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Mona Fawaz: A new era of urban studies that maps power, institutions, and neighborhoods  

The university's role in society has evolved from being a center of knowledge to an active participant in social change, according to Dr. Mona Fawaz, professor of Urban Studies at the American University of Beirut. She has been a leader in revolutionizing the role of AUB in Beirut in issues of urbanism, environmentalist and social justice, and she shared her thoughts recently in a livestreamed roundtable discussion among academics, activists, and practitioners in Beirut and New York, in another of the regular New York-Beirut Briefings that were launched a year ago. Participants in both cities engaged in a dynamic conversation on their experiences in how a university can prod positive and actionable change within urban spaces, through research, teaching, activism, and even electioneering. 

“Universities teaching city planning are increasingly looking at affecting their local communities, and not only analyzing them" said Dr. Fawaz. Today's municipal and academic conversations of urban planning suffer from a “lack of frames", as she puts it, meaning new ways of contextualizing problems facing cities. To be effective, urban planning requires a foundational belief that the modern nation state aims to promote the common good.  

In Beirut, reinventing the profession of “city planning" was critical, as the resources required to be effective did not exist. The city has no current census or housing data, and lacks a strategic plan. Without these resources, she said, urban planners must use alternative tools and strategies to address the critical questions plaguing the city.  

What does it mean when you have a city with no public space, for example? This question defines public life in Beirut. Dr. Fawaz and her team at AUB in 2006 took that question as a project to map security in Beirut. They mapped every roadblock, tank, checkpoint and security point to visualize the toll “security" had taken on the city, and how it had changed the physical space of the city. It was so successful that other cities, such as Madrid and Berlin became interested in joining this process, looking to see how security had defined their respective urban spaces. 

It was hurdles such as these that sparked the birth of Beirut Madinati, a political action group aimed at breaking through traditional sectarian politics and creating a grassroots movement for the common good. It even ran a slate of candidates for the Beirut municipal elections, and in some districts secured over a third of the vote. Dr Fawaz and a dozen other AUB professors were active in the movement. 

In the absence of a clear civic strategy for Beirut, “Beirut Madinati focused strongly on tangibly illustrating what an alternative vision of a neighborhood space could be," said Dr. Fawaz. With Lebanon on the edge of a financial crisis, growing unemployment, and pressure on the economy, there is no political will to address these issues. Beirut Madinati, though, showed that providing solutions would resonate with people.  

“Lebanon is a small country and it doesn't take much to create large change," she says “what it requires is an impetus." 

Dr. Rabih Shibli, Director of the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service (CCECS) at AUB, anchored the 20 participants in Beirut – students, professors, and alumni now working in the field – who shared their real life experiences in working to bring about urban change for the common good. Shibli's work at CCECS has challenged traditional models of higher education by offering students a practical experience component in their curricula, which spills over into their professional lives. 

“The most remarkable change we've seen with these programs are the skills students develop and that they carry with them as citizens after graduating. Many go on to work in international agencies and NGOs," he said. 

The dozens of AUB alumni livestreamed from Beirut allowed participants in New York to hear the realities of citizens trying to bring about urban change in the workplace after graduation.  

“I am working on project that would allow municipalities manage urban growth. The biggest challenge with urban planning is that when you talk to officials about transportation, they assume you mean  roads and bridges. When you talk about housing, they think of high rises not affordable housing," said Maya, a graduate of the master's program in urban planning and policy. 

“Our program is not a technical program. It promotes critical thinking. This has allowed us to transition from theory to projects and initiatives," said Ali, a graduated AUB student. Another graduate, Omar, noted that, “Architecture is more than just drawing houses and maps; it is about engaging with people. How students and universities provide knowledge to local authorities is a key aspect of the program."  

Students working in this field will face challenges in implementing change on a larger scale than previous urban planners. Mosul and Aleppo, where nearly entire cities have been decimated, are prime examples of urban spaces that face exceptional planning challenges, which will define the lives of residents for generations. As the roundtable discussion came to a close, Dr. Fawaz left the audience with one final powerful statement: “Urbanization is a process. Map your plan, map power, and map institutions. Through that, you find your best path towards a solution. It's always important to remember when trying to create change that, as an urban planner, you're playing chess, and you're not the strongest player on the board."