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Planning Beirut: For the War Yet to Come


This dissertation investigates the spatial practices through which Beirut's post-civil war (1975-1990) peripheries have been transformed into sectarian frontiers of urban growth mired in new forms of urban conflict. Based on ethnographic and archival research in three peripheral areas of Beirut (2009-2010) and building on ten years of urban research and practice in Beirut, this study examines the intervention of religious-political organizations -- such as Hezbollah, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, the Maronite Church, and the Sunni Future Movement -- in the design and implementation of urban planning and zoning policies, execution of infrastructure projects, operations of land and housing markets, and legislation of property and building laws as part of their territorial battles over land in Beirut. This research shows how these spatial practices are articulated within imagined and planned geographies of local and regional wars "yet to come."

This dissertation makes three contributions. First, the study demonstrates how these religious-political organizations play a significant role in ordering the present through their role in the futures of violence with severe repercussions on the environment, displacement, and future cycles of violence in the city. The project hence positions such complex actors -- whose practices do not always fit neatly in the binaries of private-public or state-market -- at the center of how cities in both the Global South and the Global North are restructured. Second, this study challenges the common conception of planning as a tool through which to order the present for a projected better future (via resource management, spatial justice, redistribution, risk mitigation, etc.). Specifically, it shows how, by becoming decoupled from the question of development, the practice of urban planning in Beirut involves innovative techniques that aim to "balance" spatialities of political difference in order to keep a war at bay. Simultaneously, these techniques allow for urban growth and development profit. Third, this work illustrates how the production of sectarian difference is unstable and contested like the spaces of conflict, domination, and profit it shapes in its image. The spatialities of the sectarian political order are constantly being negotiated, reconfigured, and reproduced, re-defining in turn what "sectarianism" comes to mean at each historical moment.

Methodologically, this study rethinks the ways in which cities in the Global South are often conceptualized: a binary between the city's center and its marginalized peripheries. By illustrating how the "peripheries" of Beirut are centers in the transnational landscapes of finance, conflict, and resistance ideologies, with their own peripheries and frontiers, the project calls for an alternative approach to conceptualizing cities in the Global South.

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