffic signs which send an audible signal when it is the pedestrians turn to cross the street and elevated strips on the ground guide them along the walkways. In Beirut, these important assistances are entirely absent. Balsam Madi says, it is absolutely impossible for a blind person to cross a junction on their own in Lebanon, due to the lack of safe streets, sidewalks, and above mentioned audio traffic signals.
Her project was initially a competition entry for a scholarship, requiring the draft of a marketing strategy to spread awareness. The one male model starring in the campaign is once wearing a blue t-shirt with “this t-shirt is blue” written on it, and again shown in a grey t-shirt with “this t-shirt is blue” written on it in Braille. This emphasizes the controversy between the different perceptions. The visually impaired version of the model may not perceive the colour of his t-shirt, which will lead him to believe his t-shirt is blue. The model with full vision in contrast is left with a statement that is obvious to him and to the viewer. Since people showed interest in actually wearing the piece of clothing from the campaign, Balsam Madi thinks about producing them in larger quantity. She hopes this campaign and the possible widespread use of the T-shirts will help trigger public interest and eventually government action towards equal advantages for everyone moving on Beirut’s streets.
Equal advantages of mobility do not finish when someone reaches their destination. In order to move from place to place and enjoy the different locations, it is important that the private sector plays its role in making our society accessible for everyone. Despite the legislation is given by the compulsory building codes, there is still a lot to improve for the accessibility in Beirut’s private industry. Hotels and restaurants of middle to upper price range are generally accessible for wheelchairs, however the toilets are not automatically. They may be placed on the first floor without elevator access or constructed too narrow for a wheelchair to enter. Again, no one seems to consider the sensory impaired. Braille menus are completely missing and not even braille signs in the elevators are applicable. In December 2011 a decree was imposed, which aims to gear up all older public structures within the next 6 years to the accessibility standards of newly built ones. Despite this plan, there are still restaurants opening these days not considering the regulations.
In Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, a group of people started to make the urban space more accessible. The NGO “Forum of the Handicapped” built ramps upon sidewalks of the main streets, as well as in front of churches, mosques, schools and residential houses. They started their work towards an inclusive environment within the municipality already in 1986. Until now, they rehabilitated 28 sidewalks and 9 schools among several other structures. However, in order to continue with the project, they need more cooperation from the authorities. They do not receive any support at the moment. Only with governmental support they will be able to carry out their further plans as to equip official buildings with ramps as well.
One effort by the government against our car-dominated society and towards more accessibility was made in September 2012, when the vicinity of Achrafieh was declared a car-free zone for one day. The roads into the residential areas were blocked this day and the inhabitants could walk freely in the streets, participate in workshops or buy homemade culinary treats from the sidewalks of Achrafieh’s residents. The initiators of the happening, a group called “Achrafieh 2020”, wanted to give the locals a glimpse at a city not overrun by motored vehicles and spread awareness of the unequal distribution of the public space. More events to turn Achrafieh into a greener, more accessible neighbourhood are planned.
2013 is an election year in Lebanon. A survey published by the LPHU a decade ago stated that less than 1% of the national polling stations at the time were fully accessible for the handicapped. According to the organization, there were no major improvements reported in this issue until today. However, more pressing cases are addressed by the presidential candidates, such as troubles regarding the national election system and the crisis in Middle East. So far they leave it up to the NGOs to keep fighting for more accessibility and public space. Sylvana Lakkis expresses these organizations’ demand: “Accessibility is an issue for everyone, not only the handicapped. Anyone can benefit from it. Also the elderly, children, pregnant women and many more groups of people have special needs regarding mobility and space. Let us create an inclusive environment, where everyone is equal.” It is in everyone’s interest to keep Beirut’s veins pulsating.