SARAH LILY YASSINE
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.
Saint Joseph Church University Saint Joseph Street - Courtesy of 4b Architects and Aartill Lighting Consultants
Fishermen’s port Ain El Mreisseh - Courtesy of 4b Architects and Aartill Lighting Consultants
Intersection Gouraud Street and Georges Haddad - Courtesy of 4b Architects and Aartill Lighting Consultants
Port Wheat Silots - Courtesy of 4b Architects and Aartill Lighting Consultants