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Social Justice and the City


The aim of the Issam Fares Institute's Social Justice and the City program is to formulate an agenda for research that establishes a partnership between scholars, policy-makers, and activists in Lebanon (and beyond) working towards more inclusive cities. The program seeks to act as a platform where scholars, policy-makers, and activists can share reflections, experiences, and strategies (i) documenting, analyzing and reflecting on ongoing urban processes affecting the organization and life of the city, (ii) sharing and validating research with activists, affected communities, and other social groups who are potentially interested in sharing both the acquired competence and the pool of research tactics, and (iii) supporting and informing initiatives that hope to influence change through debates, media, publications, and advocacy. [read full concept note ]

The Social Justice and the City is currently engaged in two research tracks:

1. The "Publics" in Urban Spaces/ Reclaiming the Urban Commons

Demands for the protection and enhancement of public spaces have figured at the top of the social mobilization movements across the globe and a main dimension of the claims for social justice. In Greece, Turkey, as well as in Beirut, activists have vigorously defended "public" claims over space from what is widely perceived as the encroachment of the "private". This is hardly surprising since both professionals of the built environment and city dwellers have realized that livability and health go hand-in-hand with the availability of open, shared spaces in the city and that their absence provides additional evidence of the harsh realities of everyday urban life, particularly in the cities of the south.

Yet, perceptions of the nature, functioning, and organization of public space contest the normative understandings of the "public" or "public-ness" adopted by professionals of the built environment. Indeed, while these understandings simplify the definition of public space to "open" and "accessible" areas, typically owned by state agencies, researchers have shown that openness and accessibility are frequently challenged by class, race, gender, and other social markers. They have also unraveled the ways in which social practices and historical processes of property formation complicate the clear-cut division of spaces into "public" and "private" zones. Instead, these researchers invite us to explore spaces and their publics in more plural forms, unravelling the complex forms of their historical production and current transformations.

When thinking through the connection between social justice and shared urban spaces, we are motivated to move beyond the mere advocacy of "more parks" and "more public squares". In that vein, this track of the Social Justice and the City seeks to:

  1. Expand the imagination of what the spatialization of "shared spaces" might mean,
  2. Explore ways in which "shared claims" over city spaces can be strengthened, whether they are privately or publicly owned,
  3. Explore existing forms of leisure, their spatial materialization, and the processes and networks that enable their existence.


2. The Crisis of Affordable Housing

The crisis of affordable urban housing in Lebanon dates back to the country's independence. Newspaper archives indicate that at least since the 1940s, policy-makers had recognized the dearth of options for middle and low-income groups seeking housing. Since then, the housing crisis has only intensified, as evidenced by the scattered policy reports and statistics that reflect poor public responses to the crisis.

Within the dominant neoliberal framework of public policy-making of the last two decades, questions of access to housing have largely been framed in terms of "affordability" while housing policy has been reduced to a narrow set of market-based interventions such as partially subsidized loans. Instead, the aim of the Social Justice and the City is to re-infuse in the housing discourse a necessary political dimension where thinking through housing rights requires us to address larger questions that acknowledge the social values of housing and balance its imperative with those of the market.

Recognizing, hence, that the market is not a fair arbitrator of spatial allocations, particularly when it comes to shelter, this project seeks to:

  1. Document ongoing transformations in processes of housing acquisition in the low-income market of Beirut, particularly in relation to informal housing and rent control units where housing was historically provided either outside the framework of the market or through its distortion.
  2. Learn from other national contexts where "the right of housing" has led to the introduction of numerous policy tools such as "inclusionary zoning", etc. By learning about/from these current processes of housing acquisition in the city, we hope to explore possibilities and venues through which the right to shelter can still be advocated.
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