American Univesity of Beirut

Sustainable urban greening by Dr. Salma Talhouk

Many people think that if you live in the city, then caring for nature and gardening is a luxury, which they have neither the time, the money, nor the energy to afford. Dr. Salma Talhouk, professor at the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management, is using her research to show that bringing nature into the city benefits health and wellbeing and can be affordable.  Her interest in “Sustainable Urban Greening” focuses on developing sustainable, affordable greening methods that can be adopted by the community, and on assessing the impact of such methods on the wellbeing of urban dwellers.

People interested in urban greening must consider the sustainable dimensions of planting: (1) does the greening project consume large quantities of water, which is already a limited resource; (2) are installation and maintenance costs too high; and (3) are they introducing native and ecologically adapted plants to the urban green a​reas?. Concerned about these issues, Dr. Talhouk, with her colleague, Ms. Monika Fabian (instructor at the LDEM) have been conducting research on the roof of AUB’s Physical Plant building and are attempting to identify Lebanese and Mediterranean plants suitable for roof top gardens that do not need an irrigation system: no water is required. Dr. Talhouk explains that “such plants are naturally watered by rainfall: growing and flowerin​g; then dying out and producing seeds or going dormant during the summer; this is nice because it’s a replica of nature”. In addition to their positive visual and environmental impact, such rooftop gardens are both affordable and beneficial, as they help reduce heat and prolong the life of the insulating material. Dr. Talhouk & Ms. Fabian are preparing a publication about this research, and hope to transform additional AUB rooftops into extensive green expanses of nature. 

Dr. Talhouk and Ms. Fabian are also developing “AUB green walls”, an affordable green wall system made from simple and inexpensive material that can be constructed by anyone. The walls use a very basic system because, as Dr. Talhouk explains, “you cannot develop urban greening technology that caters only to the wealthy. It is everyone’s responsibility to contribute to urban greening and everyone’s privilege to benefit from it”. Dr. Talhouk and Ms. Fabian have successfully applied this system with Syrian refugees and marginalized Lebanese families; click here for the video. The AUB green walls were used by schoolchildren in schools near AUB:  they grew and shared herbs and plants with one another and with partner schools. This ongoing project is in partnership with the AUB Neighborhood Initiative.​

A final, yet fundamental question raised by Dr. Talhouk’s research is how to involve people in nature conservation. This requires that the researcher understands the way in which nature is perceived by individuals and communities, who perceive nature differently depending on their situation, culture, experiences, etc. Through this research, Talhouk is investigating the “cultural aspect of nature”, and trying to understand how people in a village see nature through their daily lives, as part of their homes and their daily routine, as part of their spirituality, economic & environmental aspirations.

Over the past six years, Dr. Talhouk has conducted participatory mapping research in the “Baldati Bi’ati” project, under the umbrella of the Nature Conservation Center. Dr. Talhouk and her team have worked with 70 villages, asking these communities to map their perceptions about nature and culture in their villages. In partnership with The Diana Foundation, the project now has a digital platform and phone application, “Daskara App” that aims to collect and document natural and cultural heritage using the same participatory process that was developed in “Baldati Bi’ati.” Now in its final stages, Daskara will not only allow the user to document local nature and culture, but will also help them use the app to promote local development. The app also includes features related to local tourism, promotion and sale of local produce, and support of locally conceived projects. Ultimately, the goal is to create a tight link between nature-culture and people. “When nature becomes a source for cultural identity and economic benefits, you are more likely to conserve it”, Dr. Talhouk concludes.

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