Turning money into stone

In my professional life, I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to research and engage with a number of fascinating topics related to how humans build cities. Coming to Beirut as a graduate student in 2007, the rapid transformation of the urban environment captured my attention and resulted in a master’s thesis that tried to understand how the Lebanese state facilitated real estate developers through changes in the legal and institutional framework. The results of the thesis were published in a journal article written with my fantastic supervisor Prof. Mona Fawaz.

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The view from my shared apartment in Beirut.

After working for a year at an urban observatory in Lebanon, I enrolled in a PhD-program at Ghent University where I worked on a dissertation that dug deeper into the forces producing the city of Beirut. I started to focus on capital flows, and attempted to understand the relationship between the global economy and the ways in which its movements, cycles and crises impact the built environment, especially in cities in the Global South. I became fascinated by the different ways in which money is converted into stone (or, as David Harvey put it, “the urbanization of capital“), and the ways in which our built environment reflects various human processes, which are not only economic, but also political, social and cultural (if we can even make a neat distinction between such dimensions in the first place).

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My street in 2010.

I began to notice that many of the factors that influenced this process of turning money into stone in Beirut were not discussed in the academic literature on gentrification and neoliberal urbanism I was consulting at the time (capital flows from the Gulf, the role of Lebanese expatriates’ remittances, informal decision-making processes, sectarian residential geographies influenced by the legacy of the civil war…). At the time (around 2012), a flurry of articles had begun to emerge that made the case for a “postcolonial urbanism“, an urban studies that would incorporate the experiences of cities located in the Global South into “mainstream” urban theory-making. Inspired by this call, my dissertation work became an attempt at understanding a specific period in the making of Beirut, i.e. its urban transformation in the 2000s, through the lens of how money was turned into stone, while doing full justice to all the forces and factors that guided this process in Lebanon. This blog will report on my findings and other interests that I developed during this journey.

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