Parking lots in Beirut: a pattern of singular spaces and of untapped potential

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Posted on Aug 05 2022 by Antoine Atallah, Architect and Urbanist 7 minutes read
Parking lots in Beirut: a pattern of singular spaces and of untapped potential
Adra Kandil
Parking lots in Beirut are where days often start and where they often end. They punctuate everyday life, between one trip and the next, necessary transitions between two destinations. They are an essential part of life in a city where public transport systems are near-absent, and where people have no other choice but to rely on their car for most of their travels and commute.

Parking embodies yet another of the many constraints imposed on city dwellers. Monthly memberships paid to ensure a spot close to home, fees paid every time one needs to drive and park, constitute a significant financial burden. Driving around in repetitive loops, being rejected from successive lots because they’re full, being forced to rely on “valet” services, cause frustration and anger, loss of time and energy. It is difficult to imagine they could harbour any form of interest, or that they could represent anything other than irritating routine.    

However, parking lots are not just empty plots of land: they are scars in the urban fabric, that often indicate where an old building was located before it got demolished, because of war, decay, or real-estate. They reveal a process of degradation of traditional neighbourhoods, a process that is encouraged by the regulatory and financial framework. 

Indeed, it is always easier and more profitable to sell an empty parcel and obtaining a demolition permit is frequently the easiest way to evict renters benefiting from old rent. Furthermore, a special rule of the building code requires that lands liberated following the demolition of a previous structure, should be turned into parking between the time of demolition and the granting of a construction permit. Parking lots are thus transitional spaces, between a vanished building and a building to come. 

Sometimes however, they endure and remain unbuilt for many years. Because of the specific situation of their owners, either financially unable to engage in a construction project or incapable of agreeing among family members and shareholders. Other times because they are used by institutions such as hospitals and universities that require parking for staff, users, and visitors. Or simply because parking is a profitable business that can only thrive, given the general traffic congestion and the impossibly high demand it generates. In all cases, the persistence of these unbuilt plots of land across the years turns them into identifiable neighbourhood features, much like some iconic buildings.

Whether they are temporary or more permanent, the negative spaces produced by parking lots are more interesting than they seem, and even lead to some surprising benefits for the city. Through the gaps of parking lots, direct sunlight reaches deeper into the neighbourhoods and onto the surrounding buildings, while air circulation is improved both at street levels and within people’s apartments. Though it is also true that such advantages can be significantly diminished or reversed in times of strong heat and little wind, when the dark asphalted surfaces can generate urban heat islands. 

Nevertheless, in a dense and overcrowded environment, parking lots interrupt the continuous urban fabric and always compose distinct situations in the urban landscape. They open up perspectives, offer visual setbacks that make facades more visible, presenting relatively rare angles of view at street level. The sudden removal of a building often reveals novel perspectives into the depth of urban blocks and uncovers previously hidden interior facades: some of which were never meant to be exposed, while some others are brought back to light after being hidden for decades because of the haphazard superposition of buildings. Sometimes also, the removal of a building creates unexpected lines of sight towards the distance, to the sea or the mountains. 

Also, parking lots frequently hold features that are reminiscent of their plot’s past occupation. In the form of traces, they maintain a faint memory of disappeared buildings. In this way, they temporarily preserve something of that same memory they have contributed to erase. 

Cars often enter the lot through the gates and of what used to be the enclosure and main entrance of a front garden: walls built in characteristic sandstone, wrought iron fences, concrete neoclassical balustrades, pseudo-monumental door posts with finely worked capitals that sometimes showcase the carved initials of the original owner. 

The imprint of a pre-existing building can often be seen, etched on the gable wall of an adjoining building against which it was initially built. Then, the general outline of the vanished structure is drawn-out with jagged bits of stone, plaster, wood and tiles that indicate the former perimeter of the outside walls and roof line. Within these boundaries, the network of partition walls is sometimes visible as well, outlining part of the disappeared floor plan which can be guessed from the different wall finishes: wallpaper and corniches rather indicate the living room, pastel coloured paint is more characteristic of bedrooms, while ceramic tiles almost surely designate a bathroom, a toilet and sometimes the kitchen, especially when traces of cupboards are discernible as well. Ironically, the destruction of urban memory caused by the demolition of a building can sometimes reveal a previously inaccessible intimate memory.

Private gardens can also leave their mark. Some trees are sometimes preserved, when they don’t take much space and when their position does not disrupt how parking is supposed to function. This is especially the case along the former edges of the gardens where the trees that used to provide intimacy, now conveniently offer shade for cars parked under their canopy. For more obscure reasons, former basins and fountains are sometimes preserved as well, as if to convey a sense of freshness in the hot, dry asphalted environment of parking lots. 

Freshness and greenery are valued commodities in Beirut, increasingly necessary to adapt to climate change, yet dramatically scarce in a capital where inhabitants can only enjoy 0.8m² of nature per capita – less than 10% of the 9m² recommended by the World Health Organisation. This observation reveals the potential held by the numerous parking lots that punctuate every single neighbourhood: that of becoming parcs that would not only fill a major part of the green-area deficit, but would also offer city-dwellers new public spaces, that are notoriously few in Beirut. 

Of course, for just a part of such a scenario to become reality, many prior steps are required, supported by a strong political will: financial means necessary to buy and landscape a significant number of private lots, public transportation policies that would reduce dependency on the car and possibly, the construction of public parking facilities in well studied numbers and locations. Conditions that are today absent, in a country facing bankruptcy and political stalemate, in a capital city that develops haphazardly with no strategic vision.

Regardless of the challenges, parking lots do constitute a resource for Beirut, and represent a major potential to change the image of the city and to improve its liveability. This is particularly true given they make up around 7% of the total surface area of dense neighbourhoods, such as Hamra or Fassouh: it is not often that cities of such extreme density hold at the same time such a trove of unbuilt land that can be mobilised at the benefit of a shrunken public realm. Of course, parking lots are today associated to an unpleasant daily routine, and viewed as unattractive dry, hot surfaces that result from a process of dissolution of traditional neighbourhoods. But the unexpected visual perspectives they construct, the traces of the past that linger within their not-so-empty spaces, can be emphasized. Thus, in Beirut’s network of parking lots, unexpectedly lies a pattern of singular spaces that only wait for the appropriate, sensitive transformations to fully take part in the complexity and richness of the city’s urban fabric. 

 

The parking lots of the Fassouh, making up 7% of the neighbourhood’s area 

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