No City Without Public Space

“In one sentence: Nahnoo creates leaders in order to bring back public space for the Lebanese people.”, states Mohammad Ayoub, the Nahnoo executive director, when asked to depict the core of Nahnoo’s work. He initiated the non-profit organization Nahnoo – meaning “we” – in 2009. Abiding by its non-partisan and non-sectarian core values, Nahnoo works towards the encouragement and support of youths in Lebanon, equipping them with skills indispensable for their professional life and their engagement in local communities.

Preceding the official establishment student discussion groups, universitarian cultural events and sporting activities had been arranged as early as in 2002. Soon the group broadened its commitment to political issues when Lebanon saw itself facing crisis in 2005. At present, Nahnoo engages in three domains: youth empowerment, cultural exchange and advocacy. Recent projects cover locations all across Lebanon with the main focus set on Tyre, Baalbeck and the capital Beirut. Apart from the Nahnoo team around Mohammad Ayoub, himself holding a master’s degree in history, currently working on yet another degree in psychology and having completed training on advanced communication, the organization is backed by youths with over 50 people volunteering in projects and campaigns. Moreover, the organization has established ties with various international partners, foremost with the Middle East department of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

“You Are What You Eat.”

The first area Nahnoo is committed to is its youth program, which has now entered the fifth year of being active and has since its start continuously been enhanced. The main objective of this program is to empower young people in the fields of communication and vocation, but also to strengthen them on a personal level. Nahnoo achieves these goals by conducting training on leadership, conflict resolution and the theory and practice of communication. More specifically, targeted issues envelop key elements and the basic psychology of communication processes. Special focus is laid upon including aspects of practicality, the relevance of cultural divergences and an interactive methodology in these trainings. Having participated in this program, youths are fit to perform in oral and written presentations – a key to successfully standing up for their rights and assuming an active role in change processes and peace building in Lebanon. Recent events organized in the framework of the youth program include the “Separated Pronouns” project, which consisted of 13 workshops within the period of one whole year with no less than 205 young people having taken part in a dialogue on effective communication, conflict resolution and principles of leadership – to name but a few of the areas addressed. Additionally, Nahnoo hosted an eight day workshop in November and December of 2012 focussing on concepts and the use of effective communication.

However, the Nahnoo team also has proven that more unconventional ways to empowering youths should be taken into consideration. Just before the start of 2013 Nahnoo called for a gathering titled “You are what you eat: Nahnoo’s family dinner”. The event assembled people from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Mexico, Germany, Norway, France, America and Bosnia, inviting them to prepare a dish deriving from their respective home countries. This idea resulted in a homely evening at the Nahnoo office filled with good food, music and intercultural dialogue. 

Crossing Borders

Adjacent to the field of youth empowerment, Nahnoo concentrates on a second program specified on cultural exchange. This program not only holds significance for the dialogue of young people from different countries, but also is meaningful for building a greater understanding between groups within the Lebanese society. Latest events in this field include an intercultural exchange workshop aimed at conveying a sense of empathy for different cultural practices and ideas, but also at encouraging curiosity for other countries and raising awareness for prejudice and stereotyping. Again relying on the organization’s key competence of communication, the workshop provided space for an intellectual exchange and offered solutions in resolving intercultural challenges. Furthermore, Nahnoo arranged for a Lebanese-Norwegian week for the third year in a row. In cooperation with high-ranking institutions both in Beirut and Oslo a week of Norwegian and Lebanese poetry readings and musical performances, literature and film discussions and a scholarly debate on the freedom of expression was carried out in Beirut. Another remarkable project brought to life as part of the cultural exchange program of Nahnoo earlier in 2012 is a volunteer exchange between Denmark and Lebanon. Participants were offered the unique possibility to spend a whole year in Denmark, accommodated by a Danish host family and being given the chance to explore, cooperate and interact with Danish culture.

The Right to Public Space

The third field Nahnoo has proven great devotion to is that of public space. Having experienced the ongoing rapid loss and devaluation of public space, most notably in Beirut, the organization has developed several striking projects. The organization’s foremost goal lies in making existing open space available to the public. The motivation for this is justified by the fact that holding access to public space provides residents with psychological, social and health benefits. Green spaces, open beaches and plazas not only serve as an arena for conversations, for gathering new impressions, for encountering new people, for relaxing, for sporting activities; they also help individuals identify themselves with their neighbourhood, their city, their country. However, for the time being the need and right to sufficient publicly accessible interaction and exchange forums is being denied to many Lebanese people. This program area resembles a good example of Nahnoo’s approach to campaigns and raising awareness.

At present, Nahnoo’s most challenging and attention calling project is focussed on urging the Municipality of Beirut to grant the public access to Horsh Beirut, a pine forest covering 330,000 sqm and with that forming the largest green space within the city of Beirut. Since 1995 parts of the park - currently 66% of its total surface - have been closed to the public, even after the completion of renovation works following the civil war. The reluctance to offer the public the opportunity to experience the forest with its natural heritage of pine trees has raised questions to which officials to date have not responded sufficiently. Merely the municipality’s concern over a possible damage to the park through irresponsible youths has been brought forward as reasoning for the upheld closure – yet no concrete plan to resolve the issue has been announced.

Policies of Access to Urban Space
When launching the project, Nahnoo in a first step chose to tackle the issue of the closed park in a scientific approach. The organization conducted urban planning research and surveys on what kind of public space currently is available and ways to protect the natural resources of the Horsh. Moreover, legal research was carried out in order to ascertain whether it truly is the municipality who owns the park, whether it is public in accordance with Lebanese legislation and if yes, how its closure can be justified. In addition to that, prospective obstacles as well as an account of manageable goals needed to be determined. Once an efficient legal framework concerning the protection of and public access to public space like the Horsh is put in place, Nahnoo trusts that attempts to regain other public spaces in Lebanon will be pushed forward.
Additionally, social research was initiated in an attempt to clarify what exactly citizen’s perception of public space is. This information serves as a base for following campaigns as it helps define which arguments and which form of language will best contribute to the project’s success.
The results of this analysis served to assert the environmental, administrative, logistic, maintenance and social demands arising if the Horsh were to be opened to the public and also revealed which steps can be taken by NGOs like Nahnoo in order to contribute to the opening of the park. The necessity for the park to be opened for the wellbeing of citizens of Beirut seems apparent, as it would provide them with an escape from the polluted and crowded everyday life in the city and would furthermore serve in bridging sectarian and political discrepancies between individuals. Going even further, Nahnoo sees its goal not only in re-opening the park in order to improve the quality of life in Beirut – the organization is also aiming for a change in Lebanese people on a psychological level. The reasoning for this notion arises from the hope that through the experience of public space in the park people will readjust their understanding of public space, make more regular use of it and learn to stand up for it in the future. 
Guerrilla Picnicking
Following the scientific research, the next step for Nahnoo was to take action and raise awareness for the issue of the Horsh. Following an extraordinary idea, Nahnoo coordinated 17 other socially and environmentally engaged NGOs and together with them mobilized people for an event named “Horsh Beirut all over Beirut”. The title was transformed into reality when in June of 2012 a “picnic festival” took place in twelve different locations across Beirut at the same time. People were called upon to gather at the meeting place nearest to them and spend time picnicking and by doing so peacefully demonstrating for the enhancement of public space and the opening of the pine forest.
In a third step, following the successful picnic festival, Nahnoo has now turned to the level of advocacy and has managed to push matters forward with the municipality. A deadline for the park opening was agreed upon by both sides and for the first time in years, the people’s right to the opening of Horsh Beirut seems to be within reach.
Parallel to Nahnoo’s direct work on demanding the park opening, the organization has gone further and now aims at recruiting youths and providing education for those wanting to contribute to Nahnoo’s work. For this cause the “Youth Innovators” project was set up in 2012. With the help of various workshops on effective communication, on speaking in public, on advocacy and more, young people are receiving the possibility to amplify their leading skills and are given a platform where they can receive the necessary support for their inspirational ideas on the future of public space in Lebanon. 
Nahnoo’s Vision for Lebanon’s Future
Despite the time and energy the Horsh demands for, that is not where Nahnoo’s public space program stops. Problems in other Lebanese cities like Tyre and Baalbeck are not being left aside. The organization constantly expands its outreach and has now started configuring action plans for respective cities. Public space there generally speaking is less affected by the soaring speed of development projects than public space in Beirut is.
However, these cities also lack public gardens, sports grounds, continuous and secure paving, as well as public plazas.
Special attention has furthermore been given to the issue of public beaches in Beirut. Ramlet el-Baida, located on the capital’s western coastline, serves as a prominent example for the neglect and environmental challenges public space in Lebanon can be confronted with. This sand beach at first seems a picturesque location; looking closely though, the visitor will stumble across uncountable remnants of environmentally damaging ways of waste disposal, be it residential waste or oil from a petrol station leaking to the shore. Nahnoo has in this particular case started cooperating with other local NGOs again in making an effort to eradicate potential health risks for beach visitors derived from illegal waste disposal.
Nahnoo will carry on pursuing its vital and exceptional mission, since, handing the word to Mohammad Ayoub, “There is no city without public space. That’s a known fact. Still, one of the reports on Beirut declared life here impossible because we have no public space.
Public space is essential for urban life, it enables people from all social strata and backgrounds to meet, to breath, to express, to enjoy, and to do sports free from economic restraints.“. Albeit all the projects described, Nahnoo does not tire of looking into more and more troubling issues in Lebanon. Goals for the near future include much-needed campaigning to raise nationwide awareness for the Lebanese people’s right to public space, the cultivation of further cultural exchange projects, continuing the work aimed at empowering youths and promoting border-crossing communication as a key to peace and social cohesion.