by Dr Hanna Baumann (Post-Doctoral Researcher) and Dr Nikolay Mintchev (Post-Doctoral Researcher)
The Department of Architecture and Design at the American University in Beirut has hosted the annual City Debates since 2001. This year’s iteration was organised by Professor Howayda Al-Harithy, who is a Co-Investigator at the RELIEF Centre.
The theme - Urban Recovery at the Intersection of Displacement and Reconstruction - was closely aligned with priorities of the RELIEF Centre, which co-hosted the event.
The three days of talks began with a keynote by Diane Davis of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, who questioned the value of ‘resilience’ defined as ability to recover after a shock and asked: are shocks always negative? Is adaptation always positive? Over the following days, speakers returned to this question again and again with reference to urban displacement in its various forms, reconstruction from the point of view of memory, heritage, and art, as well as the paths to post-conflict reconstruction in Syria. Several RELIEF team members contributed insights into ongoing research to the debate.
In the first panel, Housing the Displaced, Howayda Al-Harithy (American University of Beirut), Camillo Boano (UCL Development Planning Unit) and Joana Dabaj (CatalyticAction) presented findings from Bar Elias, a town in the Beqaa Valley near the Syrian border whose population has doubled due to the arrival of refugees from Syria. They argued that this influx affected not only the size but the shape of the city, as refugees had significant impact on the urban structure and the appearance of new housing typologies. Even further, the Syrian crisis forced Bar Elias to ‘learn to be a city’ by forcing to adapt its governance to rapid changes in urban activities and infrastructure developments.
In a session on local governance, RELIEF research collaborator Elisabetta Pietrostefani presented a paper that spatialised the dynamics of displacement in two areas of Beirut undergoing significant urban change, Ras Beirut and Mar Mikhael. Based on a wide-ranging survey conducted as part of her PhD research at the LSE, she showed how local demographics had shifted over the past decade and how displacement from Syria, as well as gentrification and urban renewal, had contributed to increasing inequality. A cross-section of a building housing affluent Lebanese as well as highly vulnerable displaced Syrian families in close proximity particularly drove this point home for the audience.
Samar Maqusi and Nick Tyler (UCL Engineering) presented a paper on the temporality of displacement in the panel Rethinking the “Camp”. Examining communal areas in the Palestinian refugee camps of Burj al Barajneh and Shatila in Beirut, Samar showed how - beyond the creation of spaces - residents ‘design time’ by spending it with others. Arguing for a phenomenological notion of perceived time, she showed how the past (displacement) and future (return) are ever-present in refugee camps, and how layers of history are continuously reflected in their built environment.
In addition to academic papers, a range of artistic contributions added an additional dimension to the conference. Two films, My very Private Map by Sobhi Zobaidi (1998) and Zinco by Serene Husni (2013) explored the representation of Palestinian displacement on film. The installation Piiiiisssst by Rana Haddad & Pascal Hachem was complemented by the exhibition In-Transit: Displacement and Seeking Refuge as Seen Through Comics by Lina Ghaibeh (see a review of the same exhibition at Beit Beirut). During the conference, Omar Abdel Samad produced live cartoon drawing of the speakers and their key points.
In her closing Keynote, Jennifer Hyndman (Centre for Refugee Studies, York) called into question some of the ‘big ideas’ that have recently been proposed to address the ‘refugee crisis’, including by academics such as Betts & Collier in Refuge (2017). She highlighted the potential violence in these approaches and urged us to focus on existing local solutions. Responding to the final keynote and closing the conference, Professor Henrietta L. Moore noted that we must identify those things in cities that already work to improve quality of life in the context of the challenges of displacement and reconstruction. Referring to the point made earlier by Judith Naeff (Leiden) that displacement and reconstruction are equally marked by a ‘loss of place’, Professor Moore emphasised that they are both also moments of transformation embedded in urban spaces, and thus pose a challenge to which cities are best suited to respond.