A City Plans for War

What if war was waged not with bombs but with blueprints? Urban planning’s promise of an improved city of the future is especially bright in postconflict cities, where planning is expected to bring ...

What if war was waged not with bombs but with blueprints? Urban planning’s promise of an improved city of the future is especially bright in postconflict cities, where planning is expected to bring not only the usual modernist improvements—development, growth—but also peace. Yet in postconflict Beirut, planners, developers, and architects, instead of designing for a peaceful city, plan for the war yet to come.

The Lebanese civil war left Beirut pockmarked by artillery fire and divided along sectarian lines. With the end of the war, most militias transformed into political parties. These religious-political organizations operate at once within and outside of the state, governing through national coalitions and maintaining armed militias. Lebanon has now been officially “postconflict” for nearly 30 years.

In her new book, For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers, Hiba Bou Akar argues that what followed the 1990 ceasefire was not peace but a different kind of war. This “war in times of peace” is fought not with tanks and rifles but with the mundane tools of municipal planners: zoning regulations, infrastructure projects, land and apartment sales, housing laws. Like the civil war, this war is fought for territory, by religious-political organizations including Shiite Hezbollah, the Sunni Future Movement, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, and the Maronite Christian Church. Bou Akar is trained as a city planner, and in For the War Yet to Come undertakes an “ethnography of spatial practices” in Beirut’s southern and southeastern suburbs. These spatial practices can seem innocuous, but Bou Akar argues that they are in fact techniques for governing a divided, sectarian city.

In Sahra Choueifat, a historically Druze and Christian neighborhood near Beirut’s international airport, this war is fought with zoning regulation. Zoned as agricultural and industrial, Sahra Choueifat began to more densely urbanize after the war, as affordable residential buildings sprang up across from fields and next to factories. Many of the newcomers were Shiite, enemies of the Druze PSP during the long civil war. The local PSP-led government permitted the construction of apartment complexes but refused to extend water, sewage, and electricity to the new buildings. Instead, the developers—supported by Shiite Hezbollah and Haraket Amal (a militia and political party), also Shiite—installed their own services. Infrastructure, it seems, is also sectarian.

Beirut’s “war in times of peace” is fought not with tanks and rifles but with the mundane tools of municipal planners.

Seeking to prevent what one resident called a Shiite “takeover” of the neighborhood, local government rezoned parts of Sahra Choueifat in an attempt to reduce urbanization. In 2008, the Choueifat municipal government won a small victory when they rezoned a hillside from a “scenic area”—with potential for development of restaurants and cafés—to Zone V (for villa), which specified a private area, zoned for single-family homes. The Zone V stipulations are mundane: a maximum of two floors, red-tiled roofs, and surrounding green space planted with trees. Yet the Zone V innovation was not just an aesthetic project: it was a paramilitary urban strategy to keep the hillside Druze, and to prevent dense Shiite settlements that could potentially attack PSP areas below.

Bou Akar calls this complex work of stitching together different zoning regulations into an intricate patchwork of land-use patterns takhrīm, or lacework. “In times of war,” Bou Akar writes, the intricate stitches of the planner’s takhrīm “are transformed into battle lines.” But despite the meticulous work of local planners, one apartment complex at a time, Hezbollah and Amal-affiliated developers transformed Sahra Choueifat into a Shiite stronghold, each new building a stitch in the fabric of the city.

In other places, it is not new construction or innovative zoning but the refusal to develop that marks sectarian frontiers. In the neighboring suburb of Hayy Madi / Mar Mikhail, civil war ruins crumble and fade beside soaring new condos. Historically majority Christian, Hayy Madi / Mar Mikhail provided refuge for Shiite migrants fleeing rural violence. After the war, it began to transform into a middle- and upper-middle-income neighborhood. Shiite developers build new residential towers, “dotted within a landscape of bombed buildings, burned-out landscapes, and memorials to martyrs.”

Curious about why so many ruins were left to crumble even as the neighborhood transformed and property prices rose, Bou Akar investigated and found that the Maronite Church was buying up land and leaving ruins standing. The goal was neither to preserve the ruins as memorials of the war nor to build new structures, but simply to keep the land Christian, resisting the “Islamization” of the neighborhood All around them, Shiite developers filled the neighborhood with apartment towers for a rising middle class. The ruins were at once a reminder of past war and a territorial strategy anticipating future violence. In a landscape saturated with this doubleness, “land has a religion.”


The Rubble of Beirut

By Nathaniel Popkin

Bou Akar’s ethnography of spatial practices reveals a common anxiety across diverse peripheral sites: fear of Shiite migrants, perceived as backward, rural, and potentially radical. The racialized specter of the Shiite as a “frugal, death-loving martyr” seemed to permeate sectarian fears about the danger of living alongside the menacing other. Analyzing plans, maps, zoning regulations, and infrastructure projects, but also rumor, gossip, and urban sensibility, Bou Akar suggests that the neutral language of demography comes to stand in for a deeply held common sense that people live most comfortably with their own sects.

Halfway through Bou Akar’s fieldwork, the “ghost of the civil war returned,” with the events of May 7, 2008, the worst sectarian fighting in Beirut since the civil war. When a Sunni Future Movement–led national government declared Hezbollah’s telecommunications infrastructure illegal, street battles broke out across the southern suburbs between Hezbollah, allied with Haraket Amal, and the Future Movement and the allied Druze PSP. The southern peripheries were once again battlegrounds. This time, the fight was for infrastructure.

Urbicide is the targeted destruction of cities as a tactic of war. The violence chronicled here is not aerial annihilation—hospitals and homes reduced to rubble—but the “gradual construction of buildings and infrastructure” in ways that collapse boundaries between war and peace, militarizing everyday life. A window in an apartment building is at once a source of light and a future sniper location; a ruin may be uninhabitable, but the land beneath it marks the edge of a territory. This doubleness saturates life on the on the peripheries of Beirut, where “every built space is a potential future battle space.”

For the War Yet to Come is a feminist and postcolonial critique of a masculinized geography of urban militarism that favors the spectacular and the sublime. This vision of the city at war is blindingly technological and curiously devoid of people, as if seen from above (perhaps from a fighter jet). Bou Akar’s Beirut is peopled, swirling with rumor. It is the site not of anonymized destruction but of calculated and complex construction.

The book takes its name from AbdouMaliq Simone, for whom the city is hopeful, a fertile site of “seemingly endless possibilities of remaking.” Even amid crumbling infrastructure, the “city yet to come” is an imaginative horizon, a promise of progress blooming over a compromised present. Bou Akar argues that in Beirut, that imaginative horizon is war. The future can only be imagined as a time of violence, and the peripheries as frontiers of future sectarian wars. Bou Akar finds hope in Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), a new political party that emerged in the wake of the 2015 “trash protests” and ran in the 2016 municipal elections. But must the hopeful future be secular? Is there any hope for an equitable sectarian city?

The imagination of the war yet to come forecloses some possibilities for urban life as it makes others seem inevitable, or even natural. Chief among these is a future where planning fulfills its promises of progress and peace. Planners are reduced to “technicians of the war to come,” mapmakers of the battle lines of the future. Instead of creating a citywide plan to address urban poverty and precarity, central planning offices simply delegate the development of fractured territories to religious-political organizations.

The cost is that there is no comprehensive city plan to tackle inequality, no vision of a future city livable for all people. In this sense, Bou Akar argues, city planning in Beirut is “post-poverty.” Planning is no longer about improvement, but about the anticipation of future violence.

Bou Akar warns that this isn’t only about Beirut or other postconflict cities of the Global South. The logic of future war permeates planning practice across the world. We plan for wars yet to come when we plan not for justice but for violence, armed and otherwise.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Yazan Halwani, Beirut (2015). Photograph by Jeremy Chivers