A Unique Landscape on the Coast of Beirut
Dalieh, a unique natural site along the coast of Beirut, 140,000 square metres of urban coastline in a natural landscape pocket, and the last of the coastal headlands, overlooking the emblematic ‘Sakhret el-Raouche’ - also locally referred to as Raouche. It is a landmark natural rock formation that dominates Beirut’s view from the sea, a scene that has been found on many of the city’s postcards since the 1950’s. It includes a prosperous biodiversity, a rich variety of geomorphological features, as well as an important site of archaeological remains. For decades, this area has acted as an unscripted gathering space and has encompassed a vibrant informal economy revolving around fishing, famous fish restaurants, boat touring, paddling, and scenic photography. Families and friends had found in this space a natural destination for weekend picnics, lovers a quiet and idyllic setting, sea-goers a strategic swimming and fishing destination, and communities an adequate setting for the celebration of their festivities.
Like most of the western coastline of Beirut, Dalieh properties were the result of the visions of Ottoman, and later French authorities, to entrust the city’s commons to the notables and main families of the capital. The official cadastral property records indicate that since the 1920’s and up until 1995, those properties had multiple owners; they were all members of the so-called “old families of Beirut” (Dictaphone Group, 2012). However, the property titles did not contradict with the practice of Dalieh as a collective coastal common. Perhaps one of Dalieh’s most enduring and distinctive characteristics is the unscripted quality of its setting, allowing for multiple, overlapping – yet never conflicting – activities to occur. This is because Dalieh does not fulfil the legal definition of a public space, it is a natural open space, where activities are not regulated or controlled by state authorities. Urban and building regulations had relatively protected Beirut’s seafront for decades. In 1995 however, those small land parcels owned by Beiruti families were purchased by several real estate companies that consolidated them together, into a single property ownership belonging to several real estate companies, all owned by a well-endowed and very powerful Lebanese political figure. Having used the area for generations, city dwellers paid little attention to the ownership of this property. However, following a number of recent events, a few of the area’s users became aware that Dalieh is privately owned. Since summer 2014, rapid transformations have abruptly interrupted Dalieh’s social and economic life; fishermen were compensated and evicted, their stalls and restaurants demolished, concrete wave-breakers deposited on the site, damaging its natural vegetation, and the site has been fenced, restricting access to a narrow opening and eroding the economic activity of the traditional fishing port at the Minet el Dalieh. Numerous clues point to a looming threat of an exclusive luxurious private touristic resort development to supplant Dalieh, stitching the area to similar developments that have mushroomed over the past decades along the city’s coast.
Why a Campaign?
The Dalieh Campaign was established in March 2014, to advocate the preservation of this spot as an open-access shared space for all city dwellers and visitors. It is composed of a workgroup of concerned citizens, mainly, engaged professionals
in the fields of building and landscape architecture, urban planning and design, archaeology, heritage management, in addition to Dalieh users, fishermen and swimmers, environmental activists, artists and designers, and a coalition of non-governmental organisations.
The objective of the Dalieh Campaign is the preservation of Dalieh as a cultural landscape heritage site in Beirut and a shared open space. The campaign is opposed to any high-end exclusive private development on the site that would erode its sociocultural practices, and to any permanent structure that could damage its sensitive physical features. Since its inception, the Dalieh Campaign has carried out numerous actions including an online petition, meetings with key stakeholders, filing lawsuits to revoke legislation, organising community activities in Dalieh, taking part in public debates at universities and compiling guidelines for the preservation of the site, in addition to submitting the candidature of Dalieh to the World Monuments Fund List for 2016, which will be announced in October 2015.
The campaign has generated an on-going public outcry, in the form of protests, discussions, media mobilisation and letters to officials. Most officials accept the argument in principle but are not willing to endorse the campaign openly because of political alliances. In March 2014, however, and after several months of meeting with the Dalieh Campaign, the Lebanese Ministry of Environment drafted and issued a decree classifying Dalieh as a national protected area. The draft law was sent to the Lebanese Legislative Court (‘Shura Council’) for approval, after that, it would require a vote by the Council of Ministers. While this constitutes a fundamental effort on behalf of the Ministry towards protecting the site and creating obstacles to real estate developers, it imposes stringent requirements to assess the environmental impact since it is not sufficient to eliminate the looming threat of construction on the site. Any architectural intervention that modifies this seafront landscape, particularly one that privatises a natural extension of this public landmark, will have resounding negative impacts. The private resort project envisioned on Dalieh threatens a unique ecosystem comprising a rich archaeological and geological site.
Beirut Coastal Commons and Privatisation
Official property records of July 2014, indicate that approximately 95.06 % of Dalieh is privately owned by 3 real estate companies belonging to very powerful developers and influential political figures. Compared to present cadastral maps - those dating back to the period of the French Mandate over Lebanon, clearly indicating that current private land holdings encroaches over the maritime public domain - demonstrating that property boundaries in Dalieh have been illicitly modified to provide the privatisation of a large section of the natural site.
Amendment to (and violation of) the regulatory framework governing the marine domain in Lebanon is not a recent occurrence. Over the past twenty-five years, policy-makers, ministers, and members of the political elite have obstinately mutilated legal statutes to serve their private interests.
Order 144 dating back to 1925 and still in effect today, defines what constitutes Public Property and formulates rights of access to natural resources. It classifies the sea as an inalienable maritime public domain that cannot be sold nor owned. The 1954 Beirut Master Plan defined zoning regulations and prohibited construction on the coast, and especially in Zone 10 where Dalieh is situated.
Since the mid-1960’s, pressure applied by developers and the propertied elite have reversed the full provisions against building in this zone. This facilitated increasing building coefficients to levels reaching 60%, and allowed for the privatisation of areas typically used as public spaces.
Contrary to the previous protective legal measures, in 1966, decree 4810 was passed to allow owners of property adjacent to the sea to privately exploit the maritime domain due to pressure by real estate developers. Another law 402/1995 was issued to enable landowners with a plot larger than 20,000 sqm to double their total exploitation factor and quadruple their surface exploitation if a hotel is to be built. This includes zone 10 where Dalieh falls. Additionally, another decree, 7464/1995 was issued to allow for the exploitation of the maritime public domain in Zone 10. The last alteration (April 2014) to the building and zoning regulations governing Zone 10 prolonged the effect of Law 402/1995 for 19 years.
The legal jurisdiction over Dalieh and its protection as a natural heritage and gathering space is a responsibility shared by several institutional bodies which include, The Ministry of Environment, the key agency entrusted with the preservation of the site, and the High Council for Urban Planning with the power to refuse granting exceptional decrees and amendments and the mandate to propose new legislation for the protection of the site.
Lodged on the prime sea-front area and privately held by wellendowed developers looking for lucrative opportunities, Dalieh is an attractive real estate investment and a strategic location for a private high-end maritime resort. The main challenge to ensure the protection of the site is, therefore, a legal one. This entails revoking decrees and laws that allowed the exploitation of the marine public domain that stand in clear conflict with earlier protective measure.
Dalieh’s Significance: A Natural and Cultural Heritage
Dalieh and Raouche are the last remaining coastal karstic (limestone) outcrops of the Cretaceous period (around 95 million years ago), containing fossils of sea urchins, oysters and gastropods. Neolithic remains discovered around 1915 suggest that Dalieh was probably the first in-situ flint industry site on the Mediterranean coast and perhaps the first human settlement in Beirut.
Dalieh shelters steno-endemic species (critically endangered) and native coastal plants that are significant to the Lebanese marine ecosystem, now restricted to small areas in Lebanon. Numerous studies conducted by Greenpeace, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Lebanese Ministry of the Environment, among others, highlight the ecological value of Dalieh as a terrestrial habitat for fruit bats and birds, as well as a marine habitat with a network of underwater caves and vermetid (worm snails) reefs where a unique marine life flourishes - including a community of monk seals.
Dalieh is equally important at the sociocultural level. The Arabic word Dalieh designates any plant that hangs down, typically used on vernacular roof terraces where families, neighbours and friends gather to mark the end of the workday. It was the site of extensive urban agricultural activity until the 1960’s, and is still associated with Beirut’s traditional fishing history, boosted in the 1950’s after the establishment of the Minet el-Dalieh fishing port. Until the 1960s, it was where Beirutis congregated on the last Wednesday of April every year to celebrate Job’s Wednesday (Arbaat Ayub) associated with the miracle of the Prophet Job, who is said to have healed from his pains after swimming patiently in the sea. Dalieh was also a family picnic site and a destination of ‘Siran’, an activity that involved strolling and food preparation in natural areas. Until recently, Dalieh has hosted the grand annual Nowruz festivities, the Zoroastrian New Year, celebrated by the Kurdish community on March 21st of every year.
“Revisiting Dalieh: Calling for Alternative Visions along Beirut’s Coast” is an ideas-competition organised under the patronage of the Lebanese Ministry of Environment, and with the support of the American University of Beirut’s Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, Nature Conservation Center and Neighbourhood Initiative.
The competition aims to provide a platform for the protection, preservation, maintenance and enhancement of Dalieh as a shared open space. It is an open call for professionals and students in the design-related disciplines to propose a plan to maintain Dalieh as an open-access shared space. The competition is soliciting creative, sensitive and sustainable visions, spatial configurations, as well as programmatic, and institutional proposals capable of balancing between the area’s ecological, social, and economic needs, and reflecting on its ownership status, triggering questions such as: Who owns? Who controls? Who manages? Who maintains? Artists, legal scholars, economists, sociologists, and other disciplines, are encouraged to participate as members within design-led teams. A jury of multidisciplinary national and international professionals and public figures will review the submissions and select the winning schemes which will be showcased at a touring exhibition, starting with the Beirut Design Week in June 2015 and will be featured in a publication about advocacy to preserve Dalieh as a an open-access shared space. A crowdfunding campaign has been launched to sponsor and support the competition and its related activities.
Dalieh Campgain Press conference, 2014 Courtesy of Habib Battah - Beirutreport.com
Panoramic image showing, Dalieh caves, traditional fishing boats, edge of the two breakaway rocks locally as Rouche and view from Dalieh of the urban waterfront, 2010 Courtesy of Tala Tabbakh