The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) is a local non-profit, non-partisan Lebanese human rights organization in Beirut that was established by the Franco-Lebanese Movement SOLIDA (Support for Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily) in 2006. SOLIDA has been active since 1996 in the struggle against arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and the impunity of those perpetrating gross human violations.

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October 30, 2010

The Daily Star - Acclaimed architect Djurovic calls for more public spaces in overly urbanized capital - October 30, 2010

By Simona Sikimic
 BEIRUT: Shaded by two ancient trees lies a simple plot of land, barely visible from the bustle of Downtown shops and traffic, but gaining recognition from the architecture community as one of the capital’s most prized contemporary works.
Despite its unpretentious air, Solidere’s “Square Four,” better known as the Samir Kassir Memorial Garden, has picked up a string of international awards for its clever use of space and its symbolism as the last remaining natural oasis, preserved amid a sea of construction and cranes.
It’s identification is a reminder that even in a city renown for its obsession with glamor, where public spaces have long been passed over for the pomp of boutique shops, towering offices and sky-rise hotels, the basic human need for gardens and places of rest remains undimmed.
“If such a small project can get such worldwide recognition, just imagine what we could do on a larger scale,” said architect Vladimir Djurovic. “The city needs this – its people need this. When you look at every other great city in the world they have all factored in how to make the lives of its citizens more manageable, but we have, and continue to, totally ignore this.”
It is this outlook which helped Djurovic secure the Cityscape Architecture Review Awards as well as this year’s American Society of Landscape Architects Design Award, but, it is also crucially what first brought the Lebanese-born environmentalist to the attention of the Aga Khan Award for Agriculture (AKAA) judges in 2007.
While the highly influential AKKA award – established in 1977 to recognize architectural excellence in Islamic societies – has gone to rehabilitating some world famous sites like the great Alexandria Library, it prioritizes projects that further cultural and environmental sustainability.
And in Lebanon, nothing is more key than reversing unbridled construction and promoting natural spaces, said Djurovic. (Perhaps that is why this year another of Beirut’s green spaces – the landscape of the AUB campus – made it on to the shortlist.)
The young architect stands out for his dedication to conserving a space’s integrity as much as possible, refusing projects that bear a heavy toll on the environment and working with sustainable materials that are true to a site’s guiding natural element, be it trees, water, or even desert.
Working for the likes of fashion designer Elie Saab, Djurovic is increasingly in demand, picking up a string of public commissions, including the Hariri memorial garden, and ensuring that at least the tiny corners of the city, handed over to his care, remain green.
Although initially slow on the uptake, the backlash against endless urbanization is gathering clout. Resident protests are attracting increasing media attention while politicians have begun denouncing new demolitions and developers are increasingly incorporating more outdoor spaces into plans.
These small steps, however, are certainly not enough, especially in a city where green spaces are estimated to compose an average per capita ratio of just 0.8 square meters, in contrast to the WHO ideal of “greenery per capita” standard of 40 meters – a discrepancy of 5,000 percent.
The unbridled construction boom has ripped apart the city’s cultural heritage and driven up pollution to levels deemed “toxic to human health” by university findings.
“Any remaining space that we have must simply have to be reclaimed into green areas,” said Djurovic. “We don’t need any more buildings or memorials, what we need is more public spaces.”
This could be a key first step, and if proposals by the country’s Green Party are to be believed, could add an additional 800,000 to 2,000,000 square meters of grounds to the capital.
“This is a terrible situation and requires a radical solution. The municipality must restructure its urban planning and step in to preserve land for its inhabitants,” said Philip Skaff, head of the Lebanese Green Party. “Even if contractors are creating more features in their own designs, if you plant a few trees only the tenants will have access. This is not the point.”
“Public spaces promote social cohesion and help cities be less violent,” he said. “The first thing you do to a crazy person when they reach an asylum is ensure they have access to big open fields, this calms them, much like a park helps someone exposed to cars, traffic and noise all day.”
Despite the need, the authorities continue to be slow to act. The Pine Forest, Beirut’s biggest park, remains largely closed, while much of the Corniche is still in a state of disrepair.
“You have to entice and attract people to a space, but Beirut’s few public spaces are dangerous and dirty. But all one needs to do is clean them up,” said Djurovic. “Unfortunately, there is no will to do this and all people seem to care about is making money or impressing other people when the most impressive thing one can do is have a beautiful outdoor space left as nature intended.”
“No one wants to live in a polluted, smog-filled city with no greenery,” said Djurovic. “People claim that contractors are bringing in money but they are actually making property prices fall. A property that is located next to a good view and is close to nature can retail as four or five times as much.”
The new Beirut municipality administration has at least recognized the problem and claims to be formulating a more sustainable developmental strategy. When, and if, such a strategy will be unveiled, remains to be seen, and could well come too late to preserve Beirut’s remaining public areas.
“All green spaces are residual leftover spaces in the city, which developers couldn’t use. It would be wonderful to have a place, just one, where the garden was put first and the buildings followed,” Djurovic said.

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