Landscape Insights with Jala Makhzoumi

Urban planning across the Middle East today pays little heed to environmental heritage. For one Baghdad-born architect and academic, landscape is not only indispensable to city planning but also an inalienable right.

Stretches of green areas may be right for our cities today. For if we really need our often-glorified environmental heritage of date palm orchards and pine forests, then why do master plans for new cities, such as those rising in Iraq, and contemporary urban development practices in older cities across the Levant generally neglect and discard our landscape traditions and vernacular architecture, Arab or otherwise?

Instead of lamenting the destruction of heritage and waging a battle to preserve waterways in Lebanon’s southern city of Saida or Beirut’s historical openness to the Mediterranean, should we embrace the fact that, with every passing decade, the rampart of
towers rising along the coastline obstructs the breeze from and view of the sea for the vast majority of residents in the Lebanese capital?

Few insist on landscape architecture as a practice integral to city planning and rural development or as an academic discipline; but for Jala Makhzoumi, a pragmatic, fervent advocate and practitioner of the “right to landscape,” these questions are entrenched in political and cultural histories as much as they are in language. Born in Baghdad in 1949, Makhzoumi trained as an architect in Iraq and studied environmental design at Yale before earning her PhD in landscape architecture in the United Kingdom. In the conversation that follows, she shares insights gleaned from her career as both an academic and a consultant just as she acknowledges the tremendous challenges in integrating the idea of landscape in large-scale projects across the Levant, whether advising the reconstruction effort in Iraq or co-establishing the Landscape Design and Eco-Management Program at the American University of Beirut.

The pattern of privatizing public assets, be it a pine canopy or the view of the sea, or of disregarding climate and ecology may have become the norm, as if by default, since the mid nineteenth century.
Or it may be inevitable, a radical departure from what we and our predecessors have known to determine anew how to mediate between city, biosphere, and the cultures that we grow.

Nesrine Khodr: If the meaning of landscape architecture entails, among other processes, the restructuring of nature and environmental resources to satisfy human needs, as mankind has done since the dawn of civilization, does this mean that every one of us is somehow innately a landscape architect?

Jala Makhzoumi: Good question. I’d say there may have been some accuracy to this view in the past and for a number of reasons. Manipulation of the environment to meet local needs was limited: people worked with natural systems and managed environmental resources prudently, knowing very well that destroying these resources would compromise them and the environment they inhabit. Modern technologies enabled them to disregard environmental constraints. Traditional, premodern landscapes, for the most part, are a model of sustainable use and management of environmental resources. As an example, terraced agriculture in mountain regions, in Lebanon and the Mediterranean, represents a terrific innovation that enabled people to utilize land that could not be cultivated. Another example is the collection of rainwater in rural Lebanon, whether in village ponds or from rooftops, a practice that is alive to this day.

The synergy and harmonious interaction with what nature provides were not limited to rural landscapes; you could also find them in urban environments. The expansion of the city of Beirut over the ages, for example, was sympathetic to the landform, namely the two hills of Ashrafieh to the east and Musaytbeh to the west. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, buildings of modest height cascaded down the two hills, without obscuring the view to the Mediterranean or obstructing the flow of sea breeze through the city. The view of the city from the sea, according to the accounts of travelers, was one of exceptional beauty, evocative of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Today’s Beirut is a horrifying sight! There are no legal codes to regulate the height and appearance of buildings, most of which are incredibly tall, oblivious to the surrounding context. High-rise towers along the Ras Beirut waterfront are increasingly forming a wall along the coastline that deprives the inhabitants of the city of their most basic right, that of enjoying a view of the Mediterranean.

When did this change take place in the time line of the city’s development? How have the architectural and environmental practices changed over time?

The change happened when we abandoned all things traditional, or what might be known as the vernacular. The rush to modernize cities slowly changed urban lifestyles and standards: the tramway came and went; gas lighting was installed, which later became obsolete; the advent of cars was another modernizing influence that impacted the form of the city. At first, the introduction of these changes was happening at a comparatively slow rate, giving people time to adapt to them, to benefit and reconcile them with what they were already used to. But as the speed of these innovations became exponential, the rift between modern and traditional forms grew wider, making it harder to resolve the two, so that the former grew more popular to the exclusion of the latter. Infatuation with all that comes from the West, as an ideal example to follow, undermined how people value traditional practices and landscape management techniques that were responsive to climate and natural resources, techniques that had been followed for centuries.

Why is there still no precise, fixed term that denotes landscape in Arabic? What term might you propose we adopt, at least for the purposes of this conversation?

Arabic, a rich and versatile language, is capable of accommodating new terms brought about by modernity. As far as landscape goes, we still don’t have a standard term because landscape architecture is a relatively new idea to Arab culture, and landscape architecture is an emerging profession in the Mashreq (Levant). The reason also lies in the complexity of the English term, making it difficult to find a translation that embodies the layers and nuances of landscape. A term we could use, one I sometimes prefer, is the Arabic word mashhad (literally: a scene, or that which is seen). Even though mashhad prioritizes visual perception, it remains the most suitable term for now. Other times, I also use the terms al masahat al khadra (literally: green areas) or al takhdeer (literally: greening), usually in the context of urban planning.

But doesn’t landscape also include maquis (scrubland with sparse vegetation) and deserts? If so, then why the term al masahat al khadra?

Exactly. But as I mentioned, the Arabic term I might use depends very much on the context. Another possible Arabic word is beeah (environment), though it lacks the emotional resonance and the subjectivity associated with landscape. In contrast, the human and cultural dimension is integral to the English term landscape, which connotes layers of meaning – for example, aesthetic preferences, associated memory, and identity – that are difficult to quantify. Another word I use is makan (place), which like landscape is rooted in the specificities of culture, even if it falls short on the idea of nature. What’s nice about the term landscape in English is, as archaeologist and anthropologist Christopher Tilley sums it up, that the idea of landscape is “part nature and part culture.” An equivalent in Arabic must have the richness and discursive elasticity embedded in the English word. Such a word won’t come from an architect like me. It will emerge from a dialogue between linguists and poets, artists and geographers, with architects in a process that will take some time but hopefully yield an Arabic term in the end.

What meanings does the idea of landscape encompass in the twenty-first century?

This term is rooted in Germanic, emerging in Holland some 400 years ago, originally to mean a plot of land in a bucolic setting. The definition of landscape evolved over time, finding its way into the lexicon of several disciplines: fine arts, geography, ecology, and anthropology, among others, each of which in turn added to the layered meaning of the word.

Landscape today encompasses all these meanings: the scenic, geographic, cultural, and ecological. As such, it is a concept that prompts an awareness of “wholes,” implying that any landscape is greater than the sum of its component parts. In addition to the holistic, integrative meaning of landscape is the implication of spatial continuity. A building, for example, remains independent to some extent. In contrast, nature in landscape prevents such independence; you might fix up your garden as you wish, but the air, plants, and climate extend beyond the garden because they are interconnected with the larger context beyond the borders of the garden, the city, and even the region. This contiguity is integral to landscape, which provides a mental and physical connection in meeting our needs and desires between the microcosm we inhabit and the macrocosm beyond.

The complex understanding of the term landscape encourages us to develop our environments in a sustainable way. It informs us when we select plants that we find “beautiful” but that are ill adapted to the environment and will require intensive care and upkeep to survive. The opposite also happens. People become “enamored” with the idea of landscape heritage and begin to uproot olive trees from the countryside and plant them in urban gardens and public squares and street medians. Although the olive tree is native and well adapted to the Mediterranean, uprooting and planting reduces it to a decorative object just as it undermines the landscape from which the tree was transported, our rural landscape heritage.

Forest and city, or horsh (woodland) and city. Is the forest at odds with the city, in your opinion? Are the two ideas in perpetual conflict? Is the only way to develop and expand the city at the expense of the foest?

Historically, the forest in Nordic cultures symbolizes the cruelty and beauty of nature. In the eastern Mediterranean, successive civilizations have stripped the land of its native vegetative cover, the forest. The exception is Lebanon, which is still rich in its forestlands. With the disappearing forest, people endeavored to create a substitute nature, one that is human-made, using olive trees in the Mediterranean and palm trees in the arid parts of the Mashreq. These cultivated forests rival the beauty of naturally occurring forests and are a living example of our landscape heritage: their adaptability to the harshness of the climate and the scarcity of water ensures that they are not only sustainable but in addition sustaining regional resources. Additionally, they provide livelihoods and contribute to the character and identity of these regions. Regrettably, these human-made forests are not as valued as natural, native ones.

Oftentimes, in Lebanon, construction – particularly of the dense, monotonous sort – precedes urban planning or ratification of such plans. How can we address this phenomenon? And how can experts play a pragmatic and practical role in addressing this matter?

I think the answer lies in raising public awareness of the value of landscape and what constitutes our landscape heritage in the Mashreq. Lebanon actually has a sound set of environmental laws to protect rivers, coastlines, and mountain forests. The problem lies in enforcing these laws. We also need to raise awareness of the significance of protecting nature in the city: the right to nature in the city is an inalienable right – to all, not just a select few.

It is hard to change our current circumstances except through pressure from civil societies; neoliberal powers possess considerable political influence and purchasing power, with which they are able to build on public land and deprive inhabitants of the city of the right to enjoy these natural landscapes. Furthermore, considering current limitations of the Lebanese state, it is necessary to develop our natural resources and landscapes to foster a plurality of uses – in other words, planning multifunctional landscapes that address environmental, touristic, agricultural, and economic needs. Religious trusts, of all sects and denominations, that own great tracts of undeveloped land can play an important role in the sustainable development of both agricultural and forest resources.

You and other academics have advocated “the right to landscape.” How much has this proposal been influenced by Henri Lefebvre’s 1968 call for “the right to the city”? Why is it urgent to demand “the right to landscape” today?

“The right to landscape” is certainly inspired by “the right to the city.” But what distinguishes our call is a focus on nature. “The right to the city” implies “the right to public spaces” which focuses on the human element, or the right to work and to be heard, all fundamental rights, of course. The call for “the right to landscape” has widened the scope to address the right of people to enjoy nature in the city – for example, beaches and a view of the sea, access to healthy river corridors. Our call is more comprehensive and includes the concept of a “landscape heritage.”

So what distinguishes the role of a landscape architect from that of an urban planner, and what added benefits does the former bring to the table?

What distinguishes a landscape architect from an urban planner or architect is a holistic approach that addresses people and environment and the dynamic framework that accepts change and accommodates the inherent dynamism of any given ecological context. Landscape architecture as such assesses resources along an evolutionary scale, through an understanding of natural processes and succession. Landscape architects recognize the physical and psychological value of nature for people living in the city but at the same time aspire to safeguard nature, protecting it in its own “right,” whether in cities, in the countryside, or through biodiversity conservation. Although the prevailing perception of biodiversity and nature in Lebanon prioritizes “native” nature, for example, nature reserves, the Lebanese countryside in its entirety is recognized as a world biodiversity “hot spot.” In my opinion, all of Lebanon should be managed toward that end.

What are some projects you’re working on as a landscape architect? Where have you managed to apply some of these propositions?

Currently, I am part of a team of consultants developing a sustainable urban development strategy for the municipality of Saida, our client, with funding from the European Council. We were able to advance the concept of “landscape” with its tangible and intangible dimensions, respectively addressing the physical setting and associated cultural meanings and values. When I joined the project, I was expected to work on the city’s environment and ecosystems. Proposing a landscape approach, I had argued the potential to contextualize environment and ecology and bring in the human and cultural dimension associated with these resources. At first, there was opposition to this approach, because the prevailing concept of “landscape” is that of a profession that deals with the beautification of settings through the use of plants. Slowly, we managed to demonstrate that, by using a landscape framework to address environmental and ecological concerns, we can develop practical planning strategies that integrate people and their natural heritage. As consultants with different areas of expertise, we aspired to address a range of problems that include economic development, governance, infrastructure, protection of heritage, a healthy environment, and a green city.

The challenge of our project lies in working with the municipality and the people of Saida, NGOs, civil society, and local institutions, to provide a vision for the future, one that ensures quality urban living. Toward this end, the landscape vision is to ensure urban settings that are meaningful and that contribute to the collective identity now and in the future. In such an equation, safeguarding Saida’s rivers and watercourses as a living ecosystem, a natural heritage that can also serve as amenity corridors, checks future expansion of the city. Cleaning up the water- courses and improving their environment, at least those that have not yet been built over like the Qamli and Barghout, is another landscape strategy. Protecting a selection of the famed citrus orchards of the city, reviving agricultural practices to render them economically feasible as productive landscape, is another greening strategy. Other features are the Qanaya, the Ottoman irrigation system, and the abandoned railway corridor, all of which contribute to a network of green areas that celebrate Saida’s landscape heritage and that could serve as recreation spaces and as sites for nature tourism.

You have worked as a landscape architect in countries other than Lebanon. Is there a comparable approach to projects taking place in different countries?

In most of the projects, whether at the level of a mountain villa or at the scale of an entire city, I work to bring the forest into the city. Forest here includes naturally occurring and human-made nature – for example, olive trees, date palms, and citrus groves. I was landscape architecture consultant for planning the greenbelt for the city of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The initial approach was top-heavy, proposing appropriation of agricultural lands and all the villages in the surrounding countryside. With the team of planners from the lead consultant for the project, Khatib and Alami, we proposed not only to protect the villages but to prioritize improving their livelihoods through alternative agricultural, pastoral strategies, and sustainable management of the natural environment. We argued that these villages and their agricultural and pastoral landscape serve as the platform to celebrate Kurdish rural heritage. Applying the principle of multifunctional landscapes, we expanded the concept of a greenbelt by moving away from the conventional monocultural planting of shelterbelts, toward ecological enclosures and fruit tree planting that can contribute to local livelihoods while improving the urban microclimate.

I’m also working on a project with DEWAN Architects and Engineers on the master plan of a new city south of Basra, in Iraq. Today, most cities in the Arab Middle East aspire to emulate the landscape of Dubai, where skyscrapers tower over vast, rolling green spaces without any real thought to the economic and environmental costs and with total disregard for the existing character of the region. The challenge in this project was to steer the client away from this superficial image by pointing out that large areas of turfgrass, while manageable on a limited scale, entail huge environmental costs on the city scale. Instead, we proposed a landscape of date palm orchards that are inspired by the rural landscape in southern Iraq, specifically Basra, which was known for quality date production. Date palms, well adapted to climate and soil conditions, are economically feasible because they form a productive landscape, lower the expenses of municipal maintenance, and provide spatial and climatic shelter under which various leisure and recreational activities can take place.

There are actually several parallels between a date palm landscape and an umbrella pine forest: both create a high canopy providing a shaded space that can be used in different ways. Along the same lines is a concept I proposed with my colleague, architect and urban designer Abdul Halim Jabr, for the Rafic Hariri Park, the new seafront known widely as the Normandy of Beirut. Far from a manicured lawn area, we suggest planting the entire area with umbrella pines in order to create a forest in the heart of the city, a response to the historic pine forest that used to encircle Beirut. Such a forest would have a culturally and ecologically rooted landscape and strong visual impact in terms of the surrounding tall buildings. The high crowns of the pines would protect people from the sun during the summer seasons while still permitting the sun’s rays to filter through during the winter, thus ensuring both shade and warmth. The immense green of the pine forest is of a scale that is comparable to the urban surroundings, constituting a beautiful landscape while entailing minimum costs for its upkeep.

There have been some leading architectural and artistic endeavors in Iraq where artists, architects, and writers all worked together at a certain historical moment. The same is true of Lebanon.

Did you refer to these projects, did you see what they brought about, or were you influenced by them at all?

Yes. My initial training is in architecture and not landscape. The architecture school at the University of Baghdad was excellent, graduating leaders in the field from the sixties onward. The questions they faced are still of essence now in the Mashreq: What is our built environmental heritage? Why is it being lost? How do we protect it? These questions and the responses to them have been an intellectual challenge since. The second stage of my academic development was in the United States, which broadened my outlook as a designer and introduced me to the concept of ecology. When I returned to Iraq, I threw myself into studying vernacular architecture, traditional rural landscapes, and natural heritage, how to learn from it and be inspired by it. I found myself asking the same questions when I began working in the Mediterranean and later in Lebanon. I began researching the elements of the Beiruti garden, surveying traditional house gardens that I understood better when expanding my research to include village house gardens. I realized then that in form and content the Beiruti garden was a reproduction of the hakura, a landscape typology that rural migrants to Beirut brought with them. They adapted it to the garden of houses that developed outside the walled city in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Where are the natural areas in Lebanon threatened with extinction, and what are the main riches we stand to lose?

I think the coastline is highly threatened in Lebanon. There are other threatened landscapes, but the rising demand to develop and invest in the waterfront is increasing and with it gradual privatization. Minet Al Dalieh in Beirut is an exceptional natural landscape in the city, a place of outstanding natural beauty at the scale of the Lebanese coast. Dalieh and the Ras Beirut waterfront extending to the Al Ramlet Al Baydha is also the last nature vestige that is accessible to the public. No one person has the right to own this land, let alone to build on it and thereby prevent public access to the site, which is integral to the memory of the city. The two breakaway rocks that stand in the sea and the sheer cliffs alongside them are a living geological museum telling the story of Beirut’s historical evolution, centuries before the city was founded. Construction on this site should never be sanctioned even if some parts are privately owned. A floral diversity survey of the Dalieh by scientists from the American University of Beirut in cooperation with the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew confirms the wide selection of endemic plants and emphasizes the value of the Dalieh as a wildlife habitat. As a natural landscape, Dalieh is no less important than a cedar forest, not in the least because this diversity exists in a crowded city rife with construction and hungry for green spaces. It is true that we have lost the forest that is the symbol of nature in our city, but I’d like to point out that there are other symbols, green and open areas, that we can invest in, such as the coastline and rivers, which if restored to health are natural ecosystems and sustainable landscapes. From Tripoli to Sour (Tyre), rivers and seasonal watercourses that punctuate the Lebanese coastline are especially important as ecological corridors that connect sea to mountaintop and punctuate the rapidly urbanizing coastal landscape.

How do you determine the value of a landscape that requires protection from destruction? Is there a specific charter for this assessment?

The best guidelines we can follow are those set out in the European Landscape Convention (ELC), which represents the first recognition at an international level of the concept of landscape. The United Nations, until today, recognizes formally only “environment,” not “landscape.” The ELC charter’s definition sees landscape as the product of people-environment interaction, clearly recognizing the human and cultural dimension and accepting that subjective, cultural perceptions by the people inhabiting the landscape are a key to the term, an aspect we spoke about earlier in this conversation.

Can we create places in the city (Beirut, for example) that feature qualities of the forest without having a forest per se?

As the footprint of the city keeps expanding and the density of both its built and human elements increases, the effectiveness of the public garden as a green outlet diminishes. That is why in the twenty-first century we are turning to strategies like urban greening in order to protect and integrate into the fabric of the city available green and open spaces, whether they are natural, coastal landscapes and river corridors, open and partially green, such as cemeteries, or productive, such as urban agriculture in the urban peripheries. Greening strategies also include urban streets by giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists to expand the city’s public domain. Short of creating a forest, which is impossible, greening strategies aim to provide a network that includes a diversity of green spaces to ensure a better quality of life, physically and psychologically, and to reinforce the urban identity and the unique landscape of the city.

Translated by Jala Makhzoumi and Lina Mounzer

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 Nesrine Khodr is a filmmaker and television producer based in Beirut. 

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