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Finding common ground: LAU students present community-building projects

[photo]
Fourth-year student Mohannad Zahran presents a sketch of a potential public park in the Bourj Hammoud port area to his fellow classmates in the Landscape Workshop course.

[photo]
Dr. Rachid G. Chamoun (right), who teaches the course, listens intently while his students present their visions for a more community-oriented and environmentally friendly Lebanon.

December 2, 2010—

Fourth-year students from LAU’s School of Architecture and Design were given a challenging midterm assignment: use urban- and landscape-planning tools to envision ways to integrate, preserve and create public spaces in communities around Lebanon.

Student groups presented their community-based projects at the Byblos campus on November 15 and the Beirut campus on November 23, as part of the course titled Landscape Workshop: Challenging the Privatization of Public Spaces and in line with LAU’s civic engagement vision that encourages students to broaden their horizons within and beyond campus boundaries.

“The midterm review is intended to encourage students to work collaboratively on projects of community interest, and to develop coherent and appropriate solutions to design problems that affect communities, the environment and people,” explains Dr. Rachid G. Chamoun, the instructor of the course who also directs LAU’s Urban Planning Institute.

“The availability of land for public space is dwindling in Lebanon due to privatization and exploitation,” Chamoun says.

According to him, the urban growth of Beirut and Lebanon in general has been shaped by local politics and rapid economics rather than sustainable planning strategies. As a result, the country’s infrastructure and landscape are often fragmented and disputed.

So, the major challenge for the students was to take into account not only the topography of a given area, but also the socio-economic, political and environmental factors that currently affect that space.

Reconceptualizing public spaces

The students were asked to analyze the existing condition and status of key public spaces in one of four regions: Municipal Beirut, Greater Beirut, the coastal areas, or other major cities (Byblos, Tripoli, Saida, etc.).

They had to discover who owns the space, who uses it, what activities it enables, how it is tied (or not) to the life of the neighborhood or the city.

One student group — comprised of Linda Aridi, Loubna Alayli and Michel Maayeh — worked on reconceptualizing the Charles Helou transportation station in Beirut.

They chose this notoriously chaotic public space because of its historic importance to the city and its potential for transformation. The group presented plans for high-quality transit facilities, waiting areas, restrooms, greenery and a cafeteria.

“We chose Charles Helou because it’s a main leftover from the civil war, divided not according to destination zones but political territories,” said Maayeh. Private buses in league with the Ministry of Transport are at the East side of the terminal while the West side is run by the municipality, he explained, causing a disorganized and dysfunctional travel experience.

“We want to reconstruct it to bring life to the area, to connect the different neighborhoods that border it, and to make it a space for Lebanese to share and be proud of,” Maayeh added.

Another group — consisting of Mohannad Zahran, Elias Karaan, Audrey Asly and Shahlaa Alqurashi — chose the Municipality of Bourj Hammoud.

They presented plans to integrate a large public park around the port area that is currently dedicated to the fishing industry, so that any member of the community could come and enjoy the sunset or browse the daily catch from fishermen’s kiosks.

“The aim was for the students to find common ground — physically and symbolically — through interactive landscape spaces,” Chamoun says.

The projects were also designed to test the students’ teamwork spirit and engage the community through interviews — useful skills for the students once they start working as urban and landscape planners and designers in the real world.

There are 50 students (split between two sections) in Byblos and 14 in Beirut enrolled in the course. For the next and final projects of the course, each student will develop his or her own concept and scope of work, which will then be presented during a public exhibition to the actual stakeholders named in the project.


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