March 18, 2004

Azhar Park

With about 30 square centimetres of green space per resident, Egypt's capital, Cairo is one of the densest cities on the planet. The modern city centre has all the bustle of a capital city, with rich and poor vying for space.

Neglected Old Cairo has a more traditional pace. But the people who live among its crumbling buildings have yet to enjoy the benefits of modernization. They are poor and overcrowded.

A new park is opening here. Built by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, it is the largest project in its Historic Cities Programme.

As the greenery changes the face of Cairo, Earth Report followed the broad approach of this ambitious project. Where the park is seen as just a part of a much wider revitalization, not just of environment but of society and economy.

The People's Park

Cairo's combination of modern urban problems and historic importance attracted the attention of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Aga Khan himself. It was decided to give a park to the people of Cairo.

A site was found - it was a wasteland at the centre of the historic metropolis. It had been used as a rubbish dump for centuries and borders a poor part of Old Cairo called Darb al Ahmar. But now local people are being involved in transforming it into a valued urban green space.

Darb al Ahmar is one of the poorest parts of Cairo, a transition ground for people moving in to the city. Transient populations often leave degraded areas behind them. His Highness the Aga Khan feels it is important to instill an sense of faith in the economic future of the local people, minimising their temptation to leave.

Greening the Sand

When work began on making the thirty-hectare rubbish dump into a green paradise, the land itself posed a problem. The powder-like soil made it almost impossible to build anything on the ground.

80,000 truck loads of material had to be removed before construction work could begin. Then topsoil from fertile areas around the Nile was brought in.

Gentle green lawns had to be engineered in places that were dangerously steep. This meant stabilising the slopes by early planting of trees and shrubs, and careful planning of irrigation and drainage. Testing and propagation of over two million plants was done at a twenty hectare site – almost the size of the park itself – out in the desert. The plant species were all carefully selected to thrive under the specific conditions of the park. Careful consideration was given to water consumption, an important issue is this dry region.

Community Regeneration

Meanwhile, work began on the problem of the rubbish that's dumped everywhere in the neighbourhood of Darb al Ahmar. The community is now getting used to communal bins and regular collections. But rubbish on the streets and rooftops is just one of the problems.

The informal use of urban space means it's often hard to work out which buildings are being used for what, and by whom. One space was occupied by a metal worker, but two weeks later the man switched his lathe for cattle and became a cow speculator. It makes community planning very difficult. In recent years, unemployment has been high and conditions for entrepreneurs have been difficult. But now opportunities to learn new skills and to put them to use have been brought to Darb al Ahmar. As the wasteland was cleared, the old city wall – built in the 13th century – emerged from the dust and debris. It had been almost completely buried. A massive restoration project began one and a half kilometres of the wall, with local people being trained and then employed to restore and reproduce the precision stonework.

The work on the wall led to greater involvement with the community. Cameron Rashti explains: "It became very clear to us, and this is typical of our projects elsewhere in the world, that you cannot touch a part of a district and leave the rest, particularly the community side, untouched or unimproved."

And as it turned out, the poorest people lived closest to the wall. So restoration included rehabilitating the surrounding housing and economy. And by preserving traditional buildings, a part of local history was safeguarded too.

Cultural Capital

Over the centuries, many of Cairo’s historic buildings had fallen into neglect. Repair and maintenance of cultural landmarks is often seen as a luxury that comes low down the list of priorities. The view of the culture itself as a resource, not a drain on resources, is at the heart of the Azhar Park approach. The culture of the people here is seen as a living treasure that gives meaning to the historic buildings. In this way local people themselves are also seen as resources.

Marwa Fawzy explains why: "It will be the difference between any place, you know, the pyramids in Egypt? It's a very nice place but what would happen if the people come to see the pyramids with the people living on it! It would be very nice! This is what we’re trying to do!"

The park has been accompanied by an investment in the cultural capital of the area, creating more job opportunities. For example, the restoration of just one wooden screen for a mosque tower, called a minaret, takes four people six months to complete. Carpentry workshops are apprenticing even more workers to build proper fittings and furniture for the buildings.

Another part of the Azhar Park project is a credit scheme has helped many of the small businesses here expand. This has helped entrepreneurs invest in the area.

Positive Outlook for Darb al Ahmar

The future of Azhar park lies not so much with the projects planners as with the next generation of people who will live alongside it. The children of Darb al Ahmar are a focus for the cultural aspect of the project – employing local people was a way of building trust.

The renovation of one old building as a community centre in a traditional style will give a permanent forum for feedback from this historic community. The key is communication.

The Aga Khan says: "What we’ve tried to do is to let the local people tell us what are their priorities, what are their perceived needs. For me it’s always a process of intellectual humility, to listen and learn."

As the park is finished, the cultivation of lush greenery can only improve the quality of life in Cairo. But it is the nurturing of potential in the community that has transformed the way people of Darb al Ahmar see themselves and their future.

It has made a huge difference for many. As a lamp maker says: "I can say it is the difference between earth and sky."