American University of Beirut

Social Justice and the City



    ​The aim of the Issam Fares Institute's Social Justice and the City program is to formulate an agenda for research that establishes a partnership between scholars, policy-makers, and activists in Lebanon (and beyond) working towards more inclusive cities. The program seeks to act as a platform where scholars, policy-makers, and activists can share reflections, experiences, and strategies (i) documenting, analyzing and reflecting on ongoing urban processes affecting the organization and life of the city, (ii) sharing and validating research with activists, affected communities, and other social groups who are potentially interested in sharing both the acquired competence and the pool of research tactics, and (iii) supporting and informing initiatives that hope to influence change through debates, media, publications, and advocacy.


    The Social Justice and the City is currently engaged in two research tracks:

    I. The "Publics" in Urban Spaces/ Reclaiming the Urban Commons

    Demands for the protection and enhancement of public spaces have figured at the top of the social mobilization movements across the globe and a main dimension of the claims for social justice. In Greece, Turkey, as well as in Beirut, activists have vigorously defended "public" claims over space from what is widely perceived as the encroachment of the "private". This is hardly surprising since both professionals of the built environment and city dwellers have realized that livability and health go hand-in-hand with the availability of open, shared spaces in the city and that their absence provides additional evidence of the harsh realities of everyday urban life, particularly in the cities of the south.

    Yet, perceptions of the nature, functioning, and organization of public space contest the normative understandings of the "public" or "public-ness" adopted by professionals of the built environment. Indeed, while these understandings simplify the definition of public space to "open" and "accessible" areas, typically owned by state agencies, researchers have shown that openness and accessibility are frequently challenged by class, race, gender, and other social markers. They have also unraveled the ways in which social practices and historical processes of property formation complicate the clear-cut division of spaces into "public" and "private" zones. Instead, these researchers invite us to explore spaces and their publics in more plural forms, unravelling the complex forms of their historical production and current transformations.

    When thinking through the connection between social justice and shared urban spaces, we are motivated to move beyond the mere advocacy of "more parks" and "more public squares". In that vein, this track of the Social Justice and the City seeks to:

    1. Expand the imagination of what the spatialization of "shared spaces" might mean,
    2. Explore ways in which "shared claims" over city spaces can be strengthened, whether they are privately or publicly owned,
    3. Explore existing forms of leisure, their spatial materialization, and the processes and networks that enable their existence.

    II. The Crisis of Affordable Housing

    The crisis of affordable urban housing in Lebanon dates back to the country's independence. Newspaper archives indicate that at least since the 1940s, policy-makers had recognized the dearth of options for middle and low-income groups seeking housing. Since then, the housing crisis has only intensified, as evidenced by the scattered policy reports and statistics that reflect poor public responses to the crisis.

    Within the dominant neoliberal framework of public policy-making of the last two decades, questions of access to housing have largely been framed in terms of "affordability" while housing policy has been reduced to a narrow set of market-based interventions such as partially subsidized loans. Instead, the aim of the Social Justice and the City is to re-infuse in the housing discourse a necessary political dimension where thinking through housing rights requires us to address larger questions that acknowledge the social values of housing and balance its imperative with those of the market.

    Recognizing, hence, that the market is not a fair arbitrator of spatial allocations, particularly when it comes to shelter, this project seeks to:

    1. Document ongoing transformations in processes of housing acquisition in the low-income market of Beirut, particularly in relation to informal housing and rent control units where housing was historically provided either outside the framework of the market or through its distortion.
    2. Learn from other national contexts where "the right of housing" has led to the introduction of numerous policy tools such as "inclusionary zoning", etc. By learning about/from these current processes of housing acquisition in the city, we hope to explore possibilities and venues through which the right to shelter can still be advocated.​



    As part of its vision to collaborate with researchers and groups working towards more inclusive urban commons, the Social Justice and the City ​project initiated the following collaborations in 2015:

    Practicing the Public: Beirut​'s ​Shared Public Spaces
    This collection of essays and maps digs beyond the apparent dichotomies between public and private spaces in an effort to understand what makes public space such a complex minefield in Lebanon. Despite their dominant condemnation, the publication starts with the premise that practices of the commons/publics are sustained i​n Lebanon. Through their analysis as complex systems of multiple publics rife with power relations but also progressive claims, harsh realities and multiple dreams and enactments of trespass, the publication puts forward a set of readings that not only shed light on the functioning of the city but also provides potential paths for intervening to improve the quality of the city's spaces. It built on mappings and ethnographic accounts of more or less known sites in the city, laced together in narratives of resilience and coexistence. The publication was produced by Mona Fawaz (faculty advisor of Social Justice and the City Project, in partnership with Ahmad Gharbieh and Public Works –Nadine Bekdache and Abir Saksouk-Sasso). The project was distributed in October 2015 with As-Safir paper. It can be downloaded here (Arabic).

    The Mar Mik​​​hael Workshop
    In March 2015, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs and the Masters in Urban Planning and Policy (MUPP) in the Department of Architecture and Design, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, American University of Beirut (AUB), contributed to a workshop titled Creative Economy, Social Justice and Urban Strategies: The Case of Mar Mikhael. The workshop was conducted in partnership with GAIA Heritage, a heritage consulting company, and the Masters in Regional and Urban Strategy at Sciences Po, Paris. Seven students participated in this workshop: three from the AUB-MUPP program and four from the Master's in Regional and Urban Strategy at Sciences Po, Paris. The workshop aimed to assess current urban transformations in the neighborhood of Mar Mikhael (Beirut, Lebanon) and investigate the impacts of creative industries in the area. The AUB-MUPP and the Issam Fares Institute contributions focused on social justice and the right to housing in a context of ongoing gentrification. The full report of this workshop can be downloaded here.

    The Dalieh Juries
    On Saturday May 30, 2015, the Social Justice and the City Project hosted the Dalieh Competition Juries at the Issam Fares Institute. The last of the natural headlands overlooking Beirut's emblematic Sakhret el-Rawsheh, Dalieh constitutes a unique social and ecological space along the city's coast. The Competition, which had been launched on March 23, had called on students, professionals of the built environment, and others interested in contributing with visions for the future of this large open-access space in the city and its preservation as a shared space with unique ecological characteristics. It was organized by the Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche. The jury brought together a handful of scholars, professionals, and public sector actors. Full details about the competition brief, its jury, and winning entries can be read here.​



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