Cemeteries as holistic urban landscapes by Nayla Al-Akl

Cemeteries are cultural and spiritual landscapes that constitute some of the few remaining open and green​ spaces in Beirut. Generally hidden behind high walls, they are often forgotten as urban spaces and erased from people’s memory of the city. Nayla M. Al-Akl, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at FAFS, AUB, whose research interest include cultural landscapes and the relationship between people and their environment, focuses on the potential of cemeteries as holistic urban green spaces that may promote human wellbeing and ecological health.

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Her article ‘The landscape of urban cemeteries in Beirut: Perceptions and preferences’ investigates people’s attitudes towards cemeteries in Beirut, and is the first of its kind in helping to shed light on how people perceive urban cemeteries and the preferred qualities and features that render them attractive open spaces in the city. The multidisciplinary team lead by Al-Akl includes Elias Karaan from the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management, FAFS, Mohammad Al-Zein from the Department of Biology, FAS and Sarah Assaad from the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, FHS. The study used a mixed-method approach and relied on a general profile questionnaire, a photo-based sorting exercise and semi-structured interview. The results highlighted the fact that not all cemeteries were perceived in the same way, and that greenery was the element with the highest percentage (68%) that contributed towards a positive perception of the space. Other constructs leading to positive perception and preference included stewardship through cues of care, maintenance and spatial organization, as well as restorative qualities linked to privacy and the sense of ‘being away’. Negative perceptions were guided by notions of crowdedness, unequal treatment of the dead and intrusion from the surrounding context, both physically and ideologically. While religious affiliations did not seem to impact preference or perception, the presence of political influence on site through signs and symbols was highly perceived as negative. 

The results demonstrate two interesting findings. First that existing theories on landscape preferences do apply to the cemetery as a landscape typology; these include theories that demonstrate the link between preference and the presence of greenery, the significance of organization, stewardship and care, the perception of safety through human presence and the perception of ecological values as well as the landscape qualities for restoration and wellbeing.

Second, the results highlighted the fact that personal exposure and familiarity affected preference within the local context.

This study was funded by the Dean’s Office Research Seed Grant and resulted in a published manuscript in one of the top journals in the field, the journal of Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. The work initiated further research by Al-Akl and Al-Zein along with a presentation at the conference “The Place That Remains“ on the role of urban cemeteries as conservation sites, whereby the landscapes of death are re-conceptualized not only as remaining places in the city but also as places of ‘remains’; as grounds for the conservation of memory, culture and history, and as potential sites for the conservation of native and canonical species and the protection of urban biodiversity.

As an outcome of the above research, and in an effort to lead by example, Al-Akl has been working with the Anglo-American Cemetery Association and local stakeholders to raise awareness of the Anglo-American Cemetery (AAC) as a cultural and natural heritage site and to create and promote its future vision as a green urban space and multifunctional landscape that is at once a peaceful place for bereavement, a beautiful garden for contemplation, a place for commemoration and a conservation site. The AAC is the resting place of the first and fourth presidents of AUB, as well as several generations and families of educators and administrators at the university. It is also a site of natural heritage preserving a paramount landscape of Beirut: the pine forest. In collaboration with Dr. Eugene Sensenig (PI), Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University (NDU), a plan to incorporate the cemetery as part of a larger cultural trail is currently being investigated.

Having recently been awarded the SDG grant from the UN Global Compact National foundation fund, Nayla Al-Akl is currently studying the impact of cemeteries on urban sustainability and more specifically in relation to Sustainable Development Goal SDG 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities.