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Egypt gets its own 'central park'

By Sarah GauchContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 2004


When Moza Gouda used to look out the window of her tiny, narrow home in Old Cairo, all she'd see was a huge, barren mountain of dirt with heaps of garbage on the fringes. But now she sees orange flowers cascading down the ridge, a carpet of newly planted grass, and the silhouette of trees on the horizon.

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"This view is so pretty," says the mother of four. "Before it was just dirt, dirt, and dust."

Mrs. Gouda lives beside the new 74-acre Al Azhar Park, located on what was a centuries-old rubbish heap in the middle of Cairo's historic old city.

Developers hope the park, scheduled to open in the next few weeks, will bring desperately needed green space to this arid, polluted megalopolis of 17 million people, one of the world's most congested cities. They also hope the park will help revitalize a troubled urban neighborhood and important historic district, home to some of the world's most valuable Islamic monuments.

"There is a need for ... a model for revitalizing a neglected historic city in a way that will improve the quality of life of the marginalized population living there," says Amyn Ahamed, an information officer working with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a private agency based in Geneva that funded and oversaw the project. The Trust aims to revitalize Muslim communities.

Though more such projects are needed worldwide, several major cities have reaped the benefits of adding green space. Parks have helped rejuvenate blighted areas from Atlanta and Montreal to Athens and Manchester, England. They not only provide green recreation space, but they attract businesses and tourism, and stimulate the housing market, say experts.

"Creating parks substantially raises the desirability of an area and the amount people are willing to pay to live in surrounding properties," says Susan Wachter, co- director at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Urban Research Institute. "These impacts are among the strongest investments that cities can make to improve the quality of life of their citizens."

Completed in 2000, La Villette Park, located in Paris beside a largely immigrant neighborhood, attracts people citywide to its museums and concert halls. And when New York's eight-acre Bryant Park opened in 1992, crime in this former urban war zone dropped 92 percent. Annual visitors to the park doubled.

But what typically determines whether such projects succeed depends on funding and getting the community on board. And, as with any development project, maintenance and sustainability is a big challenge.

Cairo's new Al Azhar Park, which began construction in 1997, is designed to reflect the Islamic heritage of the area. At a cost of $30 million, the park includes a citrus orchard, rows of palm trees, and waterfalls. A long, marble walkway in an Islamic geometric pattern directs the eye to a splendid view of Cairo's Citadel and its Mohamed Ali Mosque on the facing hill. The park also includes a playground, sports fields, an amphitheater, and an Islamic restaurant.

To create the park, which was a garbage dump for about 500 years and later a mountain of dirt, 80,000 truckloads of rubble and soil had to be removed. A nearly one-mile stretch of Cairo's 12th-century Ayyubid Wall was uncovered and is being restored.