Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Decline is not inevitable

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For a few years now, Cairenes have been enjoying a vast spread of green and beauty in the heart of their metropolis . But many do not know that such beauty sits on a huge garbage landfill. Turning a wasteland into an asset, is the story of the Aga Khan Park.

In the last 50 years, high-rise constructions and informal housing that mushroomed to meet the demand of a growing population, have made of Cairo one of the largest and most complex cities in the world. Influx of rural populations continued to cause overcrowding, which, compounded by a disinvestment in the old city centre, led to lower living standards for its residents. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) set out to reverse such condition.

Coping with the Urban Growth of Cairo, was behind the idea of expanding its green space. In 1984, when the idea was launched, the only central location which was of suitable scale and which lent itself to rehabilitation was the derelict Darassa 30-hectare site. This was a 500-year-old mound of rubble in the inner city, between the Eastern edge of the 12th Century Ayyubid city and the 15th Century Mamluk "City of the Dead".

While the neighbouring district of Darb al-Ahmar was poor, it featured one of the richest concentrations of Islamic art and architecture in the world. The challenge was to revitalize this heritage in ways to prove that cultural monuments are not drains on resources, but that they could stimulate social and economic development.

The Park project, launched and financed by The AKTCF was therefore intended to be a case study for a variety of development challenges, ranging from environmental rehabilitation to cultural restoration. The objective was to create models of development that could be replicated in many other settings.

A protocol was signed between the Fund and the Governorate of Cairo in 1990 to turn the wasteland into a park. This became the most demanding project of The AKTF Historic Cities Support Programme established in 1992. The project encompassed - not only the construction of the Park but - the restoration of the 1.5kms section of the Ayyubid wall which was revealed by the removal of the accumulated rubble. It also included the socioeconomic rehabilitation of the neighbouring historic city, requiring launching of numerous restoration and community-initiated development projects.

This approach took the form of a participatory and integrated urban area development plan of Al Darb al Ahmar one of the poorest districts of Cairo. It started with a socio, economic need and impact assessment and a series of pilot interventions aimed at the restoration of landmark buildings, as well as at socioeconomic development based on the community's own development priorities. Local employment was generated and most of the materials used in the restoration of the historic wall came from local markets.

By late 2004, more than L.E. 25 million had been spent on socioeconomic development and monument rehabilitation in Darb Al Ahmar, with generous grants from the Egyptian-Swiss Development Fund, the Ford Foundation, the World Monuments Fund, and, AKTC. From 2005 a larger programme for the rehabilitation of the area was implemented with major contributions from the Social Fund for Development (SFD), the Ford Foundation, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and AKTC.

This colossal initiative has demonstrated that the "top- down" approach to development does not work and that development has to be grassroots and grounded in the needs and priorities of the community. None of the aspects of development can be treated in isolation from the others and that it is important to have an honest broker between local communities and government authorities on issues that are important to residents.

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