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Egypt gets its own 'central park'

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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.

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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."