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home / space lab / how is the cyclist saving the city?

public talk, 2014

presented in baskil, cycling festival, beirut

Today, Beirut is a collection of fragments, each belonging to a certain social sphere.


While most numbers are outdated and only so relevant, the experience of the city alone reveals, through subjectivities, images, narratives, symbols and morphology, the underlying social and territorial fragmentation of the city.


When was the last time you wandered down a street without asking yourself “whose street is this?” or “can I be here?”


Ultimately, through our experience in/of urban space, the main question we, as inhabitants, negotiate with each other, with our surrounding and with ourselves, is that of the identity of the city. This identity is a result of different factors. The two factors that we are here to discuss and hopefully make an impact on are mobility and public space.


The relationship between public space and mobility is all the more important in the context of Beirut. In a fragmented territory, physical and virtual networks are the “fluidifiers” through which the city can retain some sense of consistency. Shared and private transport alike participate in shaping the city and defining the relation of people to space and to each other. In a place where the priority is given to the individual car, alternative modes of transportation take on a political dimension. Choosing an alternative mode of transportation means making a choice in the distance we as users want to have with each other, and with the different stimuli of urban space. Furthermore, each mode of tranportation conveys a different social sphere characterized by religion, class, politics and culture, which makes the coexistence of all modes an essential component of public space production. Where in the city do these different realities meet? Where and what is public space in beirut?


In a more organic view based on experiences, far from the question of legal ownership, public space, as I understand it in this discussion, means being simultaneously and spontaneously in the presence of the Other. In other words, public space can exist through the coming together of three elements:  co-presence, alterity, serendipity.


Meaning : co-presence >>A space where I am separated from other people is not a public space. Alterity >>A space characterized by a monochrome identity is not a public space. Serendipity >> A space with no room for surprise is not a public space.


In Beirut, as a general rule, these elements rarely coincide. Shared spaces are exclusive, some more explicitly than others, and through various modes of segregation pertaining to economic class, culture, religion, and other factors that unite as much as they divide. In this sense, Beirut has no public space. As soon as a place is located ("topia"), it absorbs the dominating identity that surrounds or occupies it. Although the topia can be a functional shared space, its very materiality precludes its possibility of existing as a public space.


Static spaces, when they belong to anyone at all, are appropriated by communities, and in the context of this particular social setting and its dynamics, these spaces become exclusive to the community which appropriates them.  It is only when moving that this exclusion is overcome. The fragmentation within the city is only transgressed when the city is perceived and experienced in motion. The road, the street, the stairs and the sidewalk can belong to no one and everyone at once. It is the space in motion which most unites. It is the service doing KHATT EL ADLIEH which brings together in one space a person from Achrafieh and a person from Barbir who perhaps would not have met otherwise. And, at yet another level, it is at our informal urban crossroads that the rag meets the suit and I can walk by without being noticed. 


Alternative modes of transportation, which have developed organically, serve to transgress physical and psychological boundaries and, in the case of shared transport, act like a funnel, a geological sample of the territory in which they unfold, a social condensator where hierarchies are relatively flattened in a unified space.


The meeting points of these various trajectories are brief, but they are much more permeable than planned public spaces precisely because of their informal character and organic evolution. 


What we can observe in the case of Sassine, which is a place with heavy historical and symbolic background (and that still manifests no further than a street beyond the crossroads), is that mobility has overturned the sectarian and monochrome appropriation of this space.


Through the meeting of different ways of moving in the city, it is actually different social spheres colliding and negotiating space and identity. The density and plurality generated by this intersection leaves no room for one social sphere to dominate: urban mobility introduces anonymity, and informality introduces shifting negotiations of space and identity. The same phenomenon can be observed in other multi-modal shared use spaces like Gemayze/Mar Mikhael, Hamra, Bliss or the corniche.


This was the premise under which I developed a hypothetical (and today perhaps utopian) project two years ago in the context of academic research. The project called for a shared soft mobility path linking an open Horsh Beirut to the Corniche. This path, using mostly existing infrastructure and minimal interventions, was to be shared by different modes of transportation existing, surviving and emerging in the city today, in other words it is a space namely for pedestrians, cyclists and skaters and mobile vendors to safely share, connecting them to primary and secondary informal shared transportation hubs such as mathaf, bechara el khoury, downtown and the port. Running along the edge of 9 very different neighborhoods, each with their specific identity in terms of usage, morphology, social components and overall atmosphere, this urban connector would take on different proportions and functions depending on where it is located, some of them overlapping. While it acts as a historical/archeological open-air museum of the city, creating an itinerary out of the different space-times that exist in the city center today, it also expands into spaces of commerce, exchange, play and community services.


To come back amongst the concrete and the exhaust fumes, an actual prototype of a soft mobility path was to be implemented by a local urban planning office between bechara el khoury and downtown. This project started a few years ago, and being funded by foreign institutions, regional conflicts have evidently put the project on hold indefinitely.


So, what do I mean by all of this? By participating in the diversity of mobility in the city, you are making an active political choice. You are shaping its public space and its identity. By cycling, walking, skating against all odds in the city, you are negotiating its spaces: where do you ride? where do you leave your bike? where can you rent a bike? can you take a bike on the bus? can you ride a bike on the sidewalk? how do you deal with pedestrians? how do they deal with you? how many car doors have you tripped over today? how many bicycles can fit on a lamppost? If we are here, it is because we all believe that there is room for change and because we believe in the right to experience a diverse urbanity, one that allows for all the different ways of living the city to find their space.


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