Reshaping the quality of life in Lebanese cities


Mona Fawaz is a professor in urban studies and planning at the American University of Beirut and co-founder of the Beirut Urban Lab, a collaborative and interdisciplinary research space producing scholarship on urbanization. Fawaz is the author of over 50 scholarly articles, book sections, and reports. She is deeply invested in upgrading the quality of life in cities and working towards more inclusive, just, and viable public spaces.

Mona Fawaz at the Beirut Urban Lab. Photo: UN Women/Lauren Rooney
Mona Fawaz at the Beirut Urban Lab. Photo: UN Women/Lauren Rooney

After graduating with an architecture degree in 1995, Fawaz found the practice of architecture in Lebanon too confining: she was not interested in high-end building development, and she could not find other opportunities to work in this profession. She was fascinated by city planning which focused on the quality of life in cities, particularly because planning included strong concerns for social inclusion, ecological responsibility, and other values she cared for. 

“Before I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I thought that the informal housing developed around Beirut and other cities was simply engendered by the chaos of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), this is what everyone said around me. At MIT, I realized that most cities around the world develop informally, and that these low-income areas where people dwell in poor conditions, in violation of property codes, building codes, and zoning regulations are the outcome of social injustice and inadequate codes that need to be addressed through planning,” she says. 

Tightly involved in Beirut’s ongoing transformations, Fawaz advocates for upgrading these informal settlements which her research traces back to the 1950s. She refers to them as “precarious neighborhoods” and explains “they were legal at first. Migrants arriving in Beirut with little financial means needed to live near factories, workplaces, and the airport, so they settled in Hay El Sellom, Zaaytriyyeh, and other areas in the far suburbs of Beirut. They then subdivided the big lots into small units; they would buy 100-150 square meters of land and build houses. Over time, Lebanon adopted more urban rules, and these settlements became illegal. This points to the fact that urban laws are designed by individuals who criminalize the poor, rather than fighting the structural injustice that creates poverty in the first place. I wanted to rethink and reframe the role of planning practice in my work through research in these precarious neighborhoods.”

Fawaz research spans across urban history and historiography, social and spatial justice, informality and the law, land, housing, property and space, as well as planning practice, theory and pedagogy. In 2018 she contributed with three other research professors, working together since 2006 on urban planning to the launch of The Beirut Urban Lab, at the American University of Beirut. Around 25 researchers work there today, and it has produced publications about Lebanon’s urban development, the governance of cities, post-disaster recovery, public spaces, and more. She explains, “We came together in the post-disaster recovery work following the 2006 Lebanon war. We aim to create more knowledge about urbanization in Beirut, launch conversations about urbanization in Lebanon, and open common critical reflections with other research labs, regionally and globally”.

The Beirut Urban Lab approaches the city in a new language. It wants to instill a culture of data-driven research and thinking. In 2019, the Lab’s research teams developed an accurate map of Beirut. The map covered all buildings and infrastructure layers, as well as cadaster limits. Then, the team went on the field and surveyed all buildings developed in the city since 1996. Fawaz comments “We went on site to document who was building these units, why they were built, and how they were sold. It turned out that 23% of the units that were built in the last 20 years are empty and unfurnished. They are kept empty, mostly for speculative purposes. Beirut is “a city for sale” since we are using land to leverage the current fee and to push for more real estate investment. We do it at the expense of allowing people to find a place to live. This happens, for example, because in Lebanon, we exempt property vacancies from paying taxes. Cities usually over-tax vacancy. The city should be thought of as a place to live and as an engine of growth. When you leave a quarter of your apartments empty, it means you are sacrificing the city’s development, its local economy - the local grocery store and the local businesses- We're trying to put forward legal proposals to address this issue.”

Fawaz wants her work to be meaningful. During the last 20 years, she has been working on theories of change and sharing her knowledge with activist groups working on urbanism in the city. She explains “one example is the Beirut coast, which is primarily privatized although the law clearly protects it as a shared public common. I started to investigate ways to reclaim the coast as a public space, even when property is recorded as private. I found legal precedents and facts helping with this goal. In doing so, my work complements the work of other activists working on these causes. It’s important to think of an ecosystem of change if you want to see change happening.”

Following the financial meltdown, The Beirut Urban Lab is focusing on housing challenges. Fawaz directs one research that looks at mortgages, investigating their impacts on low-income households. Another project is A City of Tenants, a user-fed platform to gather data on rentals. The main objective is to help home-seekers in Beirut access information about the rental market and its prices, given that lack of transparency often works against their ability to access adequate shelter. Fawaz says “we need urban regulations to acknowledge people's rights to the city where they can get daycare and job opportunities. We want a model that creates opportunities in which land recovers its social value. Land is not an asset for speculation. What are we doing to the city and who is this city for? How do we create an economic model that can support people's livelihoods more equitably? The legal system should provide people with a space where they can live in dignity.”

Fawaz thinks that despite the current crisis in Lebanon, there is always a silver lining. People in Lebanon are now ready to switch to renewable energies and to think more collectively. “Now everyone is trying to turn to solar energy, as people can no longer afford fossil fuel electricity. People are now more willing to use public transportation because fuel is too expensive.”

Twenty years ago, many thought that pro-climate was a luxury. Today, the green program is an economically viable program. Fawaz adds “I'm not proposing to create an urban forest or an urban park out of a sudden in Beirut but create sidewalks where we can push a stroller. I have been seeing a lot of youth movements request public spaces. I think that the 2019 protests showed the citizens capability to be engaged in public affairs and their willingness to engage in decision-making discussions. The parking lots and empty speculative places suddenly became the public realm where people discuss and understand crucial matters.”

Fawaz adds “in Lebanon, people have been encouraged to abuse the environment. When buildings are audited, it is common to find that about 40% of the uses can be curtailed. With the public policy to deliberately subsidize fuel, people did not care about electricity’s cost. One of our ongoing projects with a lab at MIT is investigating urban and housing regulations. We're trying to recommend urban regulations that size buildings in relation to solar capacity, so urban neighborhoods can secure a minimum electric lifeline through affordable solar energy.”

For Fawaz, climate action is about transforming the way we relate to the environment in which we live:

“It is not simply about choosing our carbon footprints but understanding our role as human beings on this planet, with much more humility.”