Rozana Darwich And Reem Mezher Cultural Studies Essay


Drawing on recent experiences of urban planning in two city-regions in America and Asia, the paper seeks to challenge dominant narrative of the emergence of urbanism hinged on a uni-dimensional process of planning convergence, whereby it consists one of the major urban concerns, thus a foremost challenge, nowadays. Based on a fine-grained analysis of urban planning practices, the paper also presents a framework of a contextualized comparative analysis identifying multiple similarities conducting to several levels of differentiation concerning planning approach. The application of this comparative framework is subsequently illustrated with reference to two very well known cities; Beirut and Manhattan. Finally, the paper concludes with an outline of the city-building paradox.

Key words: city-building paradox, comparative analysis, urban planning, urban context, Beirut and Manhattan.

1. Introduction

Watching the world around us, fascinated by how the social and physical aspects are constantly changing, the building city process has become the forefront of the public debate.

Whereas answering the keen question on how to build cities that are worth building future in, has become even more crucial. Hence, planners are engaged to provide places that suits humans the most, where two of the existing planning processes, emerging controversy, are based either on a rigid gridiron system irrespective to any of the city aspects, either on an ''unplanned-planning'' process leading to a chaotic city.

This conflicting planning can be broadly shown in Manhattan, a much planned city based on a rigid grid laid over the entire island and Beirut, trying to have such planned areas, is lying in an eternal chaos.

The importance of planning nowadays where urbanization has become one of the most important challenges of the 21st century planning processes has become evident to envisage.

This spark that has aroused our curiosity towards discussing this theme, where everyone, especially us as future urban planners are engaged to be eager enough to create places that are full of life and vibrancy.

Discussing this mere debate will deepen our awareness towards city and how to approach an urban space in an attempt to sculpt our knowledge to a better understanding to the key elements of the city's planning process lying under two famous planning methods; haphazard planning and rigid gridiron planning.

2. Beirut Vs Manhattan:

In this section we will envisage the main urban rudiments of a city that will lead us to a better understanding of the city building process with a comparative approach for divers planning models. Solving this current paradox, we will study the comparison of the development and urban planning of Beirut and Manhattan referring to several features:


Natural factors (Topography )

Urban factors:

- Zoning and land use

- Street network

- Buildings

- Skyline and vistas

2.1 Location:

Beirut is the capital and largest city of Lebanon with a population of over 2.1 million as of 2007 living in 85 km². Located on a peninsula at the midpoint of Lebanon's coastline with the Mediterranean Sea, it serves as the country's largest and main seaport and also forms the Beirut District area, which consists of the city and its suburbs. (See Figure 1, 2)

Furthermore Beirut has long been considered, by virtue of its strategic location, the crossroads between the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe and its inhabitants are a unique blend of the Eastern and Western cultures, which also gave the city a distinctive role from the days of the ancient history, and made it a subject to invasions from various race. Each empire built upon the foundation of its antecedent, forming a historically rich and complex layered urban core, the "Old City of Beirut", which also played a distinctive in strengthening the economy of the city.

Beirut underwent major reconstruction, after the destructive Lebanese civil war, and the redesigned historic city center, marina, pubs and nightlife districts have once again rendered it a popular tourist attraction. Named the number one Place to Visit in 2009 by The New York Times, Beirut was also listed as one of the top ten liveliest cities in the world by the Lonely Planet list of the top ten cities for 2009. (See Figure 3)

Therefore, Beirut is a city located on a Mediterranean peninsula strengthening crossroads cultures to form a number one place to visit.

Unlike Beirut city, a piece of land surrounded by water, connected on one side to mainland, which also lies within a single county Lebanon, Manhattan is an island, fully surrounded by water, at the mouth of the Hudson River, coextensive with county of new York state and constitute a county in itself; borough of Manhattan is new York county. (See Figure 4)

Both cities were connected to water, this strategic location made both of them target for several invasions and strengthened economy and business.

New York County, like all boroughs was created in 1898 during consolidation when the city’s current boundaries were established, and it is represented by a borough hall for itself that reside in Manhattan municipal building.

Manhattan is the most densely populated county in US with a 2008 population of 1.634.795 living in 22.96 square miles (59.47 km²).(See Figure 5) It is also one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, with a 2005 personal income per capita above $100,000. Manhattan is the third-largest of New York's five boroughs in population but the smallest in area.

According to the diagram shown in Figure 5, all over centuries Manhattan was the most county which attracts inhabitants and had always the highest percentage of population due to many reasons, which we will discuss it in this essay, starting from its remarquable location and comparing it to the same features in Beirut.

Manhattan is a major commercial, financial, and cultural center of both the United States and the world. It is the center of New York City and the New York metropolitan region, hosting the seat of city government and a large portion of the area's employment, business, and recreational activities.

The name Manhattan derives from the word Manna-hata, as written in the 1609 logbook of Robert Juet, an officer on Henry Hudson's yacht Halve Maen (Half Moon). A 1610 map depicts the name Manhattan twice, on both the west and east sides of the Mauritius River (later named the Hudson River). The word "Manhattan" has been translated as "island of many hills" from the Lenape language.

Hence Beirut is a city from the very ancient world in the east, while Manhattan is from the new world in the west.

2.2 Natural factors:


Beirut is positioned on a peninsula extending westward into the Mediterranean Sea, about 94 km (58 mi) north of the Lebanon-Palestine border. The city is flanked by the Lebanon Mountains; it has taken on a triangular shape, largely influenced by its situation between and a top two hills: Al-Ashrafieh and Al-Musaytibah. The Beirut Governorate area is of 18 square kilometers (6.9 sq mi), and the city's metropolitan area is of 67 square kilometers (26 sq mi). Beirut's coast is rather diverse; rocky beaches, sandy shores, and cliffs are situated beside one another.

(See Figure 6).Referring also to Figure 7 and 8, we can see the slope ranges in metropolitan Beirut and we can observe the difference in slope percentage going far from the coastline, entering the inside Beirut.

This table (figure 8) shows land value classification, slopes and several views.

At variance, the island of Manhattan with its deep waters and sheltered bays which helped the city grow in significance as a trading city is bounded by several water sources, the Hudson River to the west and the east river to the east. To the north, the Harlem River divides Manhattan from The Bronx and the mainland United States. Several small islands are also part of the borough of Manhattan, including Randall's Island, Ward's Island, and Roosevelt Island in the East River, and Governors Island and Liberty Island to the south in New York Harbor. Manhattan Island is 22.7 square miles (58.8 km²) in area, 13.4 miles (21.6 km) long and 2.3 miles (3.7 km) wide, at its widest (near 14th Street). New York County as a whole covers a total area of 33.77 square miles (87.46 km²), of which 22.96 square miles (59.47 km²) are land and 10.81 square miles (28.00 km²) are water.

Referring to figure 9, Central Park is visible in the center of this satellite image. Manhattan is bounded by the Hudson River to the west, the Harlem River to the north, and East River to the east.

2.3 Urban factors: Zoning and land use

Zoning is a vital part of the urban machinery, but it can fail through abuse, misuse and rigid resistance to changes in the urban pattern essential to the general welfare.

New York was among the first cities to use incentive zoning. New York city’s Incentive Zoning Ordinance of 1961 was an effort to improve the quality of the urban environment. It created special zoning districts with specific goals in different parts of Manhattan. The Lower Manhattan Special Zoning District was concerned with designing pleasing pedestrian environments and with establishing view corridors along streets. The Fifth Avenue Special Zoning District was concerned with maintaining retail stores at the street level and having a continuous street façade unbroken by setbacks. The city permitted developers in these areas to build larger buildings that allowed by existing zoning ordinances in exchange for such public amenities as plazas, wider sidewalks, or retailing space at the ground level.

Incentive zoning provisions have been created to encourage specific types of development that would not be as economically beneficial to entrepreneurs as other types. One example is for the development of new theaters in the Broadway theater district of midtown Manhattan.

Referring to figure 10, the buildings shown in the black were built under the incentive zoning legislation introduced in New York City in the late sixties. Developers were allowed to build up to 20 percent extra floor spaces in office towers In return for including a theater in their building. The cross section through One Astor Plaza shows how this was done.

Therefore, Manhattan under this incentive zoning was built according to several laws created to acquire available open space in densely packed commercial or business districts. So Manhattan wasn’t randomly organized, thus it’s based on special laws that determine an FAR for each district, which defines the floor area ratio (The arithmetic relationship of the total square feet of a building to the square footage of the land area).

According to the annex 1 (find attached), standards of land use were lax. As we can see, the first law to regulate tenement buildings was passed in New York in 1867, but only faint improvements were forced upon speculators. Planning persisted at a deplorably low level; the "railroad apartment" was typical of the early tenements, and it had no more evil rival in the world. The usual lot was 25 feet wide, with a depth of 100 feet. The building covered as much as 90 percent of the area. The small space remaining at the rear was used for privies, no sanitation being provided within the building. The tenements were five or six stories high, with four apartments on each floor. Only one room in each dwelling enjoyed light and air; all other rooms had no exterior exposure. The unbearable living conditions imposed on the poor did not go unnoticed. However the result of the solutions was touched with irony. New York does not have particularly good public space, save for the unquestionably great Central Park, one of the truly great urbanistic achievements of any city in the world, and one of the only things in 19th-century New York that was a model for all that follow.

Thus New York is not a city of conventional public space. There are few squares and parks

New York has several centers rather than a district downtown. (Refer to figure 11)

Referring to figure 12, it shows New York City map, after turning down the 1800 proposal of the city surveyor and architect Joseph Mangin, a commission was appointed in 1811 to arrive at a plan. They proposed a rigid gridiron street pattern laid upon the irregular topography (described in part 2.2 topography) of the city. Open space was not generously allocated; a military parade ground of 69 acres, 55 acres for a public market, and five small parks were the only open areas provided for in the plan.

Despite the "uncommonly great" price of land, explained as the reason for the paucity of open space, the layout of streets can hardly be construed as economical; they occupy only some 30 percent of the land area. This harsh and uncompromising original plan is reflected in the cramped city of today, in which open space has all but completely vanished. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the great Central Park was definitely established in the plan.

Referring to figure 13, in this planning map, there are about a dozen zones, from R4 to R7, and a couple of C4-3 presumably commercial zones. All of them are at least a block. One area boundary is in the process of a proposed change.

New York City's zoning dates back to 1961 and has been changed remarkably little, considering.

Counter to what was said above about the zoning of Manhattan; Beirut had a different urban planning. But it's also based on a definitive FAR to regulate Beirut zoning.

The zoning regulations, in and around Beirut, were first defined in the 1952 master plan, better known as the "plan Ecochard". This plan for Beirut is the most representative of the State's effort. It attempted to organize the growth outside the congested city around a "governmental new town". In addition, it planned new infrastructures and remodeled the center. Some were added and others adjusted in the 1964 amendments. The plan subdivides the Metropolitan area into two main parts. The first is Municipal Beirut which is divided into 10 sub-zones (each with a specific FAR), the second is the suburban areas with an FAR value that does not exceed 1.65. The spatial distribution of the allowable FAR follows a centrifugal pattern which originates in the central business district of Beirut, and grows in larger semi-circular belts as one move outwards towards the mountains. A visual analysis of the map shows a lop sided density distribution in the southern and northern coastal extension of the capital. (Refer to figure 14)

After the end of the war in 1991, a private company, Solidere, has been commissioned to study and implement a new plan for the city center, 80% of which had been erased after the end of the war.

As we just said that Ecochard plan divided Beirut into several parts with different FAR. According to the map shown in figure 15 and 16, we can see how the floor area ratio is different from a part to another. The FAR in Beirut can change between two standard numbers 0.1 and 2 as in the actual distribution but if we see the following map the FAR can increase till 5 as a maximum floor area ratio.

We can also notice that there is a big difference between FAR in Beirut and FAR in Manhattan that’s why the buildings differ, the skyline of the city changes and the zoning of buildings changes also.

So, the FAR is a factor that is held responsible for several aspects of the city and is the key element since it draws the architectural panorama. But when the FAR does not match current needs and realities, it held responsible for all the ills in the city.

There are neighbourhoods like Basta or Gemmayzeh where there was a typical architecture dating from the end of the Ottoman period or the French mandate era and that deserves as such to be protected; but these areas were invaded, just like other districts, by this same FAR and were put in danger of destruction. Here we can see that, the problem is that this FAR has been applied blindly across the board regardless of the peculiarities of lands.

Far from trying to remedy to this phenomenon, it seems that the government is rather actively contributing to its aggravation. According to Georges Khayat and the architect Jacques Liger- Belair, "the latest construction law dating back to January 2006 has insidiously allowed an increase of 15% of the building over the total ratio which indirectly establishes the FAR in Beirut at 6; so on a 1000m2 land, it is now possible to build in Gemmayzé for example, a 6000m2 building, which is equivalent schematically to 14 floors, or 45-50 m in height ".

Heights that are as vertiginous as the amount of money they can produce. In addition to dangerously increasing the density of population in the city and contributing to the architectural imbalance, the arbitrary determination of FAR also endangers heritage that determines a city's identity.

In fact, given the current prices of the m2 in Beirut, a 14 -story building in the center can bring in more than 20 million dollars in total. In the meantime, a "house with three arcades" occupies approximately 20-30% of the total surface of the land it is built on. The calculation of unexploited potential surface is quickly undertaken by profitability-oriented promoters, as well as by owners who are attracted by the prospect of such a project.

How can one resist the temptation of succumbing to the sirens of enrichment and sell their estate under such circumstances? The house will then be quickly destroyed in order to erect a tower, and in the rubbles, a part of the heritage will disappear.

Meanwhile answering this question is in the hand of several key actors that can jeopardize the existing of several neighborhoods thus cities, seeking for personal rather than public benefit which leads to a common understanding that a successful planning lays in deleting the past and exerting sever planning regardless to any of the major aspects of the city that should be taken into huge consideration.

This alternation in the floor area ratio affected the zoning in Beirut; therefore Beirut, center of Lebanon, holds multiple services, shown in figure 17. Where we can notice that the highest public service is the habitation marquee in yellow and in the other side we can see different colors showing several services.

As to come to Manhattan, referring to figure 19, the use of the land is essentially commercial thus the red color which refers to the offices, is the dominant one, also we can find garages gas stations theaters and stores, and we can notice the absence of the habitation in the lower Manhattan, which differs in Beirut where we can find the essential use for habitation.

As to come to parks and squares which define the green areas and is defined by the FAR, we will see in the following that the changing of the FAR led to the differences in the percentage of green areas and areas for squares and parks. Though, both cities Beirut and Manhattan shares several squares but differs in the percentage of greenery.

According to figure 20, we will see that 22% of the total area is specified for green areas. Although Beirut has several public gardens, though it represented 22% of the global area.

As to come to Manhattan, According to figure 21, we can notice that the green color which is not the dominant one same as Beirut. Its essentially located in the middle where we can see the central park and we can see it the peripheries of Manhattan. Even though, Manhattan is the planned city and Beirut is the chaotic city.

The green areas in Manhattan are represented in several squares such as:

Time square, Hanover square, Union square,….etc

Also Beirut Enjoy the privileges of important squares which played distinguished roles in the history of Lebanon.

Even if the presence of the public plazas may not be a guarantee for public life, the articulation of streets intersections divisions between neighborhoods, and funnels for traffic are devices that inadvertently create open spaces in the city and require design consideration.

Most of the public plazas in Beirut have either developed from leftover pockets of empty land or around traffic exchange points. The main public squares of the city Riad il soloh square, and martyr’s square, as illustrated by the historical of Jens Hanssen and Angus Gavin, are rather clear examples of public use slowly transforming leftover spaces into plazas. While Riad Il Soloh square has, for the most part, kept its prewar delineate region , despite the way that the united nations building has turned its side to the plaza and reduce its potential liveliness , it’s the design of martyr’s square that promises to be a major challenge for today’s city planners. It is also an important example to study since it would, no doubt, be emulated everywhere in the country, even if the final result was less than successful.( refer to figure 22: big map)

Streets network:

The street pattern of New York yields a remarkable level of urbanism. This arrogant piece of simpleminded planning work is so brilliantly due to its clarity. But this is far from the most important virtue of the grid. Clarity is a necessary but hardly sufficient condition for decent urbanism.

The grid provides the basis for urbanism for several other, more subtle, reasons, Paul Goldberger said. The straight streets provide a remarkable number of stunning vistas, not great axial views like the boulevards of Paris, but neat, tight, ramrod straight views that stretch, sometimes, from river to river. From almost every part of Manhattan one can see at least one river at the end of the street canyon, and every now and then - 57th Street in particular comes to mind - there is a view of both rivers from different ends of the same street.

The principal effect of the gridiron plan is that every street becomes a thoroughfare, and that every thoroughfare is potentially a commercial street. The tendency towards movement in such a city vastly outweighs the tendency toward settlement." Movement, of course, is essential to New York - the street is a place, yet it is not a place of tranquility or leisure. We can saunter or we can rush, but we do not stand and stop in the public space of New York; it isn't in the DNA of this kind of public space, and because the street is central to the idea of public space in New York, this becomes an essential aspect of the nature of the city. (Refer to figure 23)

Yet the street is also a place of desire: of the sensual joys of the buildings themselves, of the material pleasures of what can be seen in the windows, of the allure of the people we see. Movement and desire, combined: perhaps that is the special nature of the street, and both of its aspects, surely, reach their apotheosis in this country in the streets of Manhattan. They are not always the grandest streets, and they are surely not the widest or the most interestingly shaped, but they are the most coherent, the most, if I may say so, urbanistic, the ones in this country that possess the deepest, most intense qualities of street-ness, and which contribute the most to the overall identity of their city. (Refer to figure 24)

If we look at the great streets of New York, they had coherence, but they were not boring. Their buildings did not have excessive similarity, but they did not look like they were put there to defy each other, either. On Central Park West, or Fifth Avenue, or Riverside Drive, the whole was more than the sum of the parts, but the parts were pretty good, and pretty civilized, in their way, and did not want for individual identity. There was a magnificent mix of the planned and the accidental, and the fact of the matter is that, to repeat a point I made before in another way, the mix of the planned and the accidental that is so vital to a great city isn't something you can completely plan, and it isn't something you can leave to accident, either.

According to figure 23, the grid is profound. It is at once the least assertive piece of planning in the world, and the most assertive. It is certainly not the most imaginative thing you can do, running a grid up a whole island. It disingenuously pretends to neutrality, but in fact it is anything but neutral in the way it ignores topography, running roughshod over hills and valleys and, with few exceptions, paying little heed to the riverfronts. It ignores history, other than preserving the diagonal of Broadway, which precedes it as the old road to Albany. It suggests arrogance, absoluteness, and inflexibility. It was designed to maximize the value of real estate, and to make the division of land into saleable lots easy. It sends a cynical message that the city is nothing but a commercial pie to be divided up. It makes no allowance for public space; those great public spaces that New York has, Central Park the noblest, were added later, and were not part of the original plan.

At variance beirut has a different plan, counter to the orthogonal plan of manhattan, shown in figure 23.

The plan is unashamedly streetbased, moving away from the Modernist tradition of individual, object buildings (for example, the podium-and-tower of the Starco complex in central Beirut), to the more traditional and recently re-discovered typology of the street. In this typology, individual buildings are seen as combining to form the broader urban context, each contributing to a greater whole, that of the public space of the street. The strategy stemmed first, from a belief in the street as the tried-and-tested arena for city making; secondly, from observation of exceptional examples in the beaux-arts streets of Beirut’s surviving historic core,and finally, from the knowledge that a traditional street pattern offers and extremely efficient distribution of floor space.

The corollary of the street is perimeter block development – the distribution of built form around the edges of city blocks. The move, in this Plan, towards this form of development enabled the number of high-rise buildings to be more than halved in comparison with previous postwar plans for the city center, while achieving the same target floor space. The strategy, however, requires a disciplined approach by individual architects. With the exception of identified key sites, their designs must contribute to the street as a whole, rather than proclaim themselves as individual monuments to modernism, postmodernism or even to the architects themselves. The techniques used in the Master Plan to achieve built-forms that combine to create streets, with their sense of enclosure, pedestrian scale and continuity, are those of the Street-wall Control and various forms of build-to-line and mandated setback. These derive from an analysis of the dimensional rules behind the design of buildings on the colonnaded Maarad Street modeled in the 20s on Paris’ Rue de Rivoli – and Foch Street, with its distinctive ‘jetty’ form. A family of Street wall Controls was developed. These are applied along all main streets and in particular to those that connect to the historic core, stepping up in scale as they pass through new development areas beyond the core and in the new waterfront district (Fig.3). Greater freedom is permitted in the two ‘special residential policy areas’ of the city center. Through the application of these Street-wall Controls, the scale and form of the street is maintained, with high-rise elements set back from the street façade. Such envelope controls are relatively sophisticated compared with planning regimes that exist elsewhere in Beirut. These tend to encourage the developer to arbitrarily set his building back from the street façade in order to gain valuable height and floor space, thereby destroying the traditional street form and leaving undefined ground-level space, usually dedicated to car parking.


The grid has also made the New York "street wall" - the even line of buildings extending block after block - a crucial part of the city's visual identity. A period of flirtation with setback "plazas," breaking the street line, a result of the 1961 zoning ordinances misguided desire to see the successful Seagram Building plaza on Park Avenue repeated all over the place, led to broken street walls all over town, but now planners and architects have come to the realization that every building has a responsibility, encouraged by the grid, to line up with its neighbors and be part of a greater whole. The grid makes the fundamental idea of urban design - that the whole is more than the sum of the parts - seem logical and natural, even inevitable.

But the grid has functioned most importantly in an even more subtle, symbolic way. It is really a frame, an enclosure, a Cartesian anchor for the irrational impulses of this impulsive, active city. It is like an abstract drawing sketched not on a plan but on graph paper; the grid of the graph holds the abstraction, defining its lines of force and keeping its movement in check. It is the subtle balance of the rational and the irrational. Without the grid, New York's intensity and its idiosyncrasy would be uncontainable.

The controlling force in New York's architecture has always been theater, not theory. Actually, that is not completely true: the controlling forces have been theater and money, which is to say the forces of entertainment and profit. This is a city in which the values of commerce have always superseded other values, save for the desire to entertain, to show off with a certain panache. Ours is a theatrical urbanism, and also a mundane, squeeze-as-much-square-footage-into-the-site-as-you-possibly-can .

You have to understand that it is these two things, at once, and that they coexist in New York’s identity, however much they may seem to be contradictory.

New York did not really invent any kind of architecture, except perhaps for the extraordinary cast-iron industrial architecture of the mid-19th century. What New York did for the most part was take things that had been developed elsewhere and turn them into something powerfully its own.

In case of the residential buildings of Battery Park City which from critics’ reports, is seen as in context within New York, careful guidelines were developed based on the nature of an existing New York building type- the early- twentieth- century apartment buildings of New York’s Upper East and Upper West sides. "These buildings are masonry-clad structures with punched windows and stone bases, mid-height belt courses, and stepped-back penthouses". Presumably another distinctive type could have been chosen just as well, but the type chosen is residential and it also has connotations of upper socioeconomic status.

New York’s greatest buildings are theatrical exploitations of European models:

the Woolworth Building, where Cass Gilbert merged Gothic architecture with the notion of the skyscraper more perfectly than any architect has before or since.

the Plaza, Henry Hardenbergh's French Renaissance chateau, blown up to monumental, civic, New York scale.

Napoleon LeBrun's re-do of St. Mark's Tower in Venice as the headquarters and symbol of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which before Woolworth was the tallest building in the world.

the Beaux-Arts monuments of Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library.

The modern buildings we build today, in New York and elsewhere, respond to the street; they don't ignore it. They respond to context. There are lots of ways to fit in, and looking identical isn't the only one, or even necessarily the best one, by far.

The failings of modernism were felt here, as much as anywhere: we ignored the streets that had been our lifeblood. We revised our zoning in 1961 to encourage more towers in open space, an anti-street gesture that was intended to encourage more Seagram Building plazas, but which ignored the fact that Seagram was an extraordinary and special work of art, not something that any zoning could create, and that its plaza did not so much break with the street as honor it in a new way.


Nothing inherent in the discipline steers planners either toward environmental protection or toward economic development—or toward a third goal of planning: social equity. Instead, planners work within the tension generated among these three fundamental aims, which, collectively, I call the "planner's triangle," with sustainable development located at its center. This center cannot be reached directly, but only approximately and indirectly, through a sustained period of confronting and resolving the triangle's conflicts. To do so, planners have to redefine sustainability, since its current formulation romanticizes our sustainable past and is too vaguely holistic. Planners would benefit both from integrating social theory with environmental thinking and from combining their substantive skills with techniques for community conflict resolution, to confront economic and environmental injustice.

Becoming the forefront of the public debate