Egypt gets its own 'central park'

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

Park creators also had to integrate three huge water tanks. Because of the arid climate, irrigation proved a big challenge, so developers installed a sophisticated irrigation system with a central control that monitors the weather to ensure just the right amount of water is used.

Observers say the outcome is impressive. "This sounds like a monumental park project, one of the largest city-park efforts anywhere in the world," says Peter Harnik, a director at the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land conservation organization in Washington, D.C. "Even though the physical size is only about one-tenth that of Central Park in New York, the amount of excavation is astounding."

What typically helps projects like the Al Azhar Park succeed, experts say, is good maintenance, adequate funding, and a competent administration. Getting the community to participate in the park's development and maintenance, they add, is also essential, otherwise the park remains underused, and eventually it deteriorates.

Besides the restoration of several historical monuments in the adjacent Darb Al Ahmar community, the Al Azhar park project also includes social programs for this poor, overpopulated neighborhood, with dilapidated houses and tiny dirt alleys - former havens for drug dealers. These social programs, with additional funding from outside sources, include employment training and healthcare services.

Project organizers see such community programs as essential to success. "We can't do physical development - the park, the wall, monument restoration - unless we involve the people," says Hany Attalla, the Darb Al Ahmar project manager. "Social development offers [this project] a better chance of sustainability."

But getting residents to cooperate isn't always easy. Too often, they have tried to take advantage of the funds flowing into their neighborhood. Recently, Mr. Attalla says, some residents attacked staff members with stones and knives, demanding more money for the sale of their house located at a key entrance to the park. "These are dilemmas that come up every day," Attalla says. "We're trying to negotiate with people, but they want to take advantage of an opportunity."

Meanwhile, some experts maintain that the Al Azhar project could have had more community participation. Darb Al Ahmar residents are working on nearby monument-restoration programs, but few have even visited the park.

"[This] indicates that the park managers will need to do additional work to include local residents" so they have a sense of ownership, says Guy Hager, a director at Baltimore's nonprofit Parks & People Foundation.

To be self-sustaining, the park will need revenue. The project's general manager, Mohamed el-Mikawi, says that with income from the park's two restaurants, about a 60-cent entrance fee, events, and a planned shopping mall or hotel complex, the park should generate enough revenue to support itself. Many, however, worry that the entrance fee will keep poorer Cairo residents out - the people most in need of recreational space.

Park designer Maher Stino says that a board of trustees needs to oversee maintenance of the park, rather than the government, scheduled to take control in 2007.

"They must have a board of trustees," Mr. Stino says, "and a permanent staff with a park manager who reports to the board. Otherwise we'll lose our effort of 10 years in six months."

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