SARAH LILY YAS­SINE

Ekaruna - - Interview Relay -

She’s in­ter­ested in ver­nac­u­lar and cul­tural land­scapes. She con­trib­uted to publi­ca­tions on ur­ban­ism, ex­plor­ing the mean­ing of place. Her most re­cent pub­lished work, ‘Beirut Bird­scapes’, is a re­search and de­sign com­mis­sioned piece fea­tured in Por­tal 9 Jour­nal look­ing into bird habi­tats in Beirut. She’s an ac­tive mem­ber of the ‘Civic Cam­paign for the Pro­tec­tion of Dalieh el Raouche’, a plea to pre­serve Beirut’s last re­main­ing coastal nat­u­ral site. In­tro­duc­ing Sarah Lily Yas­sine. Nayla Kurd in­ter­views the Beirut-based ur­ban plan­ner on her work and as­pi­ra­tions for a greener Le­banon.

Ekaruna Can you tell us a lit­tle bit about your back­ground and how you got to where you are to­day?

S.L.Y I prac­ticed ur­ban plan­ning in Beirut and Lon­don and served as a con­sul­tant on strate­gic city plan­ning, eco­log­i­cal ur­ban man­age­ment, and sus­tain­able ur­ban green­ing. I worked on green space preser­va­tion, ur­ban mo­bil­ity, street light­ing, habi­tat preser­va­tion and adap­tive re­use.

I have been ac­tive in the field for 10 years and hold an MSc in En­vi­ron­ment, Plan­ning and Pol­icy from the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Po­lit­i­cal Science, a BSc in En­vi­ron­men­tal Health from the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut, and a cer­tifi­cate from the Har­vard Grad­u­ate School of De­sign Ca­reer Dis­cov­ery Pro­gram Land­scape Ar­chi­tec­ture Stu­dio.

Ekaruna Your port­fo­lio boasts di­verse un­der­tak­ings - namely, the cre­ation of a night vi­sion for Beirut through the im­ple­men­ta­tion of an ur­ban light­ing nightscape strat­egy and the “I Am a Mu­seum” pro­ject, among oth­ers. Could you talk us quickly through the dif­fer­ent projects you worked on? What is/are the most chal­leng­ing or in­ter­est­ing pro­ject(s) that you worked on?

S.L.Y When in Lon­don, I worked with the Master Plan­ning Team at Gensler Ar­chi­tec­ture, De­sign and Plan­ning, on sev­eral projects of vary­ing scales in­clud­ing a 300 ha site in Baku’s Azer­bai­jan Black City. This pro­ject was of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est and chal­lenges be­cause Baku’s Black City was the main lo­ca­tion for Azer­bai­jan’s oil in­dus­try and was in need of an eco­log­i­cal plan­ning strat­egy. While at Gensler, I also worked on sev­eral in­ter­est­ing projects, namely a master plan for Ra­bat’s (Mor­roco’s cap­i­tal) At­lantic wa­ter­front and an eco-re­sort in Lesvos Is­land, Greece, among oth­ers.

As for Beirut’s Street Light­ing Master Plan, it was car­ried out be­tween 2012 and 2013 by 4b Ar­chi­tects (Said Bi­tar) in Part­ner­ship with Aar­till Light­ing Con­sul­tants. At the time, I was the pro­ject man­ager at 4B ar­chi­tect.

The pro­posal on ur­ban street light­ing was part of a larger strate­gic vi­sion of public space, a part­ner­ship be­tween the Ré­gion Île-deFrance and the Beirut Mu­nic­i­pal­ity, pro­mot­ing a strate­gic vi­sion of public space de­sign and man­age­ment at the Beirut Mu­nic­i­pal level.

The light­ing pro­posal’s aim was to add def­i­ni­tion to the ur­ban land­scape and to high­light land­marks, fram­ing ver­nac­u­lar spa­ces, pro­mot­ing walk­ing, and way find­ing. By cre­at­ing scenic light trails, pedes­trian mo­bil­ity would pro­mote walk­ing and cy­cling, up­grade the ex­pe­ri­ence of public space, stitch to­gether oth­er­wise dis­con­nected ar­eas and en­hance the gen­eral night-time ex­pe­ri­ence of the city.

Con­cern­ing the “I Am a Mu­seum” pro­ject, I think that public trans­port - es­pe­cially smart light rail and re­gional rail trans­port - is at the heart of sus­tain­able eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. Van­dalised and usurped by mili­tias dur­ing the Le­banese civil war, with illegal de­vel­op­ments thriv­ing on its ded­i­cated right of way, Le­banon’s en­tire 402 kilo­me­tres rail­way net­work be­came ves­ti­gial, with a legacy of 3 main sta­tions in Rayak, Tripoli and Beirut. Dis­used of pre­vi­ous func­tions, all sta­tions have evolved from an in­dus­trial site and trans­porta­tion hub into an over­grown ruin that car­ries tan­gi­ble and in­tan­gi­ble val­ues. Re­gard­less of fu­ture use and des­tiny, such aban­doned in­fra­struc­ture - whether for rail­way trans­port or other func­tions - de­mands the preser­va­tion of the wealth of in­dus­trial her­itage. It is both pri­mor­dial and a ne­ces­sity.

Ekaruna Tak­ing into ac­count your pro­posal for Beirut’s ur­ban light­ing pro­ject, can you ex­plain how ur­ban plan­ning in­flu­ences our trans­porta­tion pat­terns in a sus­tain­able way?

S.L.Y Ur­ban plan­ning en­com­passes a va­ri­ety of sub-dis­ci­plines. By mak­ing streets safer through bet­ter light­ing, qual­ity public spa­ces, ur­ban fur­ni­ture and other ameni­ties, peo­ple are en­cour­aged to forego car trans­port in favour of walk­ing or cy­cling to work, hence re­duc­ing traf­fic, pol­lu­tion and mak­ing for a health­ier lifestyle. Ekaruna Many lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional ex­perts have recog­nised the im­por­tance of pre­serv­ing Tripoli’s and Mar Mikhail’s train sta­tions in an ef­fort to safe­guard her­itage and sal­vage lo­cal history, spe­cially given the fact that there are no longer any ac­tive train tracks. How easy would it be to re­de­velop these ar­eas into an archive ex­hi­bi­tion cen­tre or a mu­seum as you sug­gested?

S.L.Y In my pa­per on the sig­nif­i­cance of Mar Mikhail’s train sta­tion, I ar­gue that the plant has evolved ‘nat­u­rally’ be­cause of aban­don­ment into a relict, a ruin and a wilder­ness area.

As it stands, Mar Mikhail is an open-air mu­seum with its cen­ten­nial lo­co­mo­tives, now world­wide rar­i­ties. The In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee for the Con­ser­va­tion of the In­dus­trial Her­itage (TICCIH) de­fines the for­mer as re­mains of in­dus­trial cul­ture, bear­ing his­tor­i­cal, tech­no­log­i­cal, so­cial and ar­chi­tec­tural value. These re­mains in­clude build­ings, ma­chin­ery, work­shops, trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture, but also en­tire in­dus­trial land­scapes as well as doc­u­men­ta­tion of the in­dus­trial so­ci­ety and cul­ture.

Like an onion with many lay­ers, the rail­way story has to be high­lighted layer by layer as it weaves to­gether ar­chi­tec­ture, in­dus­try, history, pol­i­tics and land­scape. Sadly, the ar­chives of the rail­way are in a state of aban­don, left to de­cay, moist in a ware­house.

Re­de­vel­op­ing the area into an archive ex­hi­bi­tion cen­tre or bet­ter yet a mu­seum would not be an easy task, but with col­lec­tive ef­fort and will­ing­ness from the public and lo­cal author­i­ties it is very much pos­si­ble. In fact, it is a real pity that the only func­tion the sta­tion has wit­nessed in the last 30 years is that of an ex­clu­sive nightlife venue.

Ekaruna In­creas­ingly in Beirut’s out­skirts, green ter­ri­tory is be­ing en­croached upon and dam­aged by grow­ing de­vel­op­ment. In your opin­ion, how can we cre­ate a plau­si­ble con­ser­va­tion strat­egy, all the while cater­ing to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions?

S.L.Y Con­sid­er­ing post-war re­con­struc­tion ef­forts, it is clear that the iden­tity that was be­ing carved for Beirut was that of a real es­tate pri­macy. It is quite aber­rant that 25 years have passed since the end of the civil war, and that Beirut, and Le­banon at large, still lack a mod­ern public trans­port sys­tem, the Beirut river is canalised and op­er­ates at times as a sewage sys­tem and the coast con­tin­ues to be looked upon as lu­cra­tive real es­tate po­ten­tial.

In­creas­ingly dense and ur­banised, Beirut has only 0.8 m2 of avail­able green space per capita, far be­low the 9 m2 min­i­mum rec­om­mended by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Still, there are many ways to work on ur­ban green­ing if one ap­plies eco­log­i­cal land­scape plan­ning. Ac­cord­ing to Jala Mak­ha­zoumi, pi­o­neer­ing the prac­tice in the Mid­dle East, we need to broaden our view of green space to in­clude leftover spa­ces, mu­nic­i­pal land that can be land­scaped or paved with per­me­able pavers to al­low wa­ter to be ab­sorbed in­stead of be­ing lost in runoff. We need to re­visit the way we look at parks and green spa­ces as to in­clude ceme­ter­ies, open­ing up and en­hanc­ing green spa­ces of churches and mosques. We also need to look at ur­ban agri­cul­ture, a trend now boom­ing in cities like New York for in­stance. There could be nu­mer­ous ways to pre­serve the lit­tle re­main­ing ur­ban agri­cul­ture in Beirut, through mi­cro­cre­d­its, co­op­er­a­tives, com­mu­nity gar­dens, etc.

Ekaruna As an en­vi­ron­ment and sus­tain­abil­ity con­sul­tant, how do you look at plan­ning for growth?

S.L.Y It de­pends on how one un­der­stands growth. To me, a sus­tain­able, re­silient city is one that bal­ances well-be­ing, public health, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, ecosys­tem and re­sources man­age­ment, lim­it­ing pol­lu­tion and pro­tect­ing its nat­u­ral land­scape her­itage, its iden­tity and so­cio­cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance and pro­mot­ing public and shared spa­ces and a flour­ing ur­ban bio­di­ver­sity.

Ekaruna In your opin­ion, what are the key el­e­ments for sus­tain­able ur­ban plan­ning in the 21st cen­tury?

S.L.Y When I re­cently asked an artist friend of mine on his rea­son for study­ing ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban cul­ture, he replied that, “the de­sign of ur­ban space can­not be the sole spe­cialty of de­sign­ers,” and to that I fully con­cur.

Hav­ing said that, I think that the key el­e­ment for sus­tain­able ur­ban plan­ning in the 21st cen­tury is peo­ple. Peo­ple com­ing from a va­ri­ety of dis­ci­plines, work­ing to­gether in plan­ning, or­gan­is­ing, and man­ag­ing ur­ban spa­ces. My ap­proach is one that favours de­sign­ing with na­ture for peo­ple be­cause hu­mans are part of na­ture.

Ekaruna How im­por­tant is it to in­volve Beirut’s cit­i­zens in the city’s plan­ning pro­grammes?

S.L.Y This is a cru­cial ques­tion. Public par­tic­i­pa­tion is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of in­clu­sive, sus­tain­able ur­ban plan­ning. Cit­i­zens’ opin­ions and needs should be taken into ac­count as well as their op­po­si­tion to projects, and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties should be open to al­ter­na­tive pro­pos­als and sug­ges­tions. Sadly, while there were re­cent at­tempts at public town hall meet­ings, the Beirut Mu­nic­i­pal­ity re­mains lack­ing on that front. Cit­i­zens need to be in­formed by blogs and web­sites. In­cred­i­bly enough, the Beirut Mu­nic­i­pal­ity does not have a web­site yet. In Lon­don, for in­stance, civic ac­tivism can change the course of a pro­ject.

Ekaruna Which lo­cal ar­eas - in terms of ur­ban plan­ning and de­sign for an eco-sus­tain­able fu­ture - do you see trans­form­ing over the next cou­ple of years?

S.L.Y I’m a bit ret­i­cent to an­swer this ques­tion be­cause I feel that we can­not think of ur­ban space in terms of ar­eas, but rather as a holis­tic ur­ban land­scape. Sure, there is much more aware­ness about en­vi­ron­men­tal preser­va­tion, but this re­mains at the piece­meal level, where loans are pro­vided for so­lar wa­ter heaters and small in­ter­ven­tion for so­lar energy. Still, no sub­stan­tial pol­icy on solid waste ex­ists, and green build­ing stan­dards are not yet part of build­ing reg­u­la­tions, but I know that there are peo­ple who are work­ing to­wards that even­tu­ally.

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