Neoliberal Urbanism as an Obstacle to Positive Peace

The Case of Beirut Central District

The History of Beirut Central District

Facing the glass facades of the office buildings next to the perfectly cut grass squares, where one isn’t allowed to sit it is hardly imaginable, that this was once the vivid center of merchants in Beirut. After being destroyed in the early years of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, it became a strategic position between Sunni-Muslim west of the city and the predominantly Christian east. The fighting and the fear of being targeted by the snipers in the surrounding buildings resulted in the withdrawal of public life for the duration of the civil war.  Without human interference, nature took over Beirut Central District. Trees and bushes started sprouting in the area, giving it the name ‘Green Line’.

In 1983 the first outlines of what would later become the new city center was commissioned by the private engineering firm Oger Liban1 . The owner Rafiq Hariri, a businessman that made a fortune in Saudi Arabia profiting from the oil boom and later prime minister of Lebanon, would go on and stay in charge of the rebuilding process until his assassination in 2005.

The Taif-Agreement in 1989 formally ended the civil war. Negotiated by the remaining members of the 1972 parliament it formed the principle of mutual coexistence between Lebanon’s sects and promoted a just political representation for all. Despite the sectarian political system and the people in power staying in place, the end of armed conflict allowed for a start of the rebuilding process in downtown.

In 1990 the central district was devastated. Most buildings were either damaged or destroyed. Civil war refugees squatted the houses, tenant-landlord relations were complicated due to years without investment into the houses and the ownership of many buildings was unclear, since many former owners died or fled the country. Additionally, the state was weakened due to the civil war and seemed unable to tackle the rebuilding process2 .

Rafiq Hariri’s offer to carry out the reconstruction without any state-funding and his reputation as a businessman convinced the government to set up a legal framework to privatize and outsource the rebuilding process.

In 1992 Rafiq Hariri founded the Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction du Centre-ville de Beyrouth (French for "The Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District), better known as ‘Solidere’.

The parliament set up an area that would officially become Beirut Central District and tasked the company with its reconstruction.

  • 1Andraos (2008).
  • 2Naeff (2018).

The most significant power-shift towards Solidere was the passing of law 117 in 1991. It provided the company with exclusive rights to expropriate the whole Beirut Central District and demolish the buildings. Former owners got compensated with shares in the company, based on a value assessment, the company carried-out itself3 . Its organization as a for-profit stock market company set the framework for the rebuilding. The need for constant investment of foreign capital resulted in a master plan that heavily favored profitability over the conservation of the former social fabric. With very few exceptions and regardless of rebuilding possibilities, all former buildings were demolished. Instead, high clientele living space and office areas, shopping and finance buildings were the main objectives after the rebuilding, creating a bubble of wealth, de-linked from its former function and its surrounding districts.

Critics of the master plan of Solidere pointed out early, that a reconstruction in this framework would exclude the possibility to reintegrate Beirut Central District into the rest of the city4 .

Violence and Urbanism

So, despite the formal ending of armed conflict in Beirut, the social inequality and the privatization of former public spheres caused by Beirut’s post war rebuilding process cannot be seen as peaceful either. To understand the violence of a neoliberal approach to urban planning we need to apply an understanding of peace and conflict that goes beyond just physical forms of violence.

Johan Galtung’s theory of Positive Peace refutes the predominant conceptualization of war as a mere negative ‘absence of physical violence’. According to him, a society that is not in an armed conflict, still can suffer from structural or cultural violence like gender-based discrimination, racism or selective access to public goods and to understand conflicts we need to take these hidden forms of violence into account as well.

Direct violence is physical, verbal or psychological violence, intentionally directed at others.

Structural violence can be political, repressive or economic. It is inherent to spaces and structures that prevent people from living as good as it would be possible without the occurrence of structural violence and is being protected by structural fragmentation, segmentation and marginalization in a society.

Cultural Violence serves as the legitimization of structural and direct violence. Discursive framing, religion, language, ideology and science can be utilized for cultural violence5 .

Through Galtung’s approach, the ‘negative’ understanding of peace as the mere absence of direct violence is replaced by the idea of peace as a state in which humans are free from discrimination and marginalization and are not being prevented from reaching their needs in society.

Accordingly, the academic approach to study peace and conflict needs to include a wider range of disciplines to understand the manifold interlinks between various forms of structural violence, their veiling through cultural violence and the breaking out of direct, physical violence.

To understand the conflicts that the neoliberal rebuilding process of Beirut Central District enforces we take a multi-level approach to Peace and Conflict Research that understands violence in its socio-economic and cultural context.

Neoliberalism and the City

David Harvey describes neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. […] It must also set up those military, defense, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets.  Furthermore, if markets do not exist […] then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum6 ”.

The manifestation of neoliberal ideology into the urban is strongly interlinked with the process of globalization of capital. Cities around the world must compete for foreign investment and skilled labor which pressures them to constantly improve their efficiency in capital accumulation and profit maximization. The enhanced possibilities of communication, trade-digitalization and liberalized international trade-regimes allow capital to freely choose investment locations.

Neoliberalism has, more than anything, influenced the development and reshaping of cities since the 1970s and became the main approach to urban planning globally.

This process is best summarized by Heeg as the creation of the ‘entrepreneurial city’7 . It describes a nexus of policies that align the city, its architecture, its dwellers and the socio-cultural interaction it produces to a competitive market logic. The underlying principle is the deregulation of markets8  and the capitalization of the urban to improve the structural framework for capital accumulation by privatizing, controlling, segregating and securitizing the city.

The privatized city is the epitome of neoliberal urbanism. To enforce a market logic on a city, it must be accessible for the market as much as possible. Former public sectors and services, as well as public or state property, are commodified and turned into profit.

The controlled city influences social interaction and behavior of its inhabitants. Urban spaces determine how city dwellers live, interact, consume and even desire. Through the reconfiguring of these spaces, the city reproduces subjects that align with a smooth capital accumulation process. Therefore, these policies focus on a structural transformation with the aim to control human behavior instead of physical interference.

The segregated city is divided into areas of uneven privileges. It creates a bubble of wealth, only accessible by people it considers ‘desirable’.  The marginalized dwellers of the city are prevented from entering the de-linked reality inside the bubble. This assures a ‘problem-free’ accumulation procedure without the interference of subjects that are unable to fit in. Furthermore, it allows the framing of the bubble as a clean, safe and homogenous area of consumption.

The securitized city is characterized by a strong presence of police, military and private security forces. They function as the physical safeguarding of the segregated city and the accumulation process. On the one hand, their presence prevents the interference (through protests, uprisings or crime) of the ‘undesired’ parts of society. On the other hand, the kind of security they provide is aimed towards the feeling of safety inside the ‘bubble of wealth’ to create an atmosphere that encourages consumption.

The Privatized City

After the formal end of civil war in 1990 the World Bank and the IMF started framing the reconstruction process as a large-scale economic opportunity. Driven by a neoliberal ideology, they pressured for structural adjustments that could ensure market-driven growth. Without the privatization of the reconstruction process, business-friendly reforms and a structural framework to ensure capital accumulation opportunities, the future of Lebanon would be at jeopardy9 .

The World Bank stressed that Beirut’s former function as a ‘merchant state’ had to adapt to a globalized world by creating an internationally operating banking sector and a capital city that attracts foreign investments and companies.

This neoliberal approach to post-war recovery laid the foundation for the reconstruction process of Beirut Downtown.

The privatization of Beirut Central District was, as it is common for neoliberal urban privatizations, a selective one. While the state handed over all decision-making powers and privatized the profit, the costs were still partly public. For example, the municipality refrained from collecting any tax revenues from downtown during the first ten years.

The government transferred its power, profit and ownership of a project to a private company and hoped for the needed expertise and funding in return. These agreements mirror the core of neoliberal ideology, meaning that the market, freed from state-interference, is far more efficient than a bureaucratic municipality.

Since the idea of an infallible market is at the core of neoliberal ideology, a democratic decision-making process is not at all regarded as necessary but rather as an obstacle10 .

Civil society groups or former tenants of Beirut Central District were left unheard during the construction of the master plan for the area. Decisions were made behind closed doors between representatives of private companies, investors and a weak state. This policy of exclusion sets a barrier for less privileged parts of society to influence the shaping of their city.

In 1991 the Lebanese parliament ratified Law 117, allowing Solidere to expropriate all land in the designated area of Beirut Central District and to compensate former owners with shares in the company. The estimation of the property values was carried out by Solidere itself, allowing it to set a price at which it can buy the property and pay for it in company shares11 .

Therefore, Solidere did not need to raise funds for its purchases but forcibly turned the property value of former owners into an investment itself.

The eviction of an estimated 15.000 squatters and the expropriation of an estimated 100.000 claimants to land in Beirut Central District in favor of one company’s capital accumulation represent a form of structural violence.

In the case of Beirut Central District, the commodification not only includes physical property and its design. The master plan also provides for a commodification of cultural heritage.

According to Solidere officials this was a useful marketing tool for their project12 . Being one of the oldest capitals in the world, Beirut’s history could be turned into profit by linking it to the rebuilding of downtown.

The most striking example of the commodification of culture are the souks in Beirut Central District. Centered in the heart of downtown, the souks used to be an integral part of the social fabric of Beirut.

The variety of merchants, cafes, entertainment outlets and public transport at the thriving urban center attracted the whole spectrum of Beirut’s inhabitants and tourists from whole Lebanon and beyond13 .

The question to what extends the restoration of their former function should play a role in the rebuilding process was intensively debated. Solidere’s interest in attracting high end customers and businesses needed to be combined with the image of a city rich in culture and traditions. The result is a large outdoor mall that barely resembles a traditional souk. Even though the architectonic outlines of the streets are the same, the handcrafters, self-owned shops and street vendors were replaced by international brands.

The value that Beirut’s heritage provides is de-linked from the city and turned into profit by Solidere.

The souks do not only represent the commercialization of culture but also of social life. With the transformation of the social fabric in downtown to a profit-driven privatized area the interactions between people are transformed as well. Since personal interaction with vendors and inhabitants vanished through the establishment of large companies with staff instead of shop owners, shopping became the focus of the souk experience as an extension of social life.

Even though Solidere designated areas in Downtown to be public they do not give that impression when you walk through them. The only playground in downtown is privately owned and only accessible for paying customers. Furthermore, the private security routinely asks bike-riders to step off their bikes while driving through the district. It is therefore difficult to bring your own bike to the sea-side biking area that Solidere designated as public area, while there is a private bike-rental next to it. Visiting the biking route you will rarely see any bikes without the logo of the bike-rental on them. The area can be seen as semi-public because of the restricted access and the clear profit-maximization approach towards it.

  • 3Makarem (2014), Stewart (1996).
  • 4Naeff (2018).
  • 5Galtung (2007).
  • 6Harvey (2005).
  • 7Heeg and Rosol (2007).
  • 8Brenner and Theodore (2002).
  • 9World Bank (1993).
  • 10Schmid (2006).
  • 11Stewart (1996).
  • 12Peterson and McDonogh (2012).
  • 13Naeff (2018)

Beirut Souks Archeological Finds. Solidere (date unknown), Beirut Souks Archeological Finds, Archeology, Accessed: 07.08.2019

Playground in Beirut Downtown March 2019. Ismael Benkrama, 2019

Debord describes the neoliberalization of cities as the colonization of social life. The commodification goes beyond the direct interaction between human and commodity to the point where human life becomes commodified and commodities are now all there is to see14 .

The privatized city creates an environment in which human existence and interaction must be justified through profit maximization processes. The neoliberal policies and reconstruction approaches exclude a vast amount of people that should have been taken into consideration in the planning of their central district. It commodifies culture and history and de-links it from the city that created it to optimize capital accumulation in a city-enclave with restricted access.

The controlled city

Solidere presents itself as the main provider of public space in Lebanon. The 39 hectares of designated public area in downtown make up for approximately 50 percent of public areas in Beirut.

As previously mentioned, these areas are rather semi-public due to their profit-orientation and partly restricted access.

Heeg describes the management of space in neoliberal city centers as the control of a high value consumption, relaxation and office area for potential customers that excludes undesirable humans and interaction15 . Open spaces in neoliberal urbanism are rather designed to control public interaction than to provide an opportunity for its free development16 .

This exclusion of undesired people works in various ways. There are barely any public sanitary facilities in downtown and the ones that exist are only accessible through the malls. The restaurants that can afford the rent in the area sell food at prices far higher than in the surrounding districts and mobile street food vendors are not allowed. Even though people that are not part of the desired social background are technically able to use the public areas for a walk, the lack of affordable food and services might influence them to choose a different district instead.

Beggars and street vendors are usually frequent in the image of Beirut’s streets but none of them can be found here. They are seen as a potential threat to an undisturbed shopping experience and therefore are not allowed in the city center. Another example is the entrance to the public marina in Zaitounay Bay. Private security guards supervise the tourist attraction on the seaside of Beirut Central District and regularly question the intentions of young Lebanese men that do not seem to fit into the area.

  • 14Debord (2010).
  • 15Heeg and Rosol (2007).
  • 16Mitchell (2012).

The apparent racialization of desirability in Beirut Central District aligns with statements made by Angus Gavin the head of Solidere’s Urban Planning division and his colleagues. In their opinion, Lebanese people are foreign to pedestrian culture and do not know how to ‘behave’ in public space17 .

But people whose appearance gives the impression that they can afford the goods, services and the housing prices in downtown are unlikely to be hindered from using the public spaces, regardless of nationality.

Drawing from the broken window theory18 , neoliberal urbanism enforces a zero-tolerance policy towards anything that does not discernibly align with the desired aesthetics of unhindered consumption.

In the case of Beirut Central District that applies to humans like beggars, vendors and less privileged Lebanese as well as behavior like skateboarding or biking.

The privatized concept of open space is unable to create truly public spaces because it is driven by profit-maximization interests instead of public interest.

The structural violence of restricted access to city areas and profit interests controlling social interaction through privatized ‘public spaces’ is a necessary aspect of neoliberal urbanism. Even though the initial plan intended Solidere to eventually hand over control over these spaces to the Beirut municipality, none of that has happened. Solidere stated that they would not want someone to manage the public spaces who is ‘not capable’ to maintain them as they are19 . The neoliberal power-shift from public to private in downtown makes it possible for Solidere to reduce the state to a mere provider of a legal framework, who no longer has the power to intervene in the market logic without its permission.

The segregated city

When I am walking in and out of Beirut Central District it always strikes me how immediately not only the architecture but also the people, shops and cafes change. The area looks and feels as different to its surrounding districts as its inhabitants are.

By de-linking itself from the rest of the city, the central district does not have to deal with the problems of rest of Beirut. Instead it creates an enclave for a privileged few which can compete with international cities for skilled labor and foreign investment.

With its two marinas, the glass-fronted office skyscrapers and residential buildings, as well as the luxurious boutiques and restaurants, the area gives the impression of a playground for the super-rich rather than a city center. The contrast between Beirut Central District and the surrounding districts is even more pronounced in that it could play a significant role in the post-war reunification process. With its position between the predominantly Christian East and the Sunni West of the city, downtown could have contributed to connecting the formerly separate areas. Instead the remains of the former social fabric were demolished and turned into a de-linked enclave.

Furthermore, the highway axis that has been built at the Martyrs’ Square in eastern downtown reinforces the spatial segregation of the city by having exactly the route of the former Green Line and re-drawing the borders of the districts like a demarcation line. The highway makes a gradual merging of East and West Beirut at that site impossible19 . Not only does it transform downtown into an encapsulated island, but also a barrier between other parts of the city.

Road infrastructure plays an essential role in the emergence of the segregated city. The whole Beirut Central District is circled by a multi-lane highway that separates downtown from the rest of the city like a physical barrier. There are no natural walking routes that would lead you into Beirut Central District or out because the highway interrupts all of them. One gets the feeling that Downtown is designed to be reached and left exclusively by car, just as if it was not part of the city around it.

In addition to the infrastructure around Beirut Central District, the architecture inside enforces the seclusion as well. Office rents start at more than 300 dollar per square meter20 , a price that is only affordable for big brands and companies. Furthermore, Solidere built predominantly offices and business space in a size that are neither affordable nor profitable for smaller mid-tier merchants20 .

The segregation of shopkeepers is an intended result of the applied broken window theory on Beirut Central District. Solidere does not consider them as compatible with the wanted aesthetic.

It is chaos. No. We cannot go back to that… We have no room for that. We want the professionals21 .

The high renting prices apply to living spaces as well. Many of the apartments sold, remain uninhabited and only serve as speculation objects. The inflated rents ensure that only a small elite can afford living in downtown.

The segregated city’s infrastructure physically detaches it from the rest of the city and its inhabitants. It creates a city within a city that has little organic connections to its surrounding. Furthermore, the high rents and the lack of small rooms for rent exclude mid-tier merchants and shops from entering the bubble.

The securitized city

Securitization is the necessary link between political ideology and space and an attempt to make the political order neatly correspond with the spatial order.

The neoliberal idea, that the market needs a framework to function smoothly, manifests itself in a security approach that excludes non-exploitable system components. Lift-arms and guards in downtown control whether humans fit into the desired image and intervene, if necessary, to restrict access to undesired people.

A look at the map of the visible security mechanisms in Beirut shows that downtown is the most securitized area in the city. The location of the Grand Serail and the parliament in downtown do account for some of these security measures. But the securitization goes far beyond guards and turnpikes around the government buildings and extends to the whole district. The permanent presence of tanks, military vehicles and the army at all entrances to downtown raises the question on why it is this specific area that needs such extensive protection.

The neoliberalization of the city is accompanied by a privatization of the understanding of security. In his work on city-securitization in the post 9/11 era, Marcuse identifies the objectives of security measures in cities as shifting from actual safety to a respond to constructed and perceived threats to economic interests and powerful social groups22 .

If we think of a smooth profit maximization process as the fundamental interest of neoliberal urbanism, the securitization of downtown would serve in the first instance the defense against threats to that.

The visibly placed security mechanisms create the illusion of security for the people of Beirut Central District.

In the shopping and banking areas of downtown the security mechanisms differ to those in the office and living area as well as to those on the periphery of the district. The security in the former relies more on discrete forms like concrete blocks, surveillance cameras and metal detectors. These measures do not distract customers from shopping while still providing a sense of security23 . The choice of security mechanisms therefore follows a pattern that is at least partly driven by profit maximization interests.

  • 17Andraos (2008).
  • 18A psycho-social approach to urban policies stating that visible damages on buildings and unwanted social behavior in urban areas reinforced further damages on buildings as well as the imitation of that behavior (Brenner and Theodore 2002).
  • 19 a b Andraos (2008).
  • 20 a b Makarem (2015).
  • 21Peterson and McDonogh (2012).
  • 22Marcuse (2006).
  • 23Fawaz, Harb, and Gharbieh (2012).

The mere presence of them leads people to self-discipline in order to avoid conflict situations. The function of the security mechanisms as a constant reminder, that all behavior is surveyed, results in an adaption of the behavior that is assumed to be wanted

In fact, many of the security measures are wholly inadequate to provide more than an illusion of security, as threats such as car-bombings or regional wars cannot be prevented with the resources available. Instead, the security forces themselves pose a threat to those whose behavior in the Beirut Central District is undesirable.

Cultural Violence in the Discourse around Beirut Central District

In 1990, the Taif-Agreement formally ended the Lebanese Civil War with ‘no victor, and no vanquished’. At this point in time the country was without any hegemonic national narrative nor collective identity. Therefore, the rebuilding of Beirut Central District was of high ideological value due to its historic role as a social fabric and its location on the green line that separated Beirut during the war.

The head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, Al-Fadel Shallaq, warned that if the center is not rapidly rebuilt, it would represent a center of chaos that could explode any minute24 .

This framing created a dichotomy between chaos (represented by the current state of the country and the civil war) and prosperity and order (represented by the rebuilding process and the remodeling of downtown to an international city).

Following this discourse, Solidere and international finance institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank could push for a specific kind of rebuilding. The envisioned central district did not orientate itself on the prewar downtown (described by the IFIs as anarchic and inappropriate for the vitality it displayed)24  but instead followed the international trend of neoliberal urbanism.

Since the 15 years of civil war led the country into political, financial and infrastructural crises, this discourse was very convincing for a large part of the population. The image of a ‘neutral’ company without political interest that rebuilds the city center and restores prosperity and order helped Solidere to overcome criticism on the plans to privatize the whole area as well as its rebuilding process.

The fact that the rebuilding of the souks left no room for middleclass merchants that formerly shaped them is justified by the potential havoc that their souk-culture could cause. Solidere argues that they would address the customers in Downtown aggressively and hang their goods everywhere.

Through this framing it was possible to create and justify an urban structure that does not resemble the former role of a social fabric and melting pot but instead ‘radiates’ modernity and order.

Michael Sorkin described neoliberal downtowns that create a discursive illusion of tradition as a marketing tool as a city of simulations, television city, the city as theme park.[...] The architecture of this city is  almost purely semiotic, playing the game  of  grafted signification, theme-park building. Whether it represents generic historicity or generic modernity, such design is based in the same calculus as advertising, the idea of pure imageability, oblivious to the real needs and traditions of those who inhabit it25 .

This is also true in the case of Beirut Central District. The reference back to an ancient past in combination with a promise of modernity cover a present that passes the needs of most inhabitants.

Solidere gives itself a historic justification for a neoliberal rebuilding of the area by framing the past in a way that aligns with its vision for the future.

The cultural violence of influencing national discourses and, to a certain extent, even what is considered the history of Beirut was utilized to ensure a reconstruction process that aligns with Solidere’s vision of a neoliberal central district. Galtung described cultural violence as a cover up for structural and direct violence.


Urbanism and positive peace are inextricably intertwined.

The city and its reconstruction have been privatized and reshaped after profit-maximizing paradigms. Thereby, creating a district that prioritizes capital accumulation over social aspects and the needs of most of Beirut’s inhabitants. Downtown is being segregated from its surrounding and de-linked from its history and former function as a social fabric.

Structural violence is reproduced through segregation, privatization and control over downtown.

By securitizing the city and privatizing security mechanisms, this structural violence can also turn into direct violence. Physical repression of unwanted behavior and access-restriction for undesired people are integral parts of neoliberal urbanism and foster direct violence.

By influencing the national discourse on downtown’s rebuilding, Solidere has been able to attribute a story and function to Beirut Central District that matches its vision for the district’s future. As a result, the company was able to justify a reconstruction that prioritizes its own profit maximization objectives over all other aspects that can shape a city. In this case, cultural violence is a necessity in neoliberal urbanism. Galtung describes cultural violence as a discursive or ideological concealment of direct and structural violence. Solidere has managed to frame the restructuring of the city according to profit maximization paradigms as necessary modernization and an economical opportunity for the whole country.

The translation of neoliberal ideology into urban space might adapt itself to the individual circumstances of different cities. But the subordinate logic of privatization, securitization, control and segregation are inextricably linked to the need to remain competitive on the global market. The example of Beirut Central District shows us how these policies reproduce structural, cultural and direct violence. Therefore, Positive Peace cannot be reached in a city that is structured by neoliberal ideologies and conflicts will necessarily be reproduced. For a deeper understanding of peace and conflict research, urban policy should therefore be understood as an integral part of this discipline.

  • 24 a b Hammoud (1991).
  • 25Sorkin (1992).


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