Urban Agriculture in Beirut

The world is urbanizing continuously and at a vast rate. The United Nations predicts that by 2030 more than half of the world population will be living in cities.  About thirty five percent of Lebanon’s inhabitants live in Beirut and its suburbs. This dense city that continues to densify at a rapid scale raises several concerns one of which is food security.
Food security has taken the forefront in many debates recently and has also been placed in the millennium development goals. Yet except for some student interest and a few workshops and course work funded at the American University of Beirut this debate has not been addressed and no clear action or government proposals or initiatives can be found.
To address food security for Beirut planners, policy makers, and municipal officials need to reevaluate the potential of urban agriculture. 
 1923 map of Beirut  http://s3.amazonaws.com/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_lla146X4eX1qgzjpgo1_1280.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ6IHWSU3BX3X7X3Q&Expires=1310980712&Signature=80Fq66T7dBs5MLH3api4SrFSgXQ%3D
Beirut’s urban agriculture

Beirut had a long and eventful history which makes its city plans and growth difficult to study in detail and categorize. Yet taking a set of maps from different periods shows a growth of the city that can be characterized as unplanned especially from 1980s onward during  which the city’s political problems were exacerbated by a civil war that over‐densified the city and caused the over‐taking of the agriculture zone.

Beirut is compromised of 60% of the urban population of Lebanon and almost five times the population of the second largest city in Lebanon, Tripoli. Its estimated population has reached 2 million, however, only a century ago the population of the city was barely 6000. 
“The scale and scope of urbanization has overcome the city's resources and ability to effectively supply the increasing demand for urban space “(macalester.edu, 2010).

The case of urban agriculture in the city:

This unplanned expansion took over Beirut’s outer suburbs and informally urbanized them. The few urban agriculture plots are located in Chouifat and extend into hay al selloum , the Nahr Beirut area, the "Metropolitan" hotel area and Daychuniyyeh Valley.  The largest of which is Hay al selloum/ chouifat edge.

Beiruts Southern suburbs
Hay El Selloum, a neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut which is an informal settlement that grew from an olive grove to one of the densest neighborhoods in Lebanon. The area houses about 15 percent of the population of Beirut today. 

Hay al Selloum: evolution from a productive land to an ‘unhealthy’ dense urban fragment
Phase 1: INDEPENDENCE (1943) TO 1970
Hay al Selloum is located in Beirut the capital of Lebanon. Lebanon’s history is unique in that its independence from the French rule in 1943 did not introduce a process of nation building characterized by planning agencies and welfare state promises that most post colonial societies attempted on achieving. Instead, the state committed itself to ultimate liberalism with total disregard to the public sector (Gaspard 2004).  The historical and blind faith in the “free market” has continually translated by the reluctance and weak interventions of the Lebanese government and the provision of services, including the provision of housing (Sadik 1996). 
During that 1970s, the olive groves and agriculture land of Hay al Selloum were being transformed into an area for low-income shelter for refugees. The area is between the airport and the industrial zone of Choueifat. A 15-minute car ride takes the residents into the central district of Beirut. The area was mostly controlled by Druze and Christian families that owned the land or inherited it. As land value in the area rose the agricultural  land was transformed into one of the most congested residential areas in Beirut, with a density of 1400people\ha in 1999 (Fawaz, 2005) . 

Phase2: informal markets (1975-1990)
The Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) divided the country and Beirut into two parts along religious lines. During that time, little planning interventions were conducted. This phase is characterized by greater violations of public regulations. As a result the area was unplanned and the market encourages a total disregard to agriculture and the economy it generated for the city, neighborhood and residents. 

Phase 3: post-war phase(1992) – legal developments
Since the end of the civil war, the devastation did not change the states historic faith in the market. Instead of recognizing the need to build a nation, by strengthening its institutions, in addition to housing interventions, that were much needed, the state limited itself to two reconstruction projects (Najem 2000).
The first is the national emergency plan (NERP), which is a five-year plan and the second is the Plan Horizon 2005. These projects focused on only physical infrastructure that was limited to airport, highways, water and electricity systems and large-scale touristic projects, like renovating the city’s urban core into a high-end business district for the international elite.
The implications of this situation shaped the third face of urbanization in Hay al Selloum further. The developers who had taken control of the market in such a high-risk situation were after making money. They created large-scale multi story housing complexes that began as legal projects with formalized permits and increased by a system of informal land subdivision.

The disappearing of most urban agriculture in a 30 years’ time frame destroyed a healthy urban economic and ecological system. The lack of government institutions to recognize the cities potential in the organic system it had in the 1950s of embedding the urban agriculture with its urban ecosystem continues today.
Previously Beiruts urban agriculture included
1-      the use of typical urban resources such as organic waste as compost
2-      the use of urban waste water for irrigation as early as the 1960s
3-      In addition urban residents especially women worked as laborers in the fields.
4-      direct links with consumers and vibrant healthy food markets
5-       plus being part of the urban food systems created  decreased urban poverty and increased urban food security
6-       solved problems with the disposal of urban wastes and waste water
7-      Maintained air and river qualities.

Past present and Future
The case shows how the lack of government initiatives and problems with land tenure and market land prices make urban agriculture rarer in cities like Beirut. Moreover hardly controlled imported crops and competition with them also make the agriculture sector in Lebanon weak. Several steps can be taken to encourage urban agriculture. These may include protection and promotion of urban agriculture by the government. In addition planners may also encourage that all empty plots including all municipal and ‘wakf’ land become productive fields. Crops planted in the city and sold in the city should also be subsidized which will increase demand and encourage other plot owners to plant crops.  Finally, plant some parsley, mint, and tomatoes on your balcony. I just did …ill post a picture of my tomatoes plant next time

Bou-akar H. 2005, ‘Displacement, Politics, and Governance: Access to Low-Income Housing in a Beirut Suburb’, Master in City Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Brown B. (ed) 2000, Sustainable Architecture White Papers, New York: Earth Pledge Foundation,
Calthorpe P.,  `993, The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream,  New York: Princeton Architectural Press,
Castell, M., 1972. ‘Urban renewal and social conflict in Paris’, in Social Science Information, Vol.11, No 2, pp. 93-124.
CDR, 1992, (council for development and reconstruction), ‘Horizon 2000: for reconstruction and development’, Beirut: CDR-Report- Republic of Lebanon
CDR 1995, ‘Evalution des Dommage :Habitat’, Beirut: CDR- Republics of Lebanon
Chambers, R. 1995, ‘Poverty and livelihoods: whose reality counts?’, Environment and Urbanization 7(1), 173-204
Chapter 5 GREEN COVERAGE AND PROTECTED AREAS, unknown, (n.d.), http://www.unep.org/sport_env/Activities/BeijingReport08/pdfs/chapter5.pdf last accessed april 2010
Davis, M.  2004, “planet of slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat”, New Left Review, Vol 26, pp5-34
Davis, M. (2007), Planet of slums: London, Verso
Dramstad W., Olson J., 1996, Landscape Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning, Washington, D.C.: Island Press
El-Khazen 2000, ‘The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon, 1967-1976’. London: LB Tauris
Franck K, 2005, Food + the city, Chichester: Wiley-Academy
ESCOBAR , A. 1995, ‘Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Fawaz, M. 2004, ‘Strategizing For Housing: An investigation of the Production and Regulation of Low-income Housing in the suburbs of Beirut’, MIT: Unpublished PHD dissertation.
Gili G., 1999, Ecourbanismo: entornos humnos sostenibles; 60 proyectos = Ecourbanism: sustainable human settlements: 60 case studies Barcelona
Green thumb, (n.d.),  last accessed  april 2010, http://www.greenthumbnyc.org
Harb, M. (2001). Urban Governance in Post-War Beirut: Resources, Negotiations, and Contestations in the Elyssar Project. In S. Shami, Capital Cities: Ethnographies of Urban Governance in the Middle East (pp. 111-133). Toronto: Toronto University Press.
Harb, M. (Ed.). (2003). The Lebanese National Master Plan. City Debates 2003 Proceedings. Beirut: American University of Beirut.
HRC, Higher Relief Council, n.d, Lebanon Under Siege website, http://www.lebanonundersiege.gov.lb/english/f/Info/Page.asp?PageID=127 last accessed march 2008
Juppenlatz, M. 197o, ‘Cities in Transformation: The Urban Squatter Problem of the Developing World’, St Lusia: Universityof Queensland Press
Kassab, S. 1997. “On two conceptions of globalization: the debate around the reconstruction of Beirut”  in Ayse oncu & weyland(ed) in space, culture and power: new identities in globalizing cities, zed books, London
Lee H., 2009, Going organic in Beirut : A new organic grocery shop in Achrafieh reflects the growing popularity of organic food. Published in Now Lebanon(http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=120088 ). last accessed april 2010 
Lomborg B.,  2001, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Mendler S., Odell W., 2000, The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design,, New York: John Wiley & Sons
Owen D., 2004, GREEN MANHATTAN Why New York is the greenest city in the U.S., published in new Yorker http://www.greenbelt.org/downloads/resources/newswire/newswire_11_04GreenManhattan.pdf , last accessed april 2010
Project for public space, (n.d.),  http://www.pps.org/info/city_commentaries/new_york/nyc_opportunities, NYC , last accessed april 2010
RUAF FOUNDATION, (n.d.), http://www.ruaf.org/node/513 last accessed april 2010 
Ruano, M. 1999, Eco-Urbanism: Sustainable Human Settlements, 60 Case Studies, Editorial Gustavo Gili
Steel C.,  2009, Hungry City. How Food Shapes Our Lives,  Vintage Books, London
Slow food :  Hamra Earth Market in Beirut, Lebanon  A project bringing good, clean and fair producers together with local consumers, (n.d.), http://www.slowfoodfoundation.com/pdf/fotostorie/beirut_eng.pdf, last accessed april 2010 
Slow food NGO , (n.d.), http://slowfoodbeirutb.blogspot.com/ last accessed april 2010 
Souk al tayeb , (n.d.),  http://www.soukeltayeb.com/soukElTayebArticle.php?id=11 ) , last accessed april 2010
World Bank, 2003: Land Policies for Growth and Poverty Reduction. A World Bank Policy Research Paper
WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (n.d.), http://www.euro.who.int/Healthy-cities, last accessed april 2010
Wines, J. , 1999, Green Architecture, Cologne: Taschen
Van deer Linden, J.1994, ‘ Where Do We Go From Here?’, Third World Planning Review, Vol 16, No 3, PP223-228
Van der Ryn, S. 1996, Ecological Design, Stuart Cowan, Washington, D.C.: Island Press
Un habitat (2003), ‘the challenge of slums: global report on human settlements’, London: Earthscan
Macalester.edu 2010, The Urbanization and City Plan of Beirut  http://www.macalester.edu/courses/geog61/jmhamilton/cityplan.html, last accessed april 2010


  1. sandra this is great stuff. the problems are systemic, yet the solution is in our hands. Sprawl happens for a reason. one cannot simply be anti-sprawl and expect things to change. while the solution, imho, is to establish one world federal government which would (among other things) guarantee food distribution to all mankind while enforcing a worldwide one child policy for at least seven generations, the parsley, mint, and tomatoes on your balcony are a great first step!

  2. Wow.. this is essential research for any peak-oil preparedness here..