Category Archives: Public Space

Public Space and Informal Mechanisms in Beirut

Life in a Street: How Informal Mechanisms Govern Scarce Public Spaces in Nabaa, Beirut

By Petra Samaha

Published in Jadaliyya

[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]
[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]

The informal mechanisms of organization in everyday public life have been at the core of concerns of many researchers and practitioners (e.g., Rukmana and Hegel in Indonesia, Mehrotra in India, and Nagati in Egypt). While examining these processes in different contexts, the focus was typically on their interplay with “formal” regulations or in relation to the private built environment. Few highlighted the significance of these informal arrangements per se and their importance in governing public shared spaces (Simone 2004 & 2009, Bayat 1998 & 2010). These mechanisms lend some sort of spatial flexibility to the street transforming it into much more than a space for circulation, but rather a holder of mixed uses, leading therefore to an altered definition of public life.

Perhaps the best known of all books addressing the topic of public life is Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities where the author described streets and their sidewalks as the main public places of a city–its most vital organs. Density, walkability, mixed uses and human scale are described as main criteria for livable cities. Even though these concepts are usually used to define well planned cities, they seem to also describe very well the lively streets in areas typically tagged as informal. Such vibrant streets are often the result of unplanned and complex processes that offer us many more interesting lessons when disentangled and understood.

Taking the case of Nabaa (Bourj Hammoud) I look into the ways in which the dwellers share the scarce public spaces of the neighborhood and highlight the importance of their efficient organization/management as mixed-use spaces[1]. There is a lot to learn from the informal mechanisms and practices that govern the space of the street and the sidewalk. Vibrancy in such spaces often stems from widespread economic activities and social life. However, over-crowdedness inevitably leads to conflicts whereby the better connected and the more powerful in the neighborhood’s social structure are able to make stronger claims over space and the more vulnerable (i.e., elderly, children, women, and migrants) learn to navigate their way and adapt through other self-devised alternatives.  These multiple claims might seem chaotic or unorganized. However a detailed investigation revealed they are ruled by a set of codes that aim at anticipating, mitigating, and resolving conflicts. What and how can we learn from these complex informal mechanisms of conflict resolution and space reallocation that street users in dense informal areas deploy in their everyday life?

Nabaa is a dense low-income neighborhood located immediately at the eastern edge of Beirut’s administrative boundary and houses a large percentage of vulnerable population groups including foreign migrant workers and refugees. The area offers a unique blend of religious, national, and ethnic mixity that is vividly reflected on the neighborhood streets through banners, street signs, graffiti and stencils but also storefronts and dress codes. The streets of Nabaa are rife with commercial and economic activities either happening on the ground floors of buildings or using the space of the street/sidewalk itself. Through direct observations, mapping and interviews, I looked into the ways in which the dwellers use the spaces of the neighborhood and manage the multiple claims over the scarce shared spaces.

Given the high population density and scarce open spaces, dwellers come up with ad-hoc solutions to fulfill their daily needs and, at the same time, improve the spaces of their neighborhood (i.e., greening, open space appropriation, and waste management). The space of the sidewalk/street acquires different meanings through time since dwellers assign functions to it through their own practices. The space is hence defined by social and economic processes rather than planned top down schemes. It becomes hard to distinguish pre-set boundaries between public and private, sidewalk and street, inside and outside… Hence, conflicts are solved through deploying complex informal mechanisms that rely on the flexibility of both time and space.  While I narrate the stories from the streets of Nabaa, I propose that the efficient, perhaps creative, management of the shared spaces of the city by the street users themselves can mitigate or even evade conflicts. The informal arrangements render the space of the street to be much more than a passage, but rather a holder of mixed uses increasing its effectiveness in responding to conflicting needs and pressing demands.

Dimensions of Space and Time

In order to understand how the multiple use and users coexist in Nabaa through space and time, I mapped the main commercial and social practices on a busy artery in Nabaa (Sis Street) while highlighting the dimensions of time and space. Hence, the patterns of use and meaning of space are in a constant shift over the course of a single day, sometimes hours.

Due to high population density and scarcity of space, the area of the street is constantly rearranged to accommodate a multiplicity of users and needs. Rather than a mere circulation space, it is also a space for socialization, play, and daily economic exchange. As these configurations change, the street transforms, turn in turn, into a parking, a playground, a market, a workshop, a café, a display and/or a terrace. In so doing, narrow streets are constantly negotiated and reorganized to accommodate the changing needs of a wide variety of users: shoppers, dwellers, shopkeepers, street vendors, and children (Table 1).

[Table 1: Main users and practices of Nabaa’s narrow streets can be profiled based on two broad categories. Table by Petra Samaha]
By observing the use of space across time, the street is highlighted as a shared space with a multiplicity of mixed uses. In Nabaa, a typical day starts after shops open in the early morning and storekeepers lay out their products on the sidewalks as trucks deliver goods, blocking the roadway. In the afternoon, the street gets busier with more pedestrians, vendors, and cars, as well as children walking back from schools. In the evening, while commercial activities are still ongoing, the sidewalk transforms into a terrace for afternoon coffee, water pipe, or a round of backgammon. It’s the busiest time of the day. The importance of the time dimension here is paramount. While some practices retract at night, after street vendors clear the streets for example, the flexibility of space is highlighted, showing how the street is eventually defined by a patchwork of practices that works according to an elastic schedule. Ultimately, it is through this flexibility and the constantly shifting delineation of both the uses and boundaries that the street can fulfill the multiplicity of roles that it is ascribed.

Visitible and Inivisible Tactics

While looking at the ways Nabaa dwellers use the spaces of the neighborhood, practical arrangements and creative survival innovations were revealed. I present here the tactics used by the dwellers to fix the claims they make. Negotiations over space through bodies, cars, strollers, carts, bicycles, motorcycles, and trucks may well be organized to delineate the duration of each occupation. However, conflict is always only one step away as claims may often overlap.

In addition to the shops that extend their private spaces to use the sidewalk as displays or as working places, street vendors also have multiple arrangements for instance. They make careful choices in selecting trajectories, parking stops, and the location where they leave the cart at night. For them, the street cannot be reduced to a simple geographic trail; it is their survival place. Hence, their arrangements are often defined by day-to-day circumstances, which make them negotiate also with shopkeepers and pedestrians for space.

To better illustrate the different meanings that the space acquires over a day, or even an hour, I zoomed on a street corner and represented the percentage of occupation of the sidewalk/street by different uses along the day between religious, commercial, leisure and parking (Figures 1 & 2). The graph shows how the commercial aspect of a main street in Nabaa is mainly what enlivens it during daytime.

[Figure 1: A day in the life of a street corner. Image by Petra Samaha]

[Figure 2: Percentage of occupation of the street corner by different uses along the day based on the previous mapping.
Image by Petra Samaha]
The analysis of “time charts” was adapted from the methodology of Annette Kim’s work in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. She underlined the significance of mixed use sidewalks and their organization/management, and regulation in order to be shared between various kinds of uses and users transforming hence into more than a space of circulation. Kim argued that the sidewalk can become a cooperative and livable space if planners incorporate ‘time’ into planning its space in order to expand its flexibility. Kim also described the significance of local self-control at the neighborhood levels to define how sidewalks operate and are managed. Hence, the sidewalk embeds a variety of spatial practices that comprise both innovation and conflict. Learning from street users about the conflicts and negotiations that produce the observed spatial arrangement, Kim called for ‘space sharing’, rather than ‘partitioning’ between the large group of legitimate street uses and users ensuring both fairness and urban vitality. Mapping how the sidewalk system in Ho Chi Minh City operated and transformed over time brings about questions of how the different users (vendors, property abutters, and police) negotiated space. This showed a high level of cooperation not only between property owners and vendors, but among vendors themselves, taking turns on the sidewalk or sharing the costs of capital investments such as plastic chairs and tables for their customers. Hence, the flexibility of the sidewalk accorded by the variables of “time, alternative narratives, and local enforcement” seemed vital for resolving conflicts or even anticipating them.

Similarly, changes of use of that street corner in Nabaa do not abide by pre-set boundaries.

The eventful history of the neighborhood from the 1950’s till the civil war (1975-1990) has made it rife with political parties today. Hence, the use and significance of spaces are governed by specific power relations and political structures within the neighborhood that dictate its usage at specific times of the day. On that corner, these hierarchies are represented by Abou Ali, a man in his sixties and affiliated to a powerful political movement in the area. In the memory of someone deceased in the family, Abou Ali has placed on the public space of the sidewalk a sabeel (fountain) that serves water for passersby (Figure 3). It is supplied with a reservoir, planters, a projector and a sound system that plays chants from the Quran. Abou Ali has a schedule to turn it on or off. Located on the street corner, the space becomes a place for gathering in the evening. On this corner, Abou Ali has the ability to dictate what, how and when the space can be used or not (i.e. who can park near his shop, what fees one has to pay, who uses his water sabeel).

[Figure 3: Located on the street corner, the space around the sabeel, which is supposed to be a memorial,
becomes a place for gathering in the evening. Image by Petra Samaha]
Broadly speaking, on every other block there is another Abou Ali belonging to a certain political hierarchy and setting the rules on his part of the territory. For instance, a block away from that street corner, where the main square and the busiest commercial street of Nabaa are, photos are not allowed to be taken on the streets, a rule imposed by another political party for security reasons. During religious ceremonies, streets in that area are completely closed to vehicular traffic and controlled by the personnel of that same party.

So these power structures embodied by multiple ‘Abou Alis’ materialize on the streets of the neighborhood. The spaces do not abide to planned designs and pre-set boundaries but become subject to the circumstances. Pedestrianizing roadways, turning sidewalks into private parking spots or small gardens, and other tactics contest the ‘conceived space’ of the neighborhood and allow a constant reproduction of the street as a ‘lived space’ to accommodate all the users’ needs.

These tactical arrangements of conflict anticipation deployed by users to fix their claims manifest either concretely (through visible tactics), or in abstract more subtle yet powerful ways. Invisible ways can be imposed and taken for granted (i.e., Abou Ali), or spoken, negotiated and defined through one-to-one conversations (i.e. between street vendors and property abutters, be they shop owners or dwellers), where the main justified persuasive negotiation argument is economic livelihood, or rez‘a) (Figure 4).

[Figure 4: Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by: Petra Samaha]


In these negotiations, one’s position in the local socio-political hierarchies is key determinant of the particular configuration on which the street sets temporarily before it is changed again. And even though conflicts always seem in sight, especially with the diversity of nationalities and sects in the neighborhood, cooperation (like the case of Ho Chi Minh City) and tolerance seem to play an important role in negotiations. While this might seem surprising, a similar observation was noted by Jan Nijman (2009) by analyzing the space in Dharavi (a slum that houses about one million inhabitants in Mumbai, India). He described “a milieu that is conductive to intense social organization and economic production”, where boundaries between different space functions, public and private, inside and outside, are blurred and hard to distinguish. The open space of the neighborhood serves as workplace, a playground, a market or a resting place for elderly (Figure 5). Nijman argued that these different claims over space are not only governed by territorial control but also a high level of tolerance ‘in terms of human density and movement’ which mitigates potential conflicts.

[Figure 5: The open spaces in Dharavi (Mumbai) serve as a workplace, a playground, or a terrace. Image by Petra Samaha]
Most common strategies of mitigating conflict over spatial appropriation in Nabaa consist of diverse small gestures of neighborhood improvement, particularly greening, that serves as a strategy to fix a claim over space. In fact, the neighborhood’s streets are rife with pots and planters that are often made from up-cycled material. They serve as greening strategies, but also as a strategy to “reserve” a “spot” (e.g. securing a parking slot). By doing so, dwellers do not stop at fulfilling their personal interests, but also contribute in making the common areas of the neighborhood a better place. The majority being rural migrants, perhaps this is their only way to make Nabaa look a little bit like home. At times, the items used are flags or other sorts of markers that reflect certain identities or beliefs. Other movable and flexible items used are water bottles, chairs, and light bollards (Figure 6).

[Figure 6: Movable and flexible items to appropriate the space for a limited time. Image by Petra Samaha]
The more powerful the claim(-er), the more permanent/immovable the arrangement becomes: fencing, chains, metallic bollards, and other sorts of barriers. While plastic chairs are seen almost on every sidewalk, sofas are spotted at some corners depicting a more permanent claim over the space (Figure 7). Typically, metallic bollards placed around Abou Ali’s shop also reflect the power he has allowing him a long lasting appropriation of the sidewalk (Figure 8). While these practices are common almost everywhere in Beirut, very few streets can compete with the vibrancy and density found in Nabaa.

[Figure 7: More permanent and non-negotiable claims. Image by Petra Samaha]


[Figure 8: The Metallic bollards and heavy planters placed by Abou Ali. Image by Petra Samaha]
Additionally, the neighborhood is rife with shrines.  While the religious values that dwellers hold on to are not to be contested, another raison d’être of such shrines is reportedly to stop street littering, given that people typically refrain from throwing garbage in front of religious spaces. Indeed, I observed numerous corners where shrines had been set up to be green and well-maintained by dwellers, sometimes serving as refuge for children to gather and play (Figure 9).

[Figure 9: Religious shrines as a strategy to stop littering. The corners end up becoming clean and green and, at times,
serve as play areas. Image by Petra Samaha]
Nabaa, as many other places in Beirut and surroundings, represents a mesh of overlapping political, social and sectarian power structures. In addition, the neighborhood casts very well the challenges of security and high percentage of Syrian refugees. Hence, resorting to a negotiated use of space, while avoiding conflicts and violence, becomes a meticulous challenge. Bearing that in mind while analyzing public space organization and management in Nabaa unfolds three main findings:

  1. Nabaa dwellers make and remake the spaces of their neighborhood on a daily basis. In the ways they crowd the street, appropriate and green the sidewalk, mainly satisfy their needs, they acquire their right to the city, or at least part of it, not only in terms of space appropriation but also in shaping and shifting the meaning and use of space. These practices that are deemed temporary and informal can eventually become permanent urban planning and design strategies that cater for the needs of city dwellers instead of fighting against them. After all, formal and informal do not live in dichotomy, especially not in Beirut. They coexist at different levels, and while the pendulum between the two swings at various degrees, there is some sort of a practical balance that can be sought.
  2. The flexibilities allowed by informality bring into question the impracticality of static and rigid policies sometimes deployed to deal with them. The tolerance of low-income communities in Nabaa facing high population densities and scarcity of space, notably within the public realm, reveals a whole set of informal mechanisms of space management and organization that can be eventually deconstructed to also inform urban policies and projects. As, Jane Jacobs wrote (1958): “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
  3. Finally, even though these negotiations allow low-income dwellers to participate in city making, they do not necessarily entail a just sharing of space. Being mainly controlled by political structures that reflect wider sectarian clientelist hierarchies across the country, they most probably reproduce inequalities at yet another level. After all, such structures are somehow at once the cause and effect of the weakness of the State.

So the concluding question becomes: how can we understand these processes that make the most challenging spaces of our cities work? And how can we build on them for better livelihoods and a more inclusive city?


[1] Research on Nabaa was initially conducted for the completion of a thesis for the degree of Master of Urban Design at the American University of Beirut (2015). Other findings are published in “Rethinking Shared Space: The Case of Nabaa Neighborhood, Bourj Hammoud,” working paper co-authored by Petra Samaha and Rouba Dagher, with the support of the Social Justice and the City Program at the Issam Fares Institute, American University of Beirut. A special thank you goes to Mona Fawaz for her comments on an earlier version of this article.


Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

By Heather D. DeHaan  
In western popular consciousness, Islam is a faith that rigidly patrols its boundaries. In this conception of Islam, the “House of Islam” combats the world of unbelief, religious infidelity is punished by the state, and uncovered women are banned from public space. The only boundary that the West might wish to introduce–a religious/secular divide–is staunchly rejected. Given such an understanding of Islam, the western public cannot quite fathom Islam’s variability or the fact that “flexible” Islam exists.

Living in the secular Shia state of Azerbaijan made me consider anew the question of Islam, for Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet Islam offers a paradox: a distinct “male” gendering of public space, despite the presence of “liberated” women in European cuts of fashion.  Unlike Russia, where the figure of the babushka (the Russian grandmother) dominates public space, public space in Azerbaijan is distinctly male. Here, there is no sign of the male emasculation associated with Soviet-era repression (in which the state usurped the role of father) or with post-Soviet unemployment (which left men unable to provide). Indeed, neither Soviet nor post-Soviet economic struggles appear to have limited the size or cohesion of the Azerbaijani family, and Azerbaijani men remain central to family life. While not unaffected by Soviet life, Azerbaijani traditional culture remains exceptionally strong.

As a westerner, this vitality might not be immediately visible, for Azerbaijani streets tend to be filled with small groups of men who have apparently nothing to do. They gather at the junctions of streets, on the edges of the dvor, and around metro entrances. Shifting restlessly, but not with any sense of haste or impatience, they engage in long conversation marked by few words and multiple drags on a cigaret. Some of them are taxi drivers waiting for a customer to appear. Others appear to be arranging a deal of some sorts–a swap, a trade, or something else. Some are surely pensioners, while others are probably unemployed. High unemployment alone cannot explain this phenomenon, however, for in places such as Russia or Georgia, similar post-Soviet unemployment rates failed to produce this male-dominated street scene. The men on Azerbaijani streets signal something else–namely, that public space is coded male.

This gender coding is unmistakable. For every woman in the metro after dark, there are at least a dozen men. In the heart of Baku, men and women together remain out late, but this does not change the overall gender imbalance on the street after dark. Males dominate the night, and to some extent they even dominate the day, for they are the ones responsible for public errands as opposed to domestic chores. Azerbaijani teahouses are purely male “hang outs,” and even public parks seem to privilege men, who gather there to play chess, dominoes, and backgammon, or perhaps just sit.

Not that women are entirely absent from public space; only, they tend to be busy with activities other than leisurely conversation in the street. When small clusters of 2-5 women appear, they are generally on their way to somewhere, never stopped on a street corner.  Although women do frequent restaurants and cafes, these are crowded and expensive mixed-gender spaces. Bathhouses are gender segregated, but going to the banya is regarded as something that “the boys” do when seeking to relax or bond. Women do occasionally stop and chat together in the dvor, but not as often as men, and they are usually busy supervising children as they talk. In any case, the dvor is something of an extended familial space, being only quasi-public. The hair salon provides a site for female sociability outside the home, but such salons consist of interiors sheltered by curtains from public view.

Despite male dominance over public space, women walk Azerbaijani streets with remarkable freedom from harassment. As a rule, Azerbaijani men do not ogle women. They make no unwelcome advances, and one has the sense that they would be dreadfully embarrassed if some action on their part caused offense to a woman. Moreover, such respect is granted no matter what the woman’s attire–headscarf or revealing “European” cut of clothes. Freedom of dress may be a legacy of the Soviet past–of an imposed secularism in which fashion was a mark of cosmopolitan sensibility, but thankfully it’s a practice that has lingered. This is a world where women have the freedom to choose–to work or not work, to sport a headscarf or not. They can also wander into “male” space and not be harassed.

This spatial arrangement is tied to domesticity, being a city-wide expression of household arrangements that sustain the family. Yes, Azerbaijani women may opt for careers or European dress, but nearly all have families, and the pressure to bear children is very high. To support family, which Azerbaijanis value deeply, men assist in childcare, running errands and taking children outdoors to play. Meanwhile, women cook, clean, and keep the home in order, whether or not they have careers. Despite women’s freedom of career, social roles tend toward the traditional, and the street’s gender code illustrates this. Male-coded streets not only reflect the political and economic dominance of men over women (top posts in Azerbaijan are, of course, dominated by men), but also a deep male-female interconnectedness–that is, a shared strategy for managing all space, both interior and exterior.

Navigating such spaces can be complex, for class and neighborhood also divvy up Baku’s urban terrain. In Baku’s large markets, where low-brow and more transient men appear, a “ruffian” may comment on some woman’s clothing, provoking a fistfight with “her” man.  The offending comment might be relatively innocent by western standards–a mere reference to a logo on a shirt, perhaps; but, such remarks represent a transgression, an impropriety that insults the woman’s honor and thus that of the man. Such conflicts involve manhood–that is, the male defense of honor and territory, as defined by the woman and her relationship to these men. In a typical scenario, a man from a middle- or upper-class neighborhood enters the “lower” world of the market. The man in the market then responds, challenging the newcomer’s social code and place at the same time.  Cultural and economic differentials help provoke the conflict. Class and territorial boundaries–not just gender lines–are at play.

To understand this complicating feature of the gendered landscape, it’s important to remember that Soviet Baku was historically divided into neighborhoods, each with its own codes of dress and comportment. Many were ethnically mixed, turning “territoriality” into an expression of class. Memoirs of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s describe how young men in one neighborhood organized to keep “their” women away from the men of other neighborhoods; in fact, dating a woman from another neighborhood was a sort of “coup.” Women could cross neighborhood boundaries, but the men who accompanied them might be challenged by men from competing neighborhoods. In other words, the male coding of urban space in Baku did not exclude women, but left games of trade, influence, and policing to the men.

Perhaps ironically, Azerbaijan’s male dominance on the street appears to benefit women. In Russia or Georgia, where women “occupy” public space to the same degree as men, women require male accompaniment after dark, for harassment and assault are not uncommon. Yet in Baku, where men rule the street, women are generally safe from verbal or physical harassment, as if virtually veiled and protected from objectification. They are defined, after all, in relationship to men–as wives, mothers, sisters, and neighbors, all in a world where family traditionally extends into the dvor and the dvor into the neighborhood. Far from marking the “bogey men” of unemployment or conservative Islam, then, Baku’s male-dominated street marks the resilience of a complex traditional social code, one that is post-Soviet and yet distinct to Azerbaijan.

All of which highlights the variability in Islamic practice, something all too often forgotten in popular western conceptions of Islam. Thanks to Soviet influence, the strict Islamic segregation of space according to gender has broken down, leaving a milder gender code that nonetheless protects many of the fundamental principles that Islamic practices were designed to uphold, starting with respect for women. In striking contrast to southern Azerbaijan (i.e. northern Iran), Azerbaijani women in post-Soviet space enjoy freedom that defies the boundaries cast both by conservative Islam and by the West’s conception of it. Unlike the state-imposed boundaries of Iran or the imagined Islam of the West, Azerbaijan’s boundaries are complex and evolving, influenced by Iranian and Soviet pasts and a distinctly Azerbaijani present in which the boundaries of class, nation, faith, and gender shift continually.