IN 1984, THE AGA KHAN, leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, climbed the winding stairs to the tops of minarets in Old Cairo. The sepia-coloured cityscape spread before him. A profusion of domes and minarets decorated the sky; their ornate forms making visible the spirit of the 1,000-year-old city.
Beyond the architectural splendour, however, problems were apparent. Roofs piled with debris. Garbage strewn in the narrow streets. Buildings falling apart. Poor people crammed in miserable conditions. No greenery.
The Aga Khan was visiting Cairo for a conference — The Expanding Metropolis: Coping with the Urban Growth of Cairo — organized by one of his agencies, the Aga Khan Prize for Architecture.
Beneath a purple-brown haze of sand and pollution, Cairo appears as a tightly woven tapestry of dilapidated grey and brown buildings, coloured by centuries of dust. With 17 million people spread over 350 square kilometres on both sides of the Nile, the Egyptian capital is one of the densest cities in the world. There is no equivalent of London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park to balance the constant crowds, traffic and noise.
After meeting with prominent architects, urban planners and development experts at the conference, the Aga Khan announced a decision to finance a park. “It seemed that here, in Cairo, the best gift that could be left behind would be to create a public space in this city which was in great need of public spaces,” he said.
Twenty-one years later, Al Azhar Park has risen — some would say almost miraculously — from the site of a 500-year-old garbage dump. It is a 78-acre expanse of lawns, colourful flowers, fountains and paved walkways, somewhat bigger than LeBreton Flats. Its hilly topography offers spectacular views of the surrounding medieval district.
“This is a totally unique historic gift,” the 68-year-old Aga Khan told the Citizen. “It was a gift of a dumpsite, no buildings on it, desperately poor people around it, but critically situated right in the heart of historic Cairo.”
Michel de Salaberry, Canada’s former ambassador to Egypt, was among the 500 dignitaries at the opening last March. “I had lived in Cairo for three years, but this unfolding of the wonders of the place was a first for me and will remain unforgettable,” he said.
The Aga Khan had intended to spend $6 million to create a park. But he ended up spending $36 million as the project grew to include the excavation and restoration of a historic city wall, and the economic development and upgrading of the neighbouring Darb al-Ahmar district. Canada contributed funds for this economic development.
The park may offer lessons to North America, where there is renewed interest in the role of parks in creating livable cities, and a trend to recovering former industrial sites such as LeBreton Flats.
“The number of people migrating to the city demands that we have open urban space,” says Cornelia Oberlander, Canada’s best-known landscape architect and a Vancouver resident. “The longing for nature is built into our genes.”
Experts warn that Ottawa’s abundant green spaces are under threat. For example, Hampton Park is at risk of being turned into a traffic roundabout by the Ontario government. The National Capital Commission has adopted a 20-year-plan that includes building on parkland, waterfront and open spaces.
“In most of the cities I know, there’s an enormous pressure to take over open space and make it developable,” said the Aga Khan. “What I hope is that process will be better regulated than it has been in the past.”
As he admired a view of Old Cairo’s ancient monuments, the Aga Khan mused: “The message of the skyline is whether the inherited institutions and the presence of places of worship are important or not — or whether it’s the urban growth, the ugly growth, which is going to dominate people’s perception of urban life.”
The same applies to the western world, he said, noting that church towers have disappeared. “That may not be a very healthy way of going about things. It may send the wrong values to future generations. I think it’s important to protect what one can protect. There are ways to modernize cities while keeping their historic values.”
TO HIS MANY ADMIRERS, PRINCE KARIM Aga Khan is a champion of architecture and an ambassador for Islam; famous for philanthropic, development and cultural activities throughout the Muslim world.
The good works are funded by 12 million Shia Ismaili Muslims in 25 countries, including 75,000 in Canada. The Aga Khan is their 49th hereditary leader and believed to be a direct descendent of the prophet Mohammed. He doesn’t seem like a typical spiritual leader, Muslim or otherwise. Harvardeducated, the Aga Khan is a British citizen who divides his time between France and Switzerland. He is written up in Hello magazine, dresses in custom-tailored suits, and comes across as an aristocratic European. He is said to be one of the richest men in the world.
He likes Canada for its successful multiculturalism and for accepting Ismaili refugees. He wants to establish closer ties. In Ottawa, he is about to build a spectacular headquarters on Sussex Drive, designed by renowned Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. He has also announced a think-tank or “global centre for pluralism” in Canada’s capital. No site has been chosen yet.
Al Azhar Park is meant to be a case study for renewal in historic cities — urban, economic, ecological and cultural.
“This is much more than a park,” says Seif Al-Rashidi, an urban planner and architectural historian working on the project since 1997. “What we found is that physical upgrading isn’t enough. It has to be linked with social and economic development, especially in areas like Darb al-Ahmar which have been declining but have very high potential for revitalization.”
As it happens, one-third of the cities on the world heritage list of UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, are located in the Muslim world. Old Cairo is among them as having the greatest concentration of Islamic monuments anywhere. Many of these cities are threatened by neglect, war, environmental degradation and urban growth.
“In many parts of the world the Islamic heritage has not been seen as an asset,” said the Aga Khan. “Whole generations have been brought up to see their inheritance as a liability. That’s why highways are being put through historic cities and extraordinary buildings are being destroyed. We sensed very early on that we had to build new values.”
The challenge for Al Azhar Park was to show that the park need not be a drain on the city’s limited financial resources but could actually stimulate new economic activity through tourism and urban renewal.
“We want to show that if this is put together with care, it ceases to be charity or philanthropy but actually creates economic resources based on cultural assets,” said the Aga Khan.
For the Aga Khan, whose development work stretches from India to East Africa, the Cairo project was a homecoming.
His ancestors were the Fatimids, a dynasty of rulers from Tunisia who claimed to be descended from the prophet Mohammed through his daughter, Fatima. They invaded Egypt in 969, building a new city called al-Qahirah (the Victorious, or Cairo), to rival Baghdad in grandeur. The Fatimids lasted until 1171, when they were ousted by Saladin.
“In our excavations and our historical investigations, I constantly have been reminded that we were touching the very foundations of my ancestors,” he said.
WHILE VIEWING OLD CAIRO FROM VARIous vantage points during his visit 21 years ago, the Aga Khan spotted an exceptional site for the park — a surprisingly uninhabited wasteland heaped with rubbish 45 metres high, known as the Darassa Hills. It was the last vacant space in Central Cairo.
To the west lay the City of the Dead, a vast Muslim cemetery of ancient tombs and domed mausoleums populated by 200,000 squatters. To the east sprawled Darb al-Ahmar, a district of Old Cairo. Almost within reach were some of Cairo’s largest and most beautiful landmarks, including the Sultan Hassan Mosque and the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University.
For hundreds of years, donkey cartloads had brought non-organic materials such as earthquake debris, crushed clay pottery, building rubble and the sand that builds up during regular sandstorms. The mountains of garbage gradually became a range of hills that stretch about one and a half kilometres, burying a 12th-century wall that had once ringed the city. The wall was built by Sultan Saladin, Cairo’s most renowned prince and the famous opponent of the Christian crusaders.
It’s a scene that Ruqayya Hassan Mohamed recalls well. The 50-year-old housewife lives in one of the ramshackle houses beside Al Azhar Park. In the past, when she went to the roof to escape her stifling apartment, all she saw was a mountain of dirt and garbage, swarming with flies. Now she sees birds, trees and a grassy ridge planted with pink bougainvillea and yellow roses.
“When they were talking about creating a park, we didn’t believe it,” she said, smiling through missing front teeth as she fried onions in her kitchen. “We could never imagine the suffocating dust and hills of garbage could ever be gone. It’s beautiful.”
Al Azhar Park — Al Azhar means “the most flourished and shining” in Arabic — sits on a high point overlooking Darb Al-Ahmar. More than 655,000 plants and trees have been planted, including date palms, royal palms, hibiscus, sycamores, blackthorns and acacias. Their technicolour tones offer a dramatic contrast to the dun-coloured buildings. “They were always complaining about illnesses and lung problems and now the people who had the worst living conditions have probably the best view in Cairo and they appreciate that,” said Al-Rashidi.
In Egypt, where 95 per cent of the land is desert, public parks have simply not been part of the culture. Gardens, since ancient Egyptian times, were the private property of the elite, hidden behind walls. Yet a garden is a familiar and cherished idea; the Koran describes paradise as a garden of plentiful shade, flowing water, cool pavilions and abundant fruit.
In today’s Cairo, the wealthy have access to oasis-like private clubs and suburban houses with gardens. The poor picnic on the patches of grass that divide busy roads, and visit the zoo. Cairo does have a number of smallish parks. But, according to one study, the amount of green space per resident is less than the size of a footprint — one of the lowest proportions in the world. As a result, Al Azhar Park is expected to receive up to 1.5 million visitors a year.
“In Egypt, it’s rare to have a green space with facilities that are well maintained, and accessible to everyone,” said Al-Rashidi. “This has been an opportunity not only to create a park but also to explore what kind of park is appropriate in the context of Cairo.”
Which brings us to a source of sadness for the Aga Khan. While Islamic visual culture has produced some of the most exquisite landscape designs in history — for instance, the gardens of the 14th-century Alhambra in Spain — that knowledge has been lost.
“Landscape architecture has been a very weak area in schools of architecture in the Islamic world,” he said. “Many of the architecture schools have been engineering-driven rather than architecture-driven and the area of landscape architecture has disappeared.”
To address the gap, he recently added a professorship in landscape architecture to the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Here, we had no case study to work from,” explained the Aga Khan. “We literally had to start from what do we think would be appropriate for this site. There were certain elements which we thought were important — water, scale, sound, perambulation — and we designed to these ideas.”
The project was managed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which includes the Harvard-MIT architecture program, a historic cities support program, and the $500,000 U.S. triennial prize for architecture. The prize was established in 1977 to encourage architecture in predominantly Muslim countries.
The New York Times has praised the Trust as “one of the most important institutional advocates for architecture in the world ... (it) has long acknowledged that architecture, urban planning, preservation and social and political issues are forever entwined.”
The Trust hired two landscape architecture firms, Boston’s Sasaki Associates and Sites International of Cairo, to create a contemporary park using elements of traditional Islamic gardens.
The design is organized around a marble and limestone walkway that cuts through the centre of the park. Eight metres wide and flanked by rows of royal palms, it directs the eye to a stunning view of the Mohammad Ali Mosque and the Citadel — a large fortified palace built by Saladin on a bluff overlooking the Nile and the pyramids beyond.
Bubbling fountains, pools and water channels flow along this promenade, which proceeds through a series of formal gardens and branches off into seating areas furnished with white marble benches and custom-designed marble lamps.
Winding paths meander off the axial walkway and lead to a lookout kiosk, a meadow and an orchard with flowering and fruit trees. The park includes a lake, a children’s playground, an amphitheatre and sports fields.
“We faced major engineering challenges in adapting the site,” recalled the Aga Khan. “Then we had to select plants that would thrive in arid local conditions. The American University of Cairo established an off-site nursery for propagation and testing and as a result, the number of species planted is a new benchmark for park spaces in the region.”
After planning was underway, the Trust learned that the U.S. Agency for International Development had plans to install gigantic water reservoirs on the site to serve the neighbouring communities. These had to be incorporated into the park design.
Today, mothers and young children visit the playground during the day. In the evening, workers arrive to meet friends. Families picnic. Young couples stroll. The park has become a popular venue for wedding photos.
One of the luckiest accidents of the park is the height which helps an observer make sense of the city. Visitors can look across the rooftops of Old Cairo, with its silhouette of domes and minarets, toward modern Cairo and its high-rises, hotels and fin-de-siècle European-influenced residential areas. In the distant horizon, the 4,500-old great pyramids of Giza shimmer in the haze and manage to establish their monumental scale against the new city.
IN 1992, WHEN THE AGA KHAN TRUST FOR Culture established its historic cities support program to implement urban rehabilitation projects in parts of the Islamic world, Cairo was its biggest challenge.
“It was a journey in which we engaged with historians, archeologists, architects and horticulturalists,” said the Aga Khan. “We worked with engineers, statisticians, sociologists and urban planners.”
Initially, the project met with skepticism. “The notion of building a park on wasteland seemed outlandish,” recalled Luis Monreal, general manager of the Trust.
In 1996, as workers cleared 80,000 truckloads of sand and rubble, they made a wonderful archeological discovery. A 1.5-kilometre section of the fortification that had once encircled the old city had been buried up to its crenellated battlements.
The 12th-century wall is currently being restored by the Trust in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, and the French Institute of Archeology.
The discovery was a turning point for the project. Realizing they would have to restore the houses beside the wall, the Aga Khan team decided to expand the project to include revitalization of Darb al-Ahmar.
But the City of Cairo wanted to bulldoze the derelict stone and brick houses in order to see the wall better. The Trust argued that the houses were an integral part of Cairo’s history. “We had to fight quite hard to persuade the authorities that the wall and the old houses attached to the wall are a unit,” said Stefano Bianco, the director of the historic cities program.
“We have done very minor surgical interventions to remove rooms of houses that were sitting on the wall but everything attached to the wall we have kept and improved.”
Today, the Trust is working to restore the 14thcentury Umm Sultan Shaban Mosque and the Khayrbek complex, which consists of a 13th-century palace, mosque and Ottoman-era house.
Workers dressed in white overalls are using toothbrushes to painstakingly clean carved wood doors decorated with ivory and bone inlay. Others are busy making new carved wood screens. A minaret has been reconstructed. “It takes a lot of accuracy and patience,” said conservationist Dina Bakhoum.
In addition to reclaiming fragments of another era, the Aga Khan is exploring the expressive power of new architecture. Two restaurants in the park suggest two alternate visions of Islamic architecture in the 21st century.
“Having these two examples which are very different from each other is perhaps a good reflection of the Trust for Culture’s appreciation of Islamic architecture in its broadest sense,” said Al-Rashidi. “It doesn’t have to be one way, traditional or modern, but it can be both and be appropriate.”
The first, a large restaurant on a hill built with arches and domes, was inspired by Cairene architecture of the 15th century. Designed by Egyptian architects Rami al-Dahan and Soheir Farid, a husband-and-wife team, the limestone structure resembles a large villa. It features a covered portico, a multi-domed shaded seating area and entry courtyard with fountain. A terraced garden overlooks the park’s central walkway.
In contrast, a café beside a man-made lake reinterprets traditional forms. French architect Serge Santelli placed a geometric array of pavilions around a palm court. Semi-transparent walls of wooden latticework are reminiscent of the delicate screens that enclosed balconies in historic houses. An outdoor terrace provides views of the lake. “The vocabulary of the architecture is quite contemporary, modern, orthogonal, but the spaces, the atmosphere were inspired by eastern architecture,” said Santelli.
The restaurants are part of the project’s effort to become self-sustainable and generate revenue for maintenance and repair. Like many public spaces in Cairo, the park charges an admission fee which varies depending on the day of the week and the time of day. Discounts are offered for large families, students and the elderly. “Foreigners pay $2 to get in, Egyptians about 20 cents,” explained de Salaberry.
“That’s brilliant,” said Oberlander, the Vancouver landscape architect. “People will respect it if they have to pay a small admission fee.”
DARB AL-AHMAR IS CAIRO AT ITS MOST EXHILarating. It is a jumbled mix of narrow, twisting alleyways, spectacular mosques and elegant old façades. Sweet smoke from sheesha pipes, the plaintive call to prayer and men playing backgammon on rickety chairs on the street are part of an ambience that effortlessly recalls the district’s past.
Everywhere are people and activity. Small trucks squeeze past donkey carts laden with onions and potatoes. Street vendors bellow over the din of hammering from hundreds of oldfashioned workshops. Two men share a quick lunch of fresh greens and cheese spread on the gas tank of a motorbike. Women in flowing robes and head scarves move boldly through the streets. Tell someone you’re Canadian and chances are they’ll grin and say “Canada Dry!”
“The area has character but it also has 1,000 problems,” said Al-Rashidi. “Now we’ve started to show, yes there are problems but there are ways to solve them and there’s hope.”
Until recently, the Darb al-Ahmar district, which means “the Red Road” in Arabic, was considered one of the city’s worst slums. Rent controls, absentee landlords, thousands of squatters, and earthquakes have all contributed to a scenario where buildings are crumbling and in some cases have collapsed and killed people.
Anyone who could afford to, has moved out, making Darb Al-Ahmar one of the poorer areas of the city. Garbage is piled in the streets and courtyards. Plumbing and sewers are inadequate. Typically four to six family members live in three rooms, and the average person earns about a dollar a day.
In the Middle Ages, this part of the city was the cultural, religious and intellectual centre of the Arab world. Philosophy, physics, mathematics and the arts flourished. Hundreds of works of architecture of remarkable design and craftsmanship lined the streets. The decline began about a century ago when the wealthy merchant families who had dwelt there for centuries moved to fashionable new European-style quarters.
“People were very suspicious at first when we said we were creating a park,” recalled Al-Rashidi. “They always thought what we wanted to do was demolish the area. They often said ‘Just tell us the truth. We won’t be upset but we want to know so that we prepare ourselves mentally.’”
The first thing the Aga Khan team did was conduct a survey of the community. It revealed that contrary to popular opinion, crime was negligible and the majority of the population were long-time residents who liked the area and helped each other. The community included many skilled workers and small enterprises. More than 80 per cent said they wanted to stay.
“When we started the project one of the mandates was to listen to local people,” said the Aga Khan. “They helped us understand their needs. We met with neighbourhood residents and businessmen, artisans and entrepreneurs, young people and old.”
The Trust is addressing priorities identified by the residents — restoration of houses, health, education, solid waste disposal, job training and jobs.
“There was not a lot for children,” said Abeer Dergham, 28, a youth worker who grew up in Darb al-Ahmar. “They play in the street, fight and swear. I see the children very thin, not good skin. They are not clean. I think it is changing.”
A school built into the historic wall has been converted into a community centre with two libraries, a computer lab, an employment centre and an outdoor cinema. Activities such as a choir, theatre troupe and art classes help children climb the social ladder by teaching “good behaviour and good attitude,” said Dergham.
A row of renovated houses freshly painted in yellow, pink and blue stand along the wall that divides Darb al-Ahmar from the park. “Most of these were in terrible condition,” said Al-Rashidi. Workers repaired cracks and rotting wood, replastered façades, and replaced pipes.
The plan is to restore 200 houses during the next four years, at an average cost of about $21,000. The Trust pays 70 per cent and the balance is divided by three or four families, who pay in monthly instalments of $21 a month. The turnof-the-century buildings with courtyards, light wells and large windows will make better homes than new apartment buildings.
Khamees Mohamed Mahmoud sits in his tiny kiosk watching television between sales of cigarettes, newspapers and candy. Business has picked up because of the construction, he said, adding: “Renovating houses lets people like me stay in the area, and keep our businesses open later at night.”
Darb al-Ahmar’s reputation is slowly improving. “People who wouldn’t have dreamed of setting foot in Darb al-Ahmar seven years ago are now talking about purchasing a house or studio,” said Al-Rashidi.
“Bringing in a new middle-class in historic cities is a good thing,” added Bianca, the historic cities program director. “You have to do very tiny doses of slow gentrification. What we want to avoid is a complete exchange of population in a short time.”
Job training is being offered in such traditional sectors as shoemaking, furniture manufacturing and tourist goods production. Apprenticeships are available for automobile electronics, mobile telephones, computers, masonry, carpentry and office skills.
Hundreds of young men and women in Darb al-Ahmar have found work in the park, in horticulture and on project teams restoring the wall and monuments. “Project leaders brought in the best stonecutters and copper artisans and tile makers, and other master craftspersons to teach locals the ancient crafts,” said de Salaberry.
Third-generation lampmaker Mohamed Hany Amin, 42, operates a workshop producing handmade metal lamps and lanterns decorated with designs such as stars, flowers and calligraphy. In the past, he made 20 lanterns a week to sell at the tourist market. But he only received a fraction of the selling price. “The merchants want to eat the whole fish,” he complained.
Amin is one of among several hundred entrepreneurs, one-third of them women, who have received small loans ranging from $500 to $1,000 to help them expand their businesses beyond subsistence levels.
The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Aga Khan Foundation Canada are providing $300,000 over three years to the loan program. Funding began last year and will continue until the end of 2006.
Thanks to loans totalling about $1,200 during the past two years, Amin has been able to increase the number of employees to 10 from four, and improve quality. Now, he makes 100 lanterns a week that are sold in five-star hotels and gift shops and are even exported to Dublin and Chicago. He created the elaborate lamps that hang in the park’s restaurants.
The taste of success has whetted his ambition. “We want to join international fairs in Milan and Berlin,” he said, kissing the money earned from his first sale of the day and touching it to his forehead.
It is a gesture that mingles thanks with prayers for more business. LAST SPRING, CAIRO FELT SAFE. BUT A WEEK after the park’s opening, a bomb exploded in the nearby Khan al-Khalili market, killing four people and injuring 18, among them Egyptians and foreign tourists. It was the first attack in the city in eight years. Then in July, three blasts killed as many as 88 people in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Days before the Cairo attack, when asked how his economic development activities might play a role in fighting terrorism in the world, the Aga Khan had replied: “My biggest concern is what I would call acute pockets of poverty which are in many cases the breeding ground of such frustration, such despair.”
Many old neighbourhoods, such as Darb al-Ahmar, have been taken over by rural migrants, he said, in an interview with journalists on a terrace of the hilltop restaurant. “By working in historic cities, you’re actually moving to support the poor of the poorest. By upgrading them, you get new economic opportunities and you cause the process of change to occur.
“Giving people confidence in their hope is the most driving force for change. Being able to live in an environment of hope, that changes society completely.”
The Trust’s current rehabilitation of the Stone Town in Zanzibar, and at Bagh-e-Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan, will change the economies of those places, he predicted.
“One of the things which is so exciting about many of these areas is that they have not yet been totally invaded by modern building,” he said. “If you were standing at Babur’s tomb and you were looking toward Kabul I think the first thing you would say to yourself is God forbid that this skyline should change. Because it’s kept its human dimension, the symbolic spaces are visible.”
What about globalization? Was he fighting it with his efforts to encourage architecture, music and historical preservation in developing countries? “I wouldn’t call it fighting against globalization,” he said, with a smile. “It’s enhancing pluralism. It’s enhancing the right of people to live in their own languages, their own societies with their own value systems at any given time in history.”
He credited the success of Al Azhar Park to partnerships with groups such as the Swiss Egyptian Development Fund, the Ford Foundation, the World Monuments Fund, the city of Stuttgart and the Social Development Fund.
Public-private partnerships, he said, will increasingly become an important way to pay for projects. “As you privatize or liberalize these economies, more and more of the resources developed in these countries are going to be in the private sector. And there’s got to be some form of social responsibility and answerability for the creation of wealth and reutilization of wealth.”
He cited rural villages in Pakistan that have their own endowment. “In a strange way that’s wealth management. It’s not poverty alleviation.”
FROM CAIRO TO NEW YORK TO OTTAWA, THE rethinking of the design of public spaces is an international phenomenon. “When people spend more time in the centre of a city, they want to recapture the waterfronts and are much more interested in the public realm and streets and public art,” says George Dark, a Toronto-based consultant who helped the city of Ottawa create a downtown urban design strategy two years ago.
“Cities in the postwar period spent enormous time and energy building buildings, but there’s been little emphasis on the public realm,” he says.
“We’ve lost touch with making a complete package. We’re good at building the buildings, not so good at public realm — the joy of spaces that are between the buildings that don’t belong to a developer or homeowner, but are the common ground of everyone who lives there.”
For instance, the formerly tree-lined King Edward Avenue in Ottawa was overbuilt to the point where all the trees are gone. “For a long time, the city of Ottawa relied completely on the federal government and presence of the NCC to build the parks and care about what streets looked like,” says Dark. “Waller Street is a complete mystery to me, how a street like that can exist in a major city.
“As soon as you step away from Confederation Boulevard, that’s the way it is. The city really hasn’t had a very strong program, to say maybe these initiatives would make good economic development opportunities; that if they make incredible, beautiful places it will radically increase the value of real estate near them.”
A great example, according to Dark, is the Chicago waterfront, which was kept green and enhanced with public art and an amphitheatre, designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry. “It’s a place to play, a place to celebrate, a place about art. The days when it was supposed to be some grass and trees and a place to walk the dog has given way to a much more complicated program,” he says.
Money and leadership are the biggest issues. “Nobody has great gobs of excess money.” Dark suggests targeting projects that are going to happen anyway, such as the installation of new sewers on Bank Street. “When you rip up the street put it back in an extraordinary way.”
Green space “is extremely important,” says Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli. “It has a very high priority.” However, he says he is concerned about the erosion of the Green Belt by the NCC. While strong leadership is important, he says citizens must be vigilant to protect open areas. “It’s very important to have that public voice.”
Experts say parks not only provide recreation space but attract businesses and tourism and stimulate the housing market.
La Villette Park in Paris, completed in 2000 beside a largely immigrant neighbourhood, attracts 10 million people a year to its gardens, cinemas and exhibit halls. When New York’s eightacre Bryant Park was restored in 1992, crime in this former urban war zone plummeted. Over the past 25 years, Barcelona turned itself around by building or renovating 200 parks and plazas.
The best Canadian examples, says Dark, are in Montreal, which has transformed entire districts such as the downtown International District, and Old Montreal (Place d’Youville and the Cité Multimedia) into “extraordinary” civic spaces.
“If you want to say why is Montreal’s economy doing well it’s got to have something to do with the robust rebuilding of the whole package,” says Dark. “They’ve built beautiful buildings and beautiful parks. They’re really successful.”
In North America and Europe, the recovery of former industrial lands has prompted a renewed interest in landscape. Toxic places or those with a difficult political history are the ones ending up available for public open space.
A recent show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape, explored this phenomenon. It featured projects such as Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park, located on the site of a former steelworks in Germany, a public “Garden of Forgiveness” in downtown Beirut where civil war raged, and a parking lot in central Rotterdam that was reshaped into a funky town square. Fresh Kills on New York’s Staten Island was the largest landfill in the United States. Now it is a wildlife sanctuary and recreation area.
“Nearly every significant new landscape designed in recent years occupies a site that has been reinvented and reclaimed from obsolescence or degradation,” Peter Reed, curator of the MOMA department of architecture and design, has written.
In Montreal, a former garbage dump is to be transformed into a park. And in Toronto, Downsview Park, a former Canadian Forces Base, is set to become Canada’s first “urban national park.”
Like Al Azhar Park, Downsview is a former wasteland, surrounded by a neighbourhood. It will require commercial activity to pay for it. And it poses the question: what is a park in the 21st century?
The plan for Downsview, where construction is expected to start in the fall, includes a zone for sports, a “pastoral” promenade with lake, meadow and woods, and an environmental education area. A museum building will show exhibits borrowed from museums across Canada.
The need to be self-sustaining means that just 55 per cent of the 572 acres is set aside for parkland. Twenty per cent will be sold for housing and 25 per cent will be leased for commercial and industrial development. “We need the finances to balance with the social and environmental dynamics,” said park CEO Tony Genco.
Charles Waldheim, the director of landscape architecture at the University of Toronto, recently took part in a peer review of the Downsview Park concept. Parks have changed, he says. Modern parks are places where gardens, culture, ecology and commerce co-mingle.
“The whole proposal is quite distinct from the tradition of 19th-century urban parks,” says Waldheim. “It’s not a place where commerce doesn’t intrude. The idea that public sector pays for culture left a long time ago, to the extent there’s increasing pressure on public budgets.”
Cars are one of the biggest challenges in designing a new park, he says. “We enjoy an automobile culture. That has some profound ramifications for urban and public urban space. When the 19th-century parks were conceived, it was expected most people would walk to them. We don’t use public space that way very much. The majority of people go to public spaces by automobile.” Should there be a parking garage? “Those are open questions.”
Claude Cormier is an up-and-coming Montreal landscape architect whose projects include Lipstick Forest in Montreal and Commissioners Park on the Toronto waterfront. He says that new parks should reflect a contemporary sensibility.
“I understand the principle of bringing nature as a remedy into a polluted city. How do we translate that? I think we have to define a language that reflects some of our values in terms of esthetics and ecology. You still need a kind of poetry that creates a powerful experience.”
For one thing, a park needs to be big enough. “You need a large scale, in order to create a different world that you enter,” he explains. “You want the organic-ness in contrast with the city.”
Too many programs and activities detract from the park experience, he says. “The problem starts when people want to add a little museum, a little pavilion, parking and washrooms. We want to be entertained, we want recreation, culture, concerts, festivals. I think it kills the park. If we urbanize the park too much, it’s gone. Central Park is for me a great model because it has always resisted development into the park.”
Oberlander recently designed a small park in Vancouver. It has contemplative areas for people to sit under trees and enjoy rosebeds, a junior soccer field, a wetland and climbing mountain. “Our lifestyle is faxes and e-mail and phones and never giving anything much thought, just giving an answer. That is not really good. We need private time to think.”
In Ottawa, the NCC has earmarked the Ottawa River waterfront and major urban green spaces as potential sites for new cultural or institutional buildings. These sites include a grassy area in New Edinburgh on the east side of Sussex Drive between Stanley Avenue and Alexander Street, part of Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau, and the newly renovated Garden of the Provinces on Wellington Street.
“I think the NCC are bucking the trend,” says Dark. “Most people are trying to reinvest in parks in cities, not get rid of them.”
Cormier warns of the gradual erosion of Ottawa’s special green character. This city’s skyline includes the Gatineau Hills and jack pines along the parkways. “Your greatest quality is your greatest fault. Ottawa is well equipped in parkland, but also this is where it is most fragile.”
Like Washington, D.C., Ottawa is “the national postcard,” says Waldheim. “Maintaining that postcard view is important for tourist dollars.”
Jane Pitfield, a Toronto city councillor who attended the opening of Al Azhar Park, because the Aga Khan is planning a 17-acre park and cultural centre in her ward, believes there are lessons for Canadian cities to learn from Al Azhar Park.
“One thing I’ve learned about the Aga Khan, they don’t rush things,” she says. “They take care to do the very best work. We’re in a bigger hurry. We are looking at ways to cut costs all the time, which in the end costs more money.
“Unfortunately the development industry has convinced us they need to reap the maximum benefit. There’s a greed that takes over, there’s overkill. Here, the politicians have also been perhaps part of the problem. What we do is get all excited about development charge money. They pay us to get even more density.”
Pitfield says foresight must replace short-term gain. “A two-acre park is more valuable to us than squeezing in another 20-storey building, which will give us some money for our budget and which we will spend immediately. What the Aga Khan is doing is providing lasting benefit.”
[Photo] AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE PHOTO Garbage was stacked 45-metres high in the wasteland that became Al Azhar Park, a lush parkland that looks over to the Mohammed Ali Mosque.
[Photo] AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE PHOTO Carved into the heart of Old Cairo, the 78-acre Al Azhar Park has become the crown jewel of the ancient city.
[Photo] AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE PHOTO Cairo’s Darb Al-Ahmar was once considered one of the city’s worst slums — a combination of years of neglect and even earthquakes. But now the Aga Khan Trust has identified its problems and has begun to renovate and revitalize the area.
[Photo] AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE PHOTO Lampmaker Mohamed Hany Amin makes lamps and lanterns for the tourist industry in his tiny Darb al-Ahmar shop. He recently received a small-business loan to help him expand his business beyond subsistence levels.