Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 October 2003
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Today, the Global Meeting of the Sustainable Cities Programme (SCP) -- held under the auspices of the Alexandria Governorate and hosted by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) -- concludes. Al-Ahram Weekly takes the opportunity to consider some of the concerns posed by unsustainable cities

Making a city livable

Yasmine El-Rashidi looks into the changes the Sustainable Cities Project has brought to the city of Ismailia

Click to view caption
Khedive Ismail's carriage now adorns one of Ismailia's major squares
The project sounded commendable in theory -- a noble attempt to revamp a city and provide for its sustainable development. In practice, it just might be working in Ismailia.

Lake Timsah, upgrading two informal settlements -- Al-Haloos and Kilo Two."

Sitting in Ismailia's Sustainable Development Centre for Training and Capacity Building -- built over a former waste water and garbage dump -- Hagga Mahfouza says that in Al-Haloos "We are living a life we only dreamed of," her green eyes gleaming with exuberance. "When you're young, you hope for electricity, water and a toilet in your home. Now we actually have those things."

Hagga Mahfouza speaks fast -- packing as much as she can into short sentences. "And look," she says, whipping out a plastic card holder from her purse. "Women in Al-Haloos now have ID's. We were the first place in the entire country to have national ID's."

"Schools!" she announces, quickly putting down the ID. "We never had schools in Al-Haloos before; we had to send our children to other areas," she continues. "Now we even have a microbus to take them to school, so we don't have to spend a lot on transportation."

Eid explains the project has been successful at addressing the resident's concerns. "Before we go into an area, we sit with the people and talk with them -- about the project, about the concept. We discuss with them what they need and explain why certain things are important," she said.

The project has been considered a "break" from traditional centralised government planning in Egypt, and the consultation and consensus building has had a positive effect on the community as a whole. "It's one of the unique elements this process introduced to the community," says Halla Shafey, a former programme officer for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and development consultant responsible for the design of Phase Two of the project. "It's groundbreaking in that it's the firs channels of communication"

"The impact has not only been physical," Shafey continues. "But also in how people work together; the information sharing and the implementation of a scientific and organised system. The model offers tools that can be used at the village level, city level, or governorate level. These tools are versatile, adaptable, and flexible."

Indeed, the project was implemented in expanding phases -- first in the city of Ismailia in 1993, followed by the entire governorate.

"In 1993 we adopted the concept of sustainable development," Eid explains of the Ismailia Governorate. "And through the financial and technical support of the UNDP and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UN-HABITAT), the sustainable development idea was implemented in the first phase of the Sustainable Ismailia Project covering Ismailia City," she says. "That included creating the Sustainable Development Centre for Training and Capacity building (SDCTCB)."

Education being key to continued development, Phase One included rigorous training for all local parties involved.

"To implement a project like this, the people in the area have to be involved and informed," Eid explains. "That's why the centre was created. Also, we translated all our material into Arabic so that our trainees can eventually train others in the area."

With the basic tools at hand, the numerous groups involved tackled the pollution of Lake Timsah -- the covered drain considered one of the lake's main sources of pollution.

"We found ways of diverting waste from the lake by redirecting it to another dumping ground," Eid says.

For the locals, the work on Lake Timsah has been of utmost significance, given its economic importance for both fisherman and the city as a whole. Alongside it, the problem of solid waste management is being tackled, including the establishment of a compost plant to process the city's solid waste, and the upgrading of so-called "slum" areas in the city.

"Environment doesn't just mean planting trees, painting buildings and sweeping the streets," Shafey says. "Sustainable development and environmental management have to be tackled at the grass roots level. Dealing with the façade is not enough."

The façade, however, has also had improvements. "Street lighting was a big issue for us," says Aziza Ibrahim, a resident of Kilo Two. "We had lots of problems before because the streets were very dark, and it was dangerous for girls coming home from work at night."

At The streets of the governorate of Ismailia as a whole have seen a notable change.

"Ismailia was never like this before," says Mohamed Amin, a resident of Ismailia city and a kiosk keeper. "It was never this clean or organised," he explains, "Before, you'd find garbage everywhere, and most of the streets had no clear division in the middle. The traffic lights didn't work properly, and even if they did people didn't really pay attention to them. There's been a huge change."

Visitors on a Saturday morning are welcomed to Ismailia by seemingly endless parks and trees, a pleasant sight for those coming from Cairo. New signposts and direction arrows gleam, and traffic lights not only shine, but beep too.

"It was never like this when I lived here," says the driver as he takes us through his old neighbourhood of five years. "There wasn't so much organisation. And they've really cleaned it up."

The impact, critics say, is the result of Eid's passion for the city.

"She really loves her city," says Mahfouza. "You can tell. Even when there are obstacles, or when the governor changes -- which has happened three times during the course of the project -- she keeps going and makes sure things get done."

Under Eid -- in collaboration with the governorate, the physical planning department, the popular council, the city council, the environmental affairs department, Suez Canal university, the transit department of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), the sewage department of the SCA, the research centre of the SCA, the water station, the national water and waste water authority, tourist villages, the fisherman's association, farmers, and the UN -- things have clearly been done.

"O don't get solved today or tomorrow, they will," she continues. "If nothing else, this project has introduced working groups to people. We've taught them how to communicate, compromise, and work together," a rarity in today's conflict-ridden communities.

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