Business Today
August 2004
News Focus

Green Acres

By Joseph Krauss

In a concrete-heavy city, landscapers hope Al-Azhar park will help unearth a greener Cairo

Looking across Al-Azhar park, your eye is immediately drawn to the stark brown walls of the citadel and the jaunty domes of the Muhammad Ali mosque. But as you look off to the west, the city drops below the horizon, leaving only a surreal panorama of scattered minarets floating behind a grassy foreground. It’s only when you walk up to one of the promontories that you can see the entire 75 acres of verdant gardens, swaying palm trees, blossoming orchards and, further out, the cities of the living and the dead stretching off into the distance, abutted only by the solemn Muqattam Heights rising up in the east.?

The layout of the park — complete with a man-made lake and two palace complexes — recalls the decadence of the sultans, but next month it will open its doors to the entire city. For the first time in a long time, Islamic Cairo will have room to breathe.?

The park will herald the return of open green space to a city long buried under jumbled concrete buildings, multi-lane freeways and garish high-rise towers. It may also bolster the emergence of a local landscaping industry, with the requisite technical expertise to spruce up the City Victorious.?

Not since the days of the Khedives — back before Garden City lost its gardens, Opera square lost its opera and Orman gardens became a zoo divided — has a public park of this size appeared in the city proper. Like its predecessors, Al-Azhar park was made possible by the generosity of an extremely wealthy philanthropist. Unlike the others, it will be a park for the people — part of a larger effort to revitalize the once impoverished community of Darb Al-Ahmar. Perhaps even more importantly, it will earn its keep. The park is expected to attract 2000 visitors a day and be self-sustaining within two or three years.?

The idea started out modestly enough, with the Agha Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Shi’ite sect, expressing a desire to give a gift to the city. But what began as an urban development project, grew into the transformation of an entire community.?

“Maybe the idea in the beginning was just open space and a better environment for the city of Cairo,” says Mohammed El-Mikawi, the project’s general manager. “When it came to site specifics, if this park had been built on the outskirts of Cairo, that would have been the end of the objective. But after looking around and carefully choosing the site [we found that it] offered much more than just those two elements.” ?

The site the Aga Khan Foundation finally settled on was a landfill to the east of Darb Al-Ahmar, an impoverished neighborhood sandwiched between Khan el-Khalili and the Citadel, but bereft of the tourists that keep Islamic Cairo’s economy alive. “This area in general was neglected, it was deprived of lots of services and its neighbor was a garbage dump for over 500 years,” El-Mikawi says. “So just selecting this site and transforming it into a beautiful open space will immediately cause the area to be exposed to the general public.”?

The foundation’s work goes far beyond the park. Over the last four years, the group has been renovating houses and providing micro-credit loans to Darb Al-Ahmar residents in an attempt to revitalize the community. The foundation has already restored 20 houses and handed out nearly LE 1 million in low-interest loans, and El-Mikawi says that the second phase of the project, to begin this year, aims to restore an additional 150 homes and nearly quadruple the number of loans. The foundation has also taken on an archaeological project nearby, the excavation of part of the 12th century Ayyubid wall, commissioned by Salah El-Din, that was discovered by accident during the park’s construction.?

Those working on the park hope that it will serve not only as a gift, but also as a model for future projects. The initial outlay of over LE 100 million was provided by the Aga Khan, but El-Mikawi says that once the park opens it will be able to pay its own bills with the revenue derived from more well-off visitors. In addition to entrance fees, the park is also expected to turn a profit on two five-star restaurants, a planned parking garage to the north of the site and occasional public performances in the park’s many outdoor venues.?

“We basically run all our projects as businesses,” El-Mikawi says. “Once the park is in operation, we want to get the highest revenue from the operators — not in a commercial sense, you’re not going to go in and see ads for Coke and Pepsi and potato chips; it will still have its cultural appearance— but on the other hand we encourage the ability of generating revenue, so there’s a business side to what we do as well.” ?

If the park succeeds in demonstrating that there are economic incentives for carving open spaces out of big cities, Cairo may be in for a more widespread makeover, and a landscaping industry that only recently took root in the country could receive a major boost. ?

When the Khedives set out to build a European city on the Nile, with its obligatory traffic circles, broad avenues and public gardens, they relied primarily on foreign designers. Nowadays, a local landscaping industry is sprouting up, which is led in part by Maher Stino and his wife, Laila El Masry, the co-founders of Sites International, the chief contractor for the Al-Azhar Park project and one of a small handful of local landscaping companies looking to make the desert bloom.?

The resurgence of the landscaping business in Egypt began in the late 1970s, when the Camp David Peace accords and the new policy of Openness gave rise to extensive tourism development projects, especially along the Red Sea. Although the projects initially relied on expertise from Europe, a local industry soon emerged, benefiting not only from the extensive developments on the coast, but from the new satellite communities springing up around Cairo. Since its establishment in 1986, Sites International has worked on dozens of projects throughout Egypt, from the Nubian Museum in Aswan to the JW Marriott Resort and golf course in Mirage City.?

Professional landscaping is important for Egypt, Stino says, not only as a profit earning industry, but also as an engine of environmental revitalization. “When we talk about landscape design we are talking about environmental conservation,” Stino says. “It’s not just a tree on a sidewalk with a bench and a lamp. We are trying to promote the concept of environmental planning.”?

Al-Azhar Park was perhaps the most challenging project the company has ever taken on, demanding that they protect the area’s countless historical artifacts and monuments while carving a veritable Garden of Eden out of a 500-year-old landfill. The site was also littered with three enormous water tanks — each measuring 80 meters in diameter — which Stino’s company managed to tastefully incorporate into the design of the park (you would only notice them if someone pointed out the discrete ventilation shafts that mark their location).?

Despite the project’s success, Stino maintains that the industry still has a long way to go, held back as it is by a paucity of well-trained local landscape designers and the difficulty of obtaining quality outdoor building materials. Stino hopes that the new park will showcase what a proper landscaping profession can produce, and that it will encourage more interest in high quality outdoor architecture. “What does it take to build a park? It is an art, a science. You need drawings and effort and thinking,” Stino says. “We try to be an example of what it should be, so that we can promote the profession.”?

If the more immediate aim of the Al-Azhar Park project is to give a boost to Darb Al-Ahmar, its more ambitious long-term goal is to promote urban development in Cairo as a whole. Many hope that the park will contribute to a reversal of the government’s longtime habit of sacrificing open spaces to more utilitarian ends. It may be too late to salvage the open spaces of Cairo proper, but El-Mikawi hopes that, at the very least, the government will learn from previous mistakes as it oversees the development of the new satellite cities. “Proper planning is definitely the backbone of everything,” El-Mikawi says. “If you have your master plan put down using proper tools and techniques then you have to follow it up and not cave in to pressures later on.” ?

Those pressures will either come from businesses or the community itself, El-Mikawi says, but either way the city should hold firm. “Whether it’s a school or a religious facility, you’re still depriving an area of the essential part, which is the open space. This has happened a lot during the last 30 or 40 years, and as a result lots of communities in Cairo are suffering, and some are suffering severely.”?

It is the poor planning of previous generations, El-Mikawi says, that makes projects like his necessary. “If you go back and look at the overall master plan for the city, it has totally changed. So then there becomes a need for projects like this, to go back and try to correct what was altered over a period of time. You go back and look at Zamalek or Garden City — there was plenty of green open space, and then later on the one- and two- story buildings were knocked down, the high rises started going up and the density was multiplied 10-, 20-fold, and then the open space obviously became very little.”?

Nowadays things seem to be changing, and El-Mikawi is optimistic. “I think people who live in Cairo now realize that there have been over the last 20 or 30 years many changes that have deprived the city of its green spaces… With the park we are definitely raising the awareness, with people saying ‘Why don’t we have open spaces in our communities? We used to have them. We used to have plenty of them. Isn’t it nice to be able to have a place like this?’” bt?

Business Today Egypt, ©2004 IBA-media