|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
12 - 18 April 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Where have all the flowers gone?Spring is in the air as Fatemah Farag goes in search of green spaces and finds them few and far between
Sham Al-Nessim, on 16 April, is the holiday that signifies the beginning of spring -- the day, literally, when everyone should go out and "smell the breeze." Every year, though, finding a decent green space in which to sniff becomes harder. And in the city at least the breeze, alas, seldom smells of much other than exhaust fumes.
Illustration: Gamil Shafik
A couple of days ago Zakiya and her husband were picnicking in the median garden on the main highway in Heliopolis. "We were running an errand and were on our way home and thought it would be nice to stop here for a quiet meal," explained Zakiya as she picked at the cheese and bread laid out on the newspaper before them. The cars whizzing past almost drowned her voice. But then Zakiya and her husband live in Cairo's north-eastern suburb of Al-Marg, where "everything is red brick, all the houses stuck together and there is not a tree." For them, the bit of green grass and shade available in the median is as good as open space.
For each of Cairo's 17 million inhabitants there is, in theory, 1.5 square metres of green space. For Zakiya, though, such figures are meaningless. Her entire neighbourhood boasts not a single public park and most green spaces in the city are either clubs -- "which cost thousands," explains her husband -- or public gardens that charge an entrance fee.
According to Magdi El-Bassiouni, head of the Cairo Authority for Cleanliness and Beautification, there are, in fact, 1,617 feddans of public gardens and parks, with only 367 feddans allotted to private clubs, 202 feddans taken up by government-run youth clubs and 122 feddans used as plant nurseries. "For the median gardens alone we have cultivated 758 feddans across the city and every year we cultivate an extra 100 feddans at a cost of LE40,000," El-Bassiouni told Al-Ahram Weekly.
According to El-Bassiouni, one of the greatest challenges his authority faces is maintenance. "It is very expensive to keep a garden growing. You are dealing with live material that needs constant and special care." Hence the gardens that charge entrance fees -- 23 in number, including the International Garden in Madinat Nasr and the older Helwan Gardens. "We charge nominal fees -- 50 piastres a ticket rising to LE1 on national holidays -- which not only cover expenses but are also used towards creating new gardens."
According to Mohamed, though, who works at Ramses Train Station, the LE1 entrance fee is not quite as nominal as it may seem. "To go out I need to take my four kids, their mother, her mother and my own. Then I have to pay for transportation, food and something to drink. Really, it is something one cannot afford."
So what to do on Sham Al-Nessim?
"I will take them to the Shubra corniche in the evening. There is some green on the sidewalk and it is free. We can picnic there."
It is a shame that so many ordinary citizens are left to search the streets and bridges for some fresh air, but El-Bassiouni argues that if it were not for his authority people would lose the gardens completely. "Besides, with the fee, instead of getting 1,000 people on a given day, for example, we will get 600. It makes a big difference in the wear and tear the garden suffers and our ability to keep them nice and alive."
But what about those gardens that are closed to the public?
El-Bassiouni insists "only a few are closed and for these we have our reasons. In some cases the gardens are privately co-sponsored and we are requested to close the garden off because the sponsors want to keep it clean. Sometimes we agree and in the end this hurts no one. Everyone can see the garden and the oxygen provided is for everyone to breathe."
One aspect of green space direly missed by Cairenes who can remember a time when most of the Nile corniche was open to everyone, is access to the river's banks. In 1996 a governorate report showed that approximately 90 per cent of the Nile corniche had been encroached upon by private clubs, nurseries and cafeterias.
"In the past couple of years," says El-Bassiouni, "we transformed the Minouche theatre into the Ahmed Rami garden, the Club Casino into the Umm Kulthoum garden and a quarry on the Nile into the Tora garden. These are just a few examples. When and which other areas will be freed for us to move in and cultivate is up to the governorate."
But even when the will and money are there, space for public parks is becoming harder and harder to find. Even the corniche extension built in Zamalek -- which was eventually closed to the public -- was built on landfill dredged from the bottom of the Nile; there was simply no room left on the original bank. "Housing," El-Bassiouni points out, with seemingly irrefutable logic, "is, after all, necessary. We cannot live in a garden."
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