Cairo, Egypt, February 2005 — The creation of the 30-hectare (74-acre) Al-Azhar park, undertaken in the historic district of Cairo by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, is proving to be a catalyst for urban renewal in one of the most congested cities in the world.
Egypt’s capital, with a population of 17 million, has one of the lowest ratios of green space to urban population in the world – an area the size of a footprint per inhabitant, according to one estimate. Al-Azhar Park therefore provides much-needed leisure and recreational space while functioning as a “green lung” in the heart of the city.
The US$ 30 million project was designed as an agent for economic development, and has become a case study for creative solutions to a spectrum of challenges facing historic cities, including ecological rehabilitation.
The project includes the excavation and extensive restoration of the 12th Century Ayyubid wall and the rehabilitation of important monuments and landmark buildings in the Historic City. It also encompasses an extensive social development programme, including apprenticeship arrangements, housing rehabilitation, micro-credit and health care facilities.
The multidisciplinary project presented a range of complex technical issues, including highly saline soils and the incorporation in the park of three large fresh water reservoirs for the city of Cairo, each 80 metres in diameter and 14 metres deep.
Builders had to clear a 500-year-old accumulation of fill and debris. The massive excavation required moving 1.5 million cubic metres of rubble and soil, the equivalent of more than 80,000 truckloads.
The horticultural challenges were also formidable. After the creation of specialist nurseries to identify and grow the best plants and trees for the soil, terrain and climate, over two million plants and trees were propagated. Over 655,000 have now been planted in the park.
To extricate the 12th century Ayyubid wall, which had been buried up to its crenellated battlements, it proved necessary to excavate to a depth of 15 metres. A 1.5-kilometre section of the historic wall, with several towers and battlements almost intact, then appeared in all its splendour.
In the low-income neighbourhood of Darb al-Ahmar, which is adjacent to the park, job training and employment opportunities are being offered in different sectors such as shoemaking, furniture manufacturing and tourist goods production. Apprenticeships are available for automobile electronics, mobile telephones, computers, masonry, carpentry and office skills. Micro-credit loans have enabled residents to open small businesses such as carpentry shops and a drycleaner. Hundreds of young men and women in Darb Al Ahmar have found work in the park, in horticulture and on project teams restoring the Ayyubid wall.
Three landmark buildings, the 14th Century Umm Sultan Shaban Mosque, the Khayrbek complex (encompassing a 13th century palace, a mosque and an Ottoman house), and the Darb Shoughlan School are also being restored.
Local housing has been renovated and returned to their owners. Housing rehabilitation activities undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is expected to average 50 houses per year until 2007. A housing credit scheme is aiding private individuals in the rehabilitation of their own houses.
The project was intended to test the premise that there is an alternative to traditional remedies to the decline of historic neighbourhoods. These usually involved isolating monuments by the forced removal of people in surrounding neighbourhoods or accepting a laissez-faire approach that allowed commercial developers to set the priorities of a neighbourhood. In either case, residents were displaced.
The approach of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, on the contrary, has been to stimulate rehabilitation without displacing residents, largely by ensuring that they have a stake in the future of their community—by helping create viable businesses through the provision of micro-credit and assisting owners restore crumbling houses, for example. As with all its undertakings, the Trust’s approach has been to work with local residents to identify priorities and then take practical steps to address these needs. Community priorities, including restoration of houses, health, education, solid waste disposal, job training and jobs, are now being addressed.
The construction of the park and the restoration of cultural monuments are meant to be catalysts for social and economic development and the overall improvement of the quality of life in the district. At the same time, the park offers a new vantage point with spectacular views of Historic Cairo’s countless architectural treasures, which will no doubt draw foreign tourists and the inhabitants of greater Cairo alike to the once-neglected area.
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The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) focuses on the physical, social, cultural and economic revitalisation of communities in the Muslim world. It includes the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Historic Cities Support Programme, the Music Initiative in Central Asia, the Humanities Project, the on-line resource ArchNet, the Museum Projects and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is a part of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of private, non-denominational development agencies and institutions that seek to empower communities and individuals, often in disadvantaged circumstances, to improve living conditions and opportunities in specific regions of Africa and Asia. Active in over 30 countries, the Network's underlying impulse is the ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and its agencies and institutions work for the common good of all citizens, regardless of origin, gender or religion.