1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Down by the waterfallThe erosion of urban greenery has been blamed on bureaucratic neglect and chaotic urban development. Fatemah Farag, treading the winding paths of the Waterfalls Garden in Alexandria, wonders whether the solution -- privatisation -- is not in fact the final nail in the coffin of public space
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Entering or leaving Alexandria, you cannot miss Hadiqat Al-Shallalat (the Waterfalls Garden). It is right next to the famous "Watch" made of shrubbery and is Alexandria's third largest public park. From the street, the lush vegetation with bits of historic walls peeking from within the green, beckon those burdened by the grueling hustle and bustle of the city to cross its borders and find respite. It took many years for me to finally answer the call -- but it was only to have the images I had dreamt up and associated with the park brutally shattered.
The winding paths are littered with garbage, and canals that once had water running through them are today dry, home only to plastic bags and old tires. There are no benches, so lovers are left to balance precariously on the broken blocks that border the pathways.
For the most part the park is empty. A few stray dogs fight viciously for something around one of the palm trees while two abandoned kittens mew pitifully under a wrecked cement awning.
The latter is the remnant of what was once a one-storey cafeteria bordering the largest lake of the park, which today stands bone-dry. The sign at the entrance of the cafeteria, the walls of which have been covered in graffiti and look like something out of a war zone, has fallen to pieces -- today it tells us we have reached the "reen Park" which did not make much sense until we found the "G" thrown amidst the rubbish on the ground.
It is a sad plight for a public park established about a century ago, its layout based on the ideas of the famous American landscaper Frederick Almstead, and which includes within its boundaries towers that were once a part of the ancient Alexandria Wall.
We have all been promised, however, that this will not be the case for long and, on the outskirts of the garden, large metal signs announce a renovation and development project. A closer look indicates the promise may not be as clear cut as one had hoped. "The governorate has given a private investor a 20-year concession and according to the deal the investor will upgrade the grounds and maintain them while using a small part of the land to build a three-storey hotel/spa," explained a senior official at the Alexandria Governorate who preferred to remain anonymous.
Today, there are programmes for the children who work at Al-Hirafiyyin, the occasional government or NGO-sponsored local literacy workshop, and health check-ups. With the increased opportunity, will there be fewer people like Farid, who had no other choice but to grow up apprentices to perfecting the art?
According to critics, this deal is a clear infringement on the rights of citizens to public parks, as well as a clear violation of an historical site. "We live in cities where the ratio between inhabitants and green space is way below the international standard, yet instead of increasing public garden space, the little that exists is earmarked for projects which could be built elsewhere," exclaimed Adel Abu Zahra, head of Friends of the Environment, a non-governmental organisation which has taken legal action against the governorate, specifically disputing the concession given on the Waterfalls Garden. He continued: "Not only is this garden of historical value in and of itself, it is also home to important sites. How can these be the responsibility of a private investor?"
Notable sites within the confines of the park include Tabia Al-Nahassin, which dates back to the era of Mohamed Ali, and part of the Alexandria Wall, built in Roman times.
The decision to grant a concession for use and development of the Waterfalls Garden was announced by the governorate on 20 March 1999 within the framework of a public tender, won on 27 April of the same year by Ahmed Attiya, head of the board of the Paradise Inn Group.
A copy of the contract signed between both parties on 13 May 1999 and obtained by Al-Ahram Weekly shows that the investor was given the right to utilise the area currently made up of the cafeteria building, the empty lake and a stone grotto, i.e. 18 per cent of the total area of the garden, for a hotel/health spa project. Almost four per cent of this area will be the site of a four- or five-star hotel comprising three stories and 150 rooms. The investor has the right to set up wooden kiosques all over the garden to sell refreshments to the general public. Further, the concession begins with the beginning of operations at the hotel and spa, not with the signing of the contract.
In return, the investor will pay LE1 million up front for garden development, maintain the gardens over the 20-year period at a total cost of LE5,075,000 million paid out in annual instalments and another LE4,641,000, also paid in instalments, over 20 years. Add this to the investment towards the hotel, estimated at LE6 million, and the total value of the contract is LE16,716,000.
"There is nothing illegal about this deal," Ahmed Attiya explained to Al-Ahram Weekly. "There is no government in the world which is still involved in selling fuul and ta'miya. Today, the role of government is inspection and follow-up. Today, the government should minimise its costs and decide on who can run things most efficiently. Can it be said that anyone can run things such as this garden as efficiently as the private sector?"
For its part, the governorate is keen to point out specific terms of the contract, which stipulate that outside the hotel, park grounds will remain open to the public free of charge, and prohibit the removal of any greenery and/or any changes to the original landscaping of the garden without the governorate's consent. "The hotel building will be in place of the current cafeteria and most of the garden will remain open to the public free of charge, so what is the problem?" questioned the governorate official.
After all, this is not the first time the Waterfalls Garden has been sacrificed to changing times. A study on public parks prepared by the Friends of the Environment documents that in 1958 the total area of the gardens was 65 feddans. In 1984, the establishment of the Olympic Club and the Waterfalls Youth Centre, road expansion, and finally the construction of a natural gas pipe storage area decreased the garden's area to 40 feddans. In 1999, this figure was brought down once again, this time to 33 feddans, as a direct result of the expansion of the Suez Canal Road and the construction of the Abdel-Moneim Riad Tunnel, a children's library, a rest house for the Supreme Council for Antiquities and a police station.
Unfortunately, this history only mirrors the general plight of public green space in Alexandria as a whole. Less fortunate gardens have been totally obliterated. Take for example the Kitchener Garden, which used to grace the front of the Faculty of Medicine. This has long since been converted into a parking lot, while a small garden on the Corniche in the Sporting district has become a sewage station. The Sidi Bishr Tabia garden was transformed into blocks of ugly cement buildings.
The more fortunate, such as the Waterfalls Garden, were simply cut down. Another example is that of the famous Antoniadis -- or Nozha -- Gardens, which lost 14 feddans in 1967 as part of the war effort and another seven feddans to the ministry of agriculture for various administrative buildings. Others have simply fallen into complete disrepair, such as Marsad Kom Nadoura, which is a 12-feddan garden adorned with water fountains and replete with historical sites.
It is arguable that in some cases the needs of modernisation and servicing a growing city must come first, but the overall figures indicate that not enough consideration is given to people's right to green space. In the developed world, the ratio between green space and inhabitants is 40 square metres to every person. According to figures provided by the Alexandria governorate, in 1958, the ratio was three square metres per person; by 1998, this ratio had decreased to one square metre per person.
Critics of the current concession plan argue that the government should be responsible for providing adequately maintained public parks. In the legal document submitted by the Friends of the Environment and currently being revised by the Alexandria Administrative Court, which will give a verdict on 13 June, it is noted that article five of Law 35/1972 holds accountable those who do not fulfill their responsibility in maintaining and using public property. Hence the document argues that, "if the park was subjected to inefficient maintenance or has deteriorated as a result of lack of maintenance and care -- among the core responsibilities of the local administration -- it is not acceptable to shirk this responsibility and give it to an investor whose main aim is to achieve profit."
It is once again a test of the boundaries between the responsibilities of government and the ever-increasing mandate of the private sector. As the parties involved await the decision of the court, the beauty of the Waterfalls Garden waits for a salvation long overdue, and the people of Alexandria can only hope that greater concern will be shown for preserving and expanding public parks, and thereby for guaranteeing one of their rights as the inhabitants of a modern city.
Keeping the bridge at bay
STANLEY Bay is one of Alexandria's landmarks: a small cove, dotted with cabanas that look out over the cool blue water. Now, part of the bay is being filled in as part of the project to widen the Corniche. Preparations are underway for the construction of a bridge that will allow motorists to cross the bay, thus relieving pressure on Alexandria's other main arteries. The bay will be narrowed considerably, since diminishing the distance the bridge must span will reduce the costs the governorate will incur.
THE THIRD phase of the development of the Alexandria Corniche is in full swing; the centrepiece is the construction of the Stanley Bay Bridge.
Traffic is chaotic as a result of the construction work, but the general attitude seems to be that the inconveniences of today are bearable since they are to result in better traffic flow along the Alexandria Corniche.
The 500m-long bridge, which is designed to echo the beautiful Montazah Bridge, will have cost LE50 million by the time of its completion in July 2001.
In Al-Ahram of 29 May, architect Emad Ibrahim Hawash wondered if the governorate had carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before beginning implementation of the project. EIAs are required on all new projects, but the focus thus far has been on the shores of the Red Sea. Hawash also challenged Alexandria's local authorities, demanding whether or not they had taken into account such factors as the strength and direction of the current, noting that the project would transform Stanley Bay into a virtually closed lagoon, and suggesting that this would result in the death of the organisms that have thrived for decades in its hospitable environment, whether sea creatures or birds. He also wondered whether the governorate had determined the social and economic transformations that will ensue from the elimination of Stanley Bay's unique characteristics.
Hawash argued that the use of more sophisticated technology would permit the bridge to span the original width of the bay -- a financial sacrifice, certainly, but one that would have considerable environmental and social benefits. He also feared the consequences of accidents on the bridge, a possibility which must not be discounted, he felt, since "such accidents are a daily occurrence. What will happen," he demanded, "if a car should come to fall off the bridge? These are among the preliminary questions [Alexandria Governor Mohamed Abdel-Salam Mahgoub] must answer."