Course:GEOG352/2020/Boundaries of Beirut: Public space and Sectarianism

From UBC Wiki
Aerial photo of Beirut in 1970

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in public space (especially among urban planners and designers in North America and Western Europe). Yet, public spaces are often designed "as controlled environments... separating, segregating and filtering both the uses and users" and imposing certain ideas of citizenship; simultaneously, a large amount of public life today takes place in "private" spaces, blurring the lines between the public and private.[1] Meanwhile, particularly in the global south and east, public space has salience beyond just formal planning regimes, and is often central to inclusion and the assertion of urban citizenship in growing and diverse cities.[2]

Beirut, the capital and largest city of Lebanon, is often viewed both as a liberal, modernized Arab metropolis, and as a divided city.[3] A consequence of Lebanon’s 15 year civil-war has been the formation of self-sufficient sectarian neighbourhoods in which spatial segregation prevails. Segregated public space in Beirut plays a central role in creating and maintaining the city's consociational citizenship and political structures. Furthermore, public spaces in Beirut carry contested identities and memories, which manifest through everyday practices. These contested and divided public spaces are central to urbanization, politics, and daily life in the city, but don’t fit idealized liberal democratic understandings of public space. Consequently, understanding the ways Beirutis navigate, practice, and transform by these spaces (both positively and negatively) can provide novel and critical insights.


Public space is often thought of as a defining aspect of cities. It is usually conceptualized, drawing from liberal notions of political equality, as “space to which all citizens have a right of access.”[4] Under this view, public space is a container for assembly and communication between individuals that mediates between society and state. Yet the simple fact that public space is not experienced or accessed uniformly illustrates the need for critique. Marxist perspectives point out that spaces are historical-material productions embedded in social conflict, while phenomenological approaches emphasize their embodiment and active performance, and poststructural approaches consider the multiplicity and relationality of space.[4] When we incorporate these critiques, we see that public spaces are not just uniform containers for an abstract, universal citizenship. Instead, drawing from Massey, they are performed by complex networks of actors that actively reproduce locally specific (but not insular) orders and meanings of citizenship through public space.[5]

This understanding of public spaces (and regimes of citizenship) is particularly pertinent when examining cities in the global south. Historically, theory about  urban spaces in southern cities “predominantly originated in the global north, with an often implicit assumption of universality."[6] Consequently, discussions of these urban spaces tended to speak of them as determined by economic or political structures, and framed them as clear cut and static. But looking at the complex practices and performances in these spaces reveals how they produce those very structures. Simply put, public spaces in cities of the global south are where abstract economic and political systems quite literally “take place.” Furthermore, in the often rapidly expanding cities of the global south, cities are not simple and singular entities, but frequently contain tremendous “intra-urban fragmentation,” to the extent that even different neighbourhoods are governed by different combinations of public and private entities.[2] In these scenarios, the picture of a uniform “urban citizen” - who can and does access all of the city - is problematized. Amid these realities, there is a looming question of how urban residents assert their “right to the city,” and what this means when “the city” and urban space are themselves hyper-fragmented.

Beirut exemplifies this problem and raises important issues around public space, as its public spaces are deeply intertwined with its sectarian consociational political systems, which are in turn closely tied to its colonial history.[7] Consequently, Beirut also allows us to look at the intersections of public space with urban governance and postcolonialism. Furthermore, rather than just seeing public space as static and given to citizens by the state, Beirut allows us to study the ways public space and citizenship are also produced together in everyday life. Sectarian systems that structure public space seem to be an obvious local dimension of urban “difference,” but it is also important to evaluate the embodied practices that not only create, but often transcend this axis of difference. The way Beirutis may create political change by changing public space is also extremely valuable to understand. The specific processes within the city are highly localized, but can provide more general insight into some ways that complex networks of actors produce public spaces (such as through infrastructure, memory, interaction, and affect).

Case Study of Theme/Issue

Background - The Construction of Sectarian Space

A Beirut street in April 1978

Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s and 80s exacerbated social division, building on an already polarized characteristic since the colonial era.[7] The Lebanese Civil War entrenched sectarian divisions between East and West Beirut and caused Muslims and Christians to seek refuge in religious communities. The Green Line, a no-man’s land dividing East and West Beirut, became a symbol of the division.[7] Christians flooded into East Beirut and Muslims poured into West Beirut. This movement of people, however, was often due to forced expulsions by militias in order to homogenize their neighbourhoods.[8] The intensity of the war led to a militarization of public and private spaces, as homes and workplaces became targets for military action. This process was cemented when militias enforced divisions and built physical partitions dividing East and West Beirut. Ethno-religious spatialization and divisions became enforced with sniper fire if a threat was spotted at the divide, which later created mental and psychological borders for Beirutis.[8] This spatialization and division later led the division and commodification of space in previously open areas.[8]

Downtown Beirut today

The unpredictable and unstable nature of civil war in Lebanon left public space in a precarious status. From the city centre to neighbourhoods, war altered previously established sections of public space .[9] Previous uses of space became almost unfamiliar to those who used them, and even after the war it remained uncommon to traverse to the other side of the city due to unfamiliarity and fear.[9] Furthermore, these spaces that were now unfamiliar to a large portion of Beirut’s inhabitants were later redefined. The aftermath of the war experienced reconstruction, investment, development, and governmental control of the shaping of historical narratives and designation of historical sites and monuments; this process, however, left out the voices of powerless individuals and groups.[9]

Under the Taef agreement of 1989, which ended the war, governance was further decentralized distributed according to sect, and power was shared by different sectarian organizations and elites.[3] Governance of urban space was also reshaped in this way. At the same time, there was also a governmental effort to create new public spaces. Beirut's city centre, which was a strategic centre of the war, was redeveloped along with new seashore promenade, public squares, and parks.[7] This redevelopment, however, was handed over to a private company (Solidere) which expropriated the land from owners and past residents with little consultation.[3] Amid the wider sectarianization of public space, this regeneration project aimed to "erase memories of the war," and remake the city centre as an upscale and "pure space," disconnected from Beirut's citizens and their past associations with it.[3] Rather than collectively confronting the violence, the sectarian distribution of public space and the regeneration of the city centre was intended to evade accountability and promote amnesia.

Understanding of public space in Beirut is necessary to understand its systems of urban citizenship. After all, one of the primary effects of the civil war on Beirut was, indeed, the division of public spaces that were modes of association and understanding between Beirutis. The way public space was practiced and altered was thus central both to producing the conflict, and to producing the conciliatory political and citizenship system that formed after the conflict.

The Sectarian Governance of Space

In Beirut, governance and service provision is delegated and spatially distributed based on sectarian affiliations. Healthcare is one example of this. After the Lebanese Civil War, the rising emphasis on laissez-faire principles gave way to private healthcare, provided by political parties, non-governmental organizations, and religious organizations. As a consequence of this, “although the private health sector is open for all to use, the confessional alliance of a given hospital or clinic influences which populations are served."[10] Private healthcare itself is too expensive for most of the population and the healthcare system that the government provides is too weak. Thus, the Lebanese government allows private companies, charities, political parties, and religious organizations to provide basic services such as healthcare. Access to these community services are facilitated by close neighbourhood sectarian ties that are salient in the makeup of Beirut. An example that illustrates this is Al-Dahiyya, a largely shi’a neighbourhood in Beirut’s southern suburbs. The neighbourhood is heavily governed by sectarian groups like Hezbollah and Amal, who not only provide territorial control and security, but also services including schools, clinics, and hospitals."[10]

Another notable example of sectarian governance of public space is urban planning, which is heavily dominated by sectarian interests, as "religious-political organizations have used planning, infrastructure provision, real estate, and housing markets to configure Beirut’s peripheries in their own interests."[11] This occurs both through the construction and provision of housing and infrastructure developments, as well as through zoning. Investments in infrastructure are distributed through sectarian organizations, and these groups exert considerable pressure on planners.[11] Even public transport provision functions along sectarian lines. For example, there are two different types of public busses in the city, those run by the red and white Lebanese Commuting Company (LCC) and the less formal white busses, each owned by separate political party parties. Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement party owns LCC and Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal party owns the white busses.[12] This itself illustrates that the public bus system is “a field of competition between two political factions with attachments to particular sectarian communities."[12]

These divided systems of service provision have made sectarianism the primary mode of governing and interacting with space, and thus help produce a sectarian urban citizenship. A large number of Beirutis have to live within the spatial and social bounds of sectarian communities because they rely on these communities to access services.

Memory, Fear, and the Politics of the Everyday

Because fragmented sectarian and religious organizations govern so much of urban space in Beirut, urban citizens' social connections, or ‘wasta,’ are often what allow individuals to navigate public space in the city.[12] These informal social networks of "kin, village, sect, patriarch and patron, gender code and social class," which connect Beirutis to urban space and services, influence codes and norms of public space.[13] As a result, "the boundaries between the private and public are fuzzy" as "the ‘private’ realm of kin and sect bleeds into the public, including the urban street."[13]

This also means that the sectarian governance of space is not just a top-down process, but takes shape in Beirutis' everyday interactions and narratives of public space. For example, various neighbourhoods and spaces throughout the city are dotted with distinct visual symbols, such as flags, murals, graffiti, and banners, that indicate the sectarian and political affiliations of those spaces.[12] In addition to these, residents' clothing and conduct in public spaces, and the kind of leisure venues available in a space may, for example, mark certain spaces as "pious."[12] Everyday normal and visual cues contribute to a (sectarian) sense of community attached to public spaces.

However, sectarian urban space is constructed not just by the everyday activity of people living in those spaces, but also through the everyday performances of "outsiders." Seemingly banal daily conversations play a large role in this. Many residents of Beirut discuss certain neighbourhoods (like Al-Dahiyya) as "dangerous" and inaccessible, and speak of them as being separate from the rest of the city.[14] These stereotypes and discourses build help produce sectarian imaginations of public space. Similarly, memory and affect play a large role in producing public spaces as well. As a result of the near history of the civil war as well as the impending threat of Israeli invasion from the South, residents of Beirut have developed an anticipation of violence that guides their everyday lives, and these collective memories shape the boundaries of Beirut’s urban space. This manifests in day-to-day experiences with transportation and mobility through urban space. Taxi drivers often express that they choose not to diverge from the general boundaries of the Muslim west and the Christian east of Beirut. Although these boundaries don't exist as formally anymore, taxi drivers continue to do this because “it is a habit from the war."[12]

These everyday interactions with urban space in Beirut visibly reproduce (sectarian) ideas and systems of urban citizenship. Public spaces are laden with codes and norms of residents' private networks. Street decorations, routine conversations, and even the routes of taxi drivers establish the identities of different urban spaces, and produce ideas about urban citizenship and about who belongs in which spaces.

The Right to the "Divided City"

Overhead view of 2019 Beirut protests

There is a risk of seeing these fragmented urban spaces as tightly consolidated and sharply divided. Yet, this hides the complexity of urban space in Beirut. Instead, the everyday practices, narratives, and memories of Beirutis also routinely step out of these norms and have the capacity to transform urban space and, by extension, urban politics. In many of Beirut's public spaces, such as in the neighbourhood of Hamra, there already exists a "dissident public culture" in which many Beirutis, such as sexual minorities, participate in public space beyond the regulations of "kin, sect, and state."[13]

Beirut's residents have also challenged and transcended these spatial divisions on numerous occasions to demand spatial and political transformation. An example of this was in 2015, when the city faced a massive garbage crisis. Much like other services in the city, waste management was decentralized and "waste management companies tied to different sects" provided service to different parts of the city.[15] As the country's sectarian power-sharing government was stuck in a deadlock, garbage continued to accumulate and protestors across sectarian and socioeconomic groups assembled to protest for political accountability.[3] Not only did these protesters transcend sectarian citizenship, but they also occupied public spaces in the city centre that were constructed to exclude them. While the chairman of Solidere (the company that redeveloped downtown) said protestors were impeding business and "cheapening" the area, protestors invoked memories of those public spaces before the civil war and recreated the working-class markets that existed there.[3]

Similarly, as Lebanon's economic conditions worsened and austerity measures were implemented in October 2019, Beirut residents gathered throughout the city centre and even "improvised a democratic, cooperative tent city" in Martyr's square.[16] Many protestors were demanding an end to Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system. Once more, this, involved a reassertion of memory as “for the first time since at least 1994, people were going up and down the stairs of [public] structures as if they were visiting landmarks.”[17] Both of these instances illustrate a "reprograming" of urban space that also reprograms urban citizenship. Furthermore, it illustrates that urban space is never strictly consolidated or complete, but always contains multiple meanings that can be claimed by citizens. While Lebanon's consociational system survived mass protests, these protests nonetheless forged urban citizens' ties and connections to spaces and each other, and thus challenged the sectarian separation of public space.

Lessons Learned

The spatialization of sectarianism in Beirut is a unique process to the city, which is a result of its particular postcolonial history and the particular forms of social difference that exist there. But it is also noticeably intertwined with the processes of urban decentralization and privatization that have become prominent throughout cities not only in the global south but also in the global north. Since the 1980s, neoliberal international development agendas have emphasized the decentralization of urban governance through the formation and proliferation of partnerships with NGOs and local forms of social organization.[18] This is thought to promote a form of "inclusion" through "freedom of choice." Beirut provides unique manifestations of this larger phenomenon. The post-war consociational system distributed urban space and governance among sectarian organizations in order to create a sense of localized freedom and "tame" the conflict.[3] But, as this case study shows, rather than simply providing freedom of choice, these acts of decentralization ended up expanding Beirutis' dependency on and restriction through other forms of social organization, especially sectarian affiliation. Furthermore, rather than addressing Beirut's sectarian conflict and spatial divisions, the decentralization and division of urban space entrenched and stabilized these divisions in everyday life, often leaving Beirutis with little room for participation and transformation.

Beirut's history demonstrates that urban spaces - and the memory, affect, everyday practices associated with them - are central to producing locally specific forms of urban citizenship. As a consequence, rather than instituting totalizing solutions that seek to "erase" the past, urban spaces and governance need to be tethered to and confront the memories of urban citizens, much as Beirut's protests have in recent years. This applies not only to post-conflict cities (such as Sarajevo or Belfast), but to heavily segregated cities in general.


  1. Mehta, V. 2014, "Evaluating Public Space", Journal of Urban Design, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 53-88.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gervais-Lambony, P. 2014, "Contentious identities? Urban space, cityness and citizenship" in The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South, eds. S. Parnell & S. Oldfield, Routledge, London, pp. 378-391.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Nagle, J. 2017, "Ghosts, Memory, and the Right to the Divided City: Resisting Amnesia in Beirut City Centre", Antipode, vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 149-168.
  4. 4.0 4.1 The Dictionary of Human Geography, 2009, 5th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken.
  5. Massey, D. 1993, "Power-geometry and a progressive sense of place" in Mapping the Futures, eds. L. Tickner, B. Curtis, J. Bird & T. Putnam, Routledge, pp. 60-70.
  6. Watson, S. 2014, "Spaces of difference: challenging urban divisions from the north to the south" in The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South, eds. S. Parnell & S. Oldfield, Routledge, London, pp. 407-417.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Nagel, C. 2002, "Reconstructing space, re-creating memory: sectarian politics and urban development in post-war Beirut", Political Geography, vol. 21, no. 5, pp. 717-725.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Yassin, N. 2010, "Violent Urbanization and Homogenization of Space and Place: Reconstructing the Story of Sectarian Violence in Beirut" in Urbanization and Development, eds. J. Beall, B. Guha-Khasnobis & R. Kanbur, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Sawalha, A. 2010, Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City, University of Texas Press, Austin.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Premkumar, A., Salem, K., Akhtar, S., Deeb, M.E. & Messersmith, L.J. 2012, "Sectarianism and the problem of overpopulation: political representations of reproduction in two low-income neighbourhoods of Beirut, Lebanon", Culture, Health & Sexuality, vol. 14, no. 10, pp. 1139-1152.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Bou Akar, H. 2015, "From Poor Peripheries to Sectarian Frontiers: Planning, Development, and the Spatial Production of Sectarianism in Beirut" in Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South University of Georgia Press, pp. 264.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 Monroe, K.V. 2016, The Insecure City: Space, Power, and Mobility in Beirut, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Seidman, S. 2012, "The Politics of Cosmopolitan Beirut", Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 3-36.
  14. Larkin, C. 2010, "Remaking Beirut: Contesting Memory, Space, and the Urban Imaginary of Lebanese Youth", City & Community, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 414-442.
  15. Deets, S. 2018, "Consociationalism, Clientelism, and Local Politics in Beirut: Between Civic and Sectarian Identities", Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 133-157.
  16. Chehayeb, K. 2019, Beirut's Protesters Assert Their Right to the City, Citylab, viewed 9 April 2020,<>.
  17. Sewell, A. 2019, Their city lacks public spaces for protests, so Beirut residents made their own, LA Times, viewed 9 April 2020, < beirut-protests- lebanon-public-spaces>
  18. Miraftab, F. 2009, "Insurgent Planning: Situating Radical Planning in the Global South", Planning Theory, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 32-50.

City icon (Noun Project).svg
This urbanization resource was created by Course:GEOG352.