When there is no public space for play

We all know it. Physical exercise is a game changer when it comes to “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body. It makes you happy and lets you live longer and better lifes with less illness. But what to do, when there are no places for exercise and play?

Last year my wife, three kids, and I left our healthy and wealthy Scandinavian comfort zone and moved to Lebanon. Because we wanted to do our part in unfolding the potentials in this fragile country torn by war and conflict. We knew that things were going to be different. We knew that the country was heavily burdened with as much as 25 % of the population being refugees – primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. We also knew that stable and unlimited internet, 24 hours electrical power, and the luxury of always having running water in the tap was being left behind.

What we hadn’t anticipated was the struggle we had to fight to stay physically active. The reasons are many. Back in Copenhagen we didn’t own a car because biking around the city was the quickest and healthiest way to get around. In a city like Beirut with its heavy traffic and no bike lanes, this is not an option. Going to a gym will cost you 120-150 USD per month per person, which is a bit steep when you are a family of five. And then there is the public spaces. Who doesn’t like to play ball in the park or go for a run? The problem is that public space comprise only 2 % of the cities in the Middle East, compared to 12 % in average European cities. And in Beirut it’s down to 0.5 % (The Economist, 2016).

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Shrinking public space in Beirut: The cars have taken a bite of the green.

Can you break a sweat on 0.5 % of the city’s space? Yes, of course. But only if you get access. And access seems to be the problem. Lebanon has a thing for fences. The biggest park in both Beirut and Tripoli (second largest city in Lebanon) are fenced in and only open on weekends. WHO recommends 60 minutes of physical activity for children. Not just on weekends, but each day. How do you honor that, when the park is closed five days a week and when many of the other public gardens are bushes, benches, and desolated fountains? The fact that in the recently renovated Sanaya Park children are not allowed to run on the playground, doesn’t make it easy either.

What’s missing are accessible public spaces, where people can meet and practice their right to the city. Signe Lund Brandis – a former intern at GAME Lebanon – has recently shown this in her master thesis “Public Space in Beirut”. In Beirut it is not necessarily ownership that enables or limits the usage of space, as Brandis makes evident. The access to the limited spaces owned by the municipality is also key. And the remodeling of these spaces to active zones where citizens can meet across divides is a good place to start if you want to build a stronger and more cohesive population. How are we going to respect each other, if we never meet and interact? And what better place to do so than at a public space through a game of basketball or ping-pong?

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Haddadine in Tripoli, where an old fountain will soon be turned into a miniature recreational park. Stay tuned.

The good news are, that both in Beirut and Tripoli the municipalities have opened their eyes and are now trying to re-invent what public spaces can look like. From using old abandoned buildings for street sports in Beirut, to opening up the legendary Fair in Tripoli – a never completed masterpiece by the world renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer – for basketball tournaments. Sometimes it doesn’t take more than a few hundred square meters to make public space, where children and youth can meet to play sports and socialize. Out of the many projects the non-profit GAME Lebanon has engaged in to create more opportunities for play, one of my favorites is a small pocket park in Tripoli that UN-Habitat has invited GAME Lebanon to help design and activate. The project will turn an fenced-in desolated fountain into a mini-football and ping-pong arena as well as a safe place where the women of the neighborhood can meet outside the home.

And this is exactly the point. We can change and shape the cities the way we want them. Cities are human creations and supposedly the epitome of civilization. But if they are unhealthy and without safe places for interactions with fellow citizens, how civilized are they then? Let’s create liveable cities with more public spaces for play.