Revolt in the Square: Spatial Modelling and Conflict

Revolt in the Square: Spatial Modelling and Conflict

In September, Dr Gehan Selim, an Associate Professor in Architecture & Urbanism at the University of Leeds, sat down for a Q&A with PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil to discuss Revolt in the ‘Square’: Spatial Modelling of Urban Stability in Modern Cities New insights and approaches for preventing conflict and violence. Dr Selim’s work on spatial modelling and conflict with Queen’s University Belfast’s Professor Beverly Milton-Edwards was funded by the AHRC through the GCRF / PaCCS Interdisciplinary Innovation Awards on Conflict and International Development.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about you research interests, and how you came to work on this project on spatial modelling and conflict?

Dr Gehan Selim: I have always been passionate about understanding the city and its dynamics and bridging between different elements: the social (people), the physical (buildings) and the urban (city). In other words, I am interested in research that makes difference. For me, interdisciplinary research is a creative way to ‘experiment’ new methodologies and move beyond the classical thinking and to explore new ideas outside of my comfort zone. So, there is a challenging enquiry that comes with each new project I work on – not to say that we are trying to reinvent the wheel, but to ask the proper questions about everything else contributing to achieving better outcomes. When I met with Professor Milton-Edwards (Politics) in 2015, we both shared common interest in each other’s work which led to some successful Global Challenge Research Fund collaborations including the ‘Revolt in the Square’ project.

Can you tell me a little bit about the ‘Revolt in the Square’ project?

The project aimed to develop an innovative spatial modelling platform to visualise urban instability in Beirut’s Martyrs Square. We formed a brilliant team of enthusiastic researchers ranging from different disciplines (geographers, GIS & visualisation experts) who collectively worked on co-design productions to engage young Lebanese with their cityscapes. Our first publication will be coming out in early 2021, and we have recently released a short film production about mapping unrest in Beirut’s public squares.

What were the key aims and takeaways of this project, and what can you already tell me about the project’s findings?

The project has highlighted a strong link between peace and security in post-war Lebanon and in many ways, its strong relationship with the SDG Goal 16. Within this, the role of design in tackling global challenges has alerted us to the inclusion-exclusion dilemma with its attendant consequences for discourse on security and securitizing narratives. The hopes and aspirations for good governance, and rule of law symbolised by the episodes of protest in the Square demonstrate the neo-liberal order underpinning the resurrected confessional state delivers declines in accountability, effective governance, inclusion and in tackling the endemic effects of corruption and patronage. Lebanon, like so many of its neighbours in the Middle East, accounts for the region being considered the least peaceful in the world.

We have engaged throughout the project with many Lebanese young people, activists, architects, and artists.  The mapping of space, our co-production of research design and the incorporation of socio-spatial practices serve to remind us of both the exogenous and endogenous factors that lead to the persistent tension between citizens and state elites. The absence of peace and security in Lebanon is enacted in the Square.

We learnt that further progress is constrained by the failures of Lebanon’s political elite to tackle the structural factors that are inhibiting post-war recovery in this urban setting. The #Youstink protests and the response of governing authorities highlighted the structural problems and limits of the consociational pact in terms of tackling widespread corruption in both the state and private sector as well as the exclusion phenomenon. As the diverse character of the protest displayed the confessional political system is still leaving behind or fails to include ‘others’ based on gender, socio-economic status, urban precariousness, statelessness, gender, youth, sexuality and disability.

We did not seek to include all dimensions of SDG 16 but we contend that it has allowed for a thorough and unique insight into dimensions of the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development particularly as it relates to: effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, the rule of law and fair access to justice,  corruption and bribery, responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making as well as strengthening relevant national institutions, including through international co-operation, for building capacity at all levels to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime.

Is there any key lesson you think policymakers should be taking into consideration based on this work?

Lebanon has been facing an ongoing legacy of insecurity resulting from Syrian and Israeli occupation, the civil war, the pressures of a host community to incorporate (or otherwise) historic and contemporarily unprecedented numbers of forcibly displaced populations including refugees. This raises an important paradox with respect to official development assistance (ODA) which in the Lebanese context can reflect a preoccupation with security provisioning that inverts the expectation that the citizen rather than the failing state is protected. Our research emphasises that this is because all too frequently the root causes of conflict in Lebanon is overlooked. It is reasonable to counter though, that in contexts such as Beirut the symptomatic approach is necessary to meet the daily crises of existence that emerge from dynamic and endemic socio-political disorder and breakdown. These civil groups who enacted forms of protest in the Square expressed real grievances that semblances of state/factional elite ‘reform’ do little to diminish. The message is clear: for Lebanon to thrive, to progress towards SDG 16 goals by 2030 and beyond the protest of the Square must be heard and actioned.

Has your work on this project influenced your thinking or what you aim to research in the future?

I experience and engage with architecture as a social and cultural production that is created by people. Buildings and public spaces are a real manifestation of the inhabitants who are the real creators of the of their cities. We can only understand its symbolic dimension through the lenses of behaviours and notable achievements of the human groups. It fascinates me ‘how’ a group of people utilise certain practices (like protesting) combined with technological knowledge (gadgets and social media outlets) to construct complex environments that reflect their emotional habits and political views. This is one reason I became interested in researching the spatial and social implications of conflict and ethnically segregated communities in Northern Ireland since 2012. This project showed me by evidence the complex and fluid processes that communities use to express themselves, ideas, and mindsets in a customised manner. And looking deeper into those practices, you can learn a lot about the values and attitudes of a group of people and understand their needs, anger, and views along with its spatial implications.