By Nuruddin Farah

I know, dear reader, it has been a long time since my last post. Life has been unusual lately, although not just for Benghazi residents this time. I’ve done (and am still doing) quite a few interesting things which have kept me busy, and I’m still trying to re-orient my life after the events of 2014.

While ‘stability’ doesn’t seem like anything we’ll ever achieve in our lifetimes, I do feel like I’ve matured somewhat (at least not picking Twitter fights as often). But you know I’m not one to bite my tongue when it comes to development in Benghazi, and driving around the city the past few weeks has prompted what I’m hoping is the start of a conversation on long-term urban planning for the city.

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An upside-down fishing boat isn’t what immediately comes to mind when you hear about a controversial public art piece, but this unassuming sculpture sparked the ire and anger of Benghazi’s architects and designers last week.

It has continued an ongoing and decades-long debate about Benghazi’s public spaces and symbols.

The sculpture in question consists of a granite impression of a fishing boat that’s been placed upside down, with a pyramidal form placed next to it to give the impression of a fish rising out of water – represented by blue ceramic tiles.

The project was built as part of an ongoing city-center seaside reconstruction project implemented by the municipality and UNDP.

Shortly after its completion, photos of the sculpture were uploaded to a Facebook group of the city’s architects, where it quickly circulated online. The condemnation was swift and merciless. “Benghazi deserves better”, “This is a disgrace”, “Who approved this?”

The main gripe was the quality of the design, which most of the critics felt was poorly executed and a shoddy representation of the Fish Market (which the statue is meant to symbolize). Photos of public art in other cities were shared, alluding to the quality that the architects felt Benghazi deserved.

A hashtag was launched demanding that the Municipality remove the sculpture, and the Projects’ Office announced a design competition to replace the maligned fish.

In true Benghazi fashion, counter-critics were quick to reply, pointing out that a statue of a fish was better than the pile of rubble and war remnants that was there before, and that people’s anger might be better directed at the destroyed remains of people’s houses which still haven’t been repaired.

Photos of children playing on the newly paved seaside promenade drove home the point that some reconstruction – even if not of the highest quality – was still better than none.

Others still pointed out something that isn’t uncommon with these types of anger-driven posts – an insidious political campaign to push out certain decision-makers from their positions of power.

This form of expressing opinions and outrage at development projects – via social media mobilization – is becoming more and more common in Benghazi as the city shifts from post-war rehabilitation into long-term reconstruction.

So, too, is the response from public officials and decision-makers to this anger in an effort to appease people and save face. It also marks a shift in the way that urban planning and design has taken on more participatory dimensions, not just here but across Libya, and disproves the common trope that Libyans don’t care about public space. On the contrary, public spaces are becoming more of a crucial issue as cities become denser and lifestyles change.

Last February, a small park in front of the renovated Al-Marwa Hospital witnessed a similar kind of mobilization. A rumor had emerged that the hospital was planning to turn the park into additional parking, which gained more credibility when the construction company began removing palm trees from the park.

Pictures were posted online with a call to stop the removal of an important green space in the city. The local residents swarmed the area and began removing the construction equipment.

The hospital administration later made a statement clarifying that they wanted to ‘renovate’ the park for the local residents, which they eventually did.

The park now has new paved paths, two new playgrounds, and the trees have been put back. Similar mobilization had occurred to protect the city’s zoo and People’s Park from similar fates.

Benghazi’s urban development was previously regulated through the Urban Planning Agency with enforcement from bodies such as the Municipal Guard or Agricultural Police.

While Gadhafi had his own policy of tearing down historic monuments or heritage sites at random – a policy built on punishing a city that doesn’t bow easily – urban planning followed a well-established system of masterplans, form-based codes and land use patterns.

All of this was tossed out the window after 2011, when largely unqualified people took office and decided that the Urban Planning Agency should be decommissioned, with planning placed on the very local level.

While not properly researched, I suspect this move was made largely to ease the procedure towards buying land and developing new projects – a move that benefitted an influx of businessmen and private money.

While the concept of decentralizing the planning process isn’t necessarily a bad one, it requires having actual local governance structures, which Libya didn’t have until 2014, and even then, the process hasn’t been complete.

The result today is a hodge-podge of very randomized development by different agencies and institutions and sectors, each pushing forward their own vision of the city without any coordination, largely motivated by greed and worst of all, without any regulation.

A salient example of this occurred in June, when construction began of a hotel…over a gas station in Ganfouda. Aside from structural, land-use and legal issues surrounding this type of project, it also signals the way in which individual private sector efforts are taking any opportunity they can find to set up a development.

Once again, public outrage on social media led to swift action by public authorities to stop the project – although it makes you wonder what projects that aren’t being showcased on social media are getting away with.

Not to entirely demonize the private sector, there have been a lot of efforts made by SMEs and businessmen which address problems like the housing shortage in the city.

Schemes such as ‘skeletal houses’ have gained popularity in Benghazi, where you buy a half finished house that you can complete yourself, saving you the effort of buying land or getting building permissions.

Social media mobilization hasn’t been all bad either. Government officials are using these platforms as ways to learn about public opinion on projects, giving the process a modicum of democratic value.

An example of this was a survey of people’s thoughts to the reconstruction of the Northern Benghazi courthouse. However, even with these kinds of efforts, big money talks the loudest, and often businessmen with deep pockets get the final say in what a design should look like.

Increased involvement of different stakeholders will naturally produce mixed results, and while some historic buildings may be lost forever, others are rising again from the ashes.

Construction started a few weeks ago to revive the shire of Omar Mukhtar in Benghazi’s city center, a shrine that was demolished 21 years ago by Gaddafi as part of his anti-symbolism policies.

Damaged landmarks such as the lighthouse and Square of the Tree have also been rebuilt, largely by local or international organizations.

The city has also seen the rise of new initiatives such as the Libya Open Street Maps project or the Benghazi Urban Observatory, which are providing more data and information around urban development both past and present. 

Benghazi’s urban landscape is rapidly transforming, with new projects and buildings going up every day. Without any formal authority to regulate this growth, the city will soon face the consequences of this fast development, including environmental degradation, traffic congestion and further urban sprawl.

But the informal authority, in the form of architects, planners and everyday citizens, are filling this gap, and rising up to protect every park and public space that is threatened. But like any other collective, there are opposing views and visions, and how these play out will shape the city for the years to come.

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Brave New Libya