Home | About LCPS | Contact | Careers

Featured Analysis

Rouba Wehbe , architect and urban planner

May 2019
A Bottom-up Perspective of Urban Violence in Beirut

Violence in Beirut is commonly associated with communal strife, political polarization, and civil and regional war. This perspective—while broadly descriptive of factors which lead to violence—fails to comprehensively explain what underlies violent manifestations in Lebanon’s capital. By incorporating an urban and spatial framework of analysis, violence can be examined from a more dynamic perspective. Such analysis takes into account measurable micro risk factors at the neighborhood level, making it possible to identify the drivers, nature, and tools of collective urban violence.
Accordingly, the paper on which this article is based examines four districts of Lebanon’s capital: Khandaq el Ghamiq, a pericentral poor neighborhood at the southern juncture of Beirut's center, inhabited by a vulnerable Shiite population who are primarily affiliated with the two main Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah; Sabra, an informal area in the southern suburbs and an important commercial hub for low-income residents; and Tamliss and Abou Sahel, two sub-neighborhoods of Tariq el Jdideh, the main “fief” of the Sunni community in Beirut, where a confluence of several political movements occurs, all under the political umbrella of the March 14 coalition.
Based on spatial,[1] economic,[2] and sociopolitical[3] factors, three types of violence across neighborhoods in Beirut are identified: Territorial violence stemming from spatial territoriality in a given neighborhood; hegemonic violence, which concerns controlling sources of rent in a neighborhood; and conflictual violence, which aims to confront groups or individuals from other neighborhoods.[4] Territoriality is the primary motivating factor of violence in a majority of cases featuring high spatial risk factors. The introverted morphology—a spatial characteristic of a neighborhood comprising large blocks with multiple cul-de-sac and few entry points—of Khandaq el Ghamiq or Tamliss is considered an asset by youth aiming to isolate “their territory” from surrounding areas and control the flow of people into their neighborhood. Moreover, preserving access to existing housing stock, where most of the real estate is rent-controlled,[5] represents a strong incentive for territorial violence, both to ensure that affordable housing remains available and to guarantee a source of revenue for those informally renting,[6] managing, or subleasing properties.
Territorial violence is a prerequisite for two other types of urban violence, conflictual and hegemonic. Khandaq el Ghamiq offers a good example of the correlation between territorial and conflictual violence. The neighborhood is situated along what was once the Green Line—an unofficial demarcation between East and West Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War—where it has been subject to repeated bouts of political violence since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, an event that crystalized Shiite-Sunni urban segregation. The strong spatial identity advanced by the youth of Khandaq el Ghamiq—forged from a deep sense of belonging and an intense spatial collective memory of violence—are considered important socio-political micro risk factors channeling territorial violence into city-level conflictual violence during times of intense political polarization.
Territorial violence can also be employed to achieve economic goals. In Sabra—a neighborhood with high commercial centrality for a low-income population—each square meter of commercial spaces is monetized by a highly structured group of youth. Thus, violence in such an urban configuration is not only a means of acquiring rent and capital but also a tool of governance, as these groups determine the spatial distribution of shops, regulate conflict, and partly redistribute rent to acquire greater social legitimacy and acceptance.
Violence in Abou Sahel should be understood as the way “violent individuals” perceive their spatial mobility. Violence in this neighborhood centers on a highly structured group of thirty to forty Lebanese and Palestinian youth, who are part of a vast social network centered in several intra-districts of Tariq el Jdideh including Tamliss, Hayy el Arab, El Haress, Danah, and Abou Shaker. Abou Sahel, described by its youth as the “lifeblood of Tariq el Jdideh”, is the broader perimeter “to defend”. Violent action originating in this neighborhood is “migratory” as opposed to “sedentary”, meaning such violence remains limited to static and well-defined spatial nodes, as is the case in Tamliss. The same form of migratory violence is observed in Khandaq el Ghamiq, and is described by its youth as “the frontline of our secured perimeter”.
In summation, urban violence cannot be understood through a linear approach of cause and effect. Rather, understanding urban violence entails examining the accumulation of and interaction between multiple risk factors at the micro scale of spatial analysis. As explored, urban violence is employed to uphold territoriality for either hegemonic or conflictual purposes. Thus, the mitigation of spatial risk factors can have a significant impact on urban violence in both the short and long term and can play a role in restoring trust in local government as the sole guarantor of urban governance.
Hence, in order to reduce violence it is important that the local government in collaboration with civil society encourage activities that reinforce a common and public interest, fostering a sense of unity and urban belonging—rather than communal belonging—in the public space. In other words, rather than implementing regulatory and punitive measures, public officials should encourage dynamics that have a positive impact on public space. Communal attachment to urban space is central to preserving individuals' informal access to housing. Moreover, in the long term, social policies introducing affordable housing solutions will be central to building a sense of urban belonging.

[1] Spatial micro risk factors entail constrained residential choice, the prevalence of exclusive public space, and introverted morphology.
[2] Economic micro risk factors entail unemployment, a lack of social services, and a level of urban centrality in terms of economic activity.
[3] Sociopolitical micro risk factors entail the existence structured groups, collective identities, and a collective spatial memory of violence.
[4] The distinction between these three types is based on the final intent of utilizing violence.
[5] Khandaq el Ghamiq is considered by its population to be vulnerable to sudden increases in rental prices. Many of the tenants in Tamliss are living in housing stock expropriated in the 1960s for construction of a road that was never built, while other tenants live in rent-controlled apartments or dilapidated or incomplete constructions put up in a cul-de-sac in the heart of the neighborhood.
[6] Housing is governed by “informal” mechanisms, producing, not without faults, housing for the neediest in a city lacking affordable housing policies.

Copyright © 2021 by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Inc. All rights reserved. Design and developed by Polypod.