An Oasis of Green in a Concrete Jungle
By Colleen Slebzak
A Garden in Cairo
Sponsored by: Autodesk
Narrated by Brad Pitt
Dir. Tag Fettig
Community members and leaders accomplished the impossible in Cairo, Egypt; by removing centuries of waste to create a community park in a city with virtually no green area. Soon after the initiation of the parks construction, The Aga Khan initiated The Aga Khan Trust -an extensive renovation project, to rebuild homes, apartment buildings, businesses, and landmark monuments. These beautification efforts included individuals in the construction and design process, promoting social inclusion for all society members. This trust also provided A Vocational Training Network in Darb al-Ahmar, to train individuals today, and to teach generations of tomorrow, further promoting sustainable practices and principles in Cairo. Because of the renovations and job training offered, Darb al-Ahmar’s long tradition in craftsmanship experienced a revival.
Over 17 million people live and work in Cairo, and the inhabitants were increasingly becoming surrounded by environmental degradation. Cairo has the most population density of any major city in the world; regrettably, it also had the lowest amount of public green space. By 1984, Cairo had been engulfed in concrete, the green space area per person in Cairo was the size of a human footprint.
Community members and leaders agreed that in in order to become sustainable, Cairo would somehow have to plant the trees that Mohammed had requested in his environmental policy outline; without uprooting the people and high-rises already in place.
The notion to create a park in Cairo came about. The problem with a park in the heart of Cairo; however, was it looked to be impossible to achieve/construct. *
In the area that was designated for the park (a 74 acre plot in what was once the heart of Cairo’s 4th district), the ground had been completely covered in garbage and waste. The people of Cairo had been dumping their garbage in this area for centuries. The Iubid wall (constructed in the 12th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt), was completely covered in garbage.
The city had to remove the waste and restore the soil; which, brought work to previously unemployed community members. This helped to sustain local families (in turn, boosting the city and regions economy), beautify the city, and promote social inclusion among city members by working together to build a ‘better‘ city.
In Cairo, there is an extraordinary cultural heritage, and the city embodies the unique character of centuries old religions and cultures. The structures in the park reflect the Islamic culture, and there is plenty of free green area within the park for individuals from all cultural backgrounds to enjoy- together. Engineers also preserved the Iubid wall (and synagogues), to further preserve the lands cultural heritage within the park.
Landscape architects with Sites International, Maher Stino & Laila Stino, said, “we are designing an Islamic garden, or series of gardens in a bigger park. In a more natural setting. That was the idea” (M. Stino). “It is how we take the time to plant it.… The word conservation and preservation are applied here” (L. Stino). Careful planning is required to preserve cultural and environmental characteristics when constructing a community area. **
The park gave children a place to play, people have a place to exercise/ride bikes, and the park ultimately promotes social inclusion, sustainability, and principals of productive environmental practices.
The Aga Khan Trust
The Aga Khan also initiated other sustainable programs for the citizens of Cairo.
The Iubid wall, is an amazing archaeological asset for the city; however, it had also been found to be an acute poverty line dividing social classed in Cairo. On one side of the wall, people were wealthy, on the other, people were poor. The Aga Khan saw a possibility to change the economic situation here and initiated the Aga Khan Trust -an extensive renovation project, to rebuild homes, apartment buildings, shops, and landmark monuments. Along with restoration efforts, individuals that were previously unemployed found work in renovation construction (which promotes social inclusion and sustainability).
The houses here fell into disrepair and were once beautiful cultural icons. After extensive efforts by local community members (paid for by the city), people were able to live in better homes, greatly improving their quality of life.
Renovations- Business and Community Training in Darb al-Ahmar
A Vocational Training Network was put in place in Darb al-Ahmar, to train individuals today, and to teach generations of tomorrow, further promoting sustainable practices and principles in Cairo.
The main goal of the initiative/network was to involve the local community and build a knowledge base within, leaving the knowledge behind. Training local workers to become contractors boosts the local economy (both with businesses and in households), and promotes sustainability for inhabitants of Darb al-Ahmar; which in turn, promotes sustainability for Cairo. ***
The Aga Khan said one of the reasons for these changes was because he believed that “people have to be given the chance to change their lives, using their own assets- to become aware of these assets and learn how to use them.”**** Individuals in this community now have the resources to sustain themselves and teach these sustainable practices to future generations- a priceless gift to society.
Preservation of Cultural Identity in Specialized Labor
There’s over 3000 workshops in Darb al-Ahmar: an area with an abundance of diverse craft production and specialized labor. Because of the renovations and job training offered, Darb al-Ahmar’s long tradition in craftsmanship experienced a revival. The renovations and job training also preserved cultural identities and promoted social inclusion of all society.
Community members and leaders accomplished the impossible in Cairo, removing tons of waste to build a vibrant green space for all members of society to enjoy, regardless of cultural background. Cairo proved to the world: that helping people to sustain themselves is enough to transform an entire city.
After the park was developed, The Aga Khan initiated The Aga Khan Trust -an extensive renovation project, to rebuild homes, apartment buildings, shops, and landmark monuments.
These beautification efforts did not gentrify or displace individuals (as is the case in most major cities), but included individuals in the construction, promoting social inclusion for all society members.
This trust also provided A Vocational Training Network in Darb al-Ahmar, to train individuals today, and to teach generations of tomorrow, further promoting sustainable practices and principles in Cairo-
“building the capacity technically as well as building social organization”, said The Aga Khan.
Because of the renovations and job training offered, Darb al-Ahmar’s long tradition in craftsmanship experienced a revival as a result of the extensive efforts made by the community, architects, engineers, and The Aga Khan. The area is an ever present reminder of individuals’ power to change.
The programs set forth within the community, led to sustainability and social inclusion for all of Cairo.
All designers should create an urban design of sustainability when considering city models, because it is the responsibility of the designer to promote sustainability and social inclusion for all community members. *****
* Cities that are partially adopting sustainable solutions are; Curitiba, Brazil; Los Angeles, California; Boston, Massachusetts; Las Vegas, Nevada; San Francisco, California; Miami, Florida; Honolulu, Hawaii; Seattle, Washington; Eugene, Ohio; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Denver, Colorado; Phoenix, Arizona; Kansas City, Missouri; Boulder, Colorado; Bogota, Columbia; Sydney, Australia; Paris, France; Seoul, South Korea; Cape Town, South Africa; Jakarta, Indonesia; Leon, Mexico; Bangalore, India; São Paulo, Brazil; Quito, Ecuador; Beijing, China; Vancouver, Canada; and Bangkok, Thailand.
** The new park initiative was put into place by His Highness The Aga Khan.
*** Many businesses have hired individuals from the Darb al-Ahmar community.
**** This lacks in most revitalization projects: providing the knowledge for people to do it themselves, and pass that knowledge on, further sustaining their local community.
*****These projects initiated in Cairo, Egypt, are still in progress, and have expanded to areas outside of the park.
“This land embodies probably the most advanced environmental ethic of the major religions. A wonderful school of thought, very much appreciates the environment, and is almost diametrically opposed to the Christian idea that we must dominate the environment.”-Maria Golia -Author of Cairo: A City of Sand and interview in the film