Over 20 million people, many of whom live close to the poverty line, reside in Cairo, which was designed for a population about one-fourth of its current number. A single slum in the city, as Tarek El-Tablawy of the Associated Press pointed out earlier this year, has more residents than the combined populations of Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Cairo has had to balance a growth in population, with an urban design that was Hausmanian, favoring wide road ways, gardens and upscale apartments designed to showcase the “modernism” of Cairo – in terms of its publics, identities and practices. However, with Sadat’s infitah, the new middle and upper classes moved out to suburbia, building a recreational life in clubs and gated communities with golf courses and other amenities as public space became usurped for other purposes and Modernist Cairo became modern Cairo. An entry in Michael Slackman’s Cairo Journal, written in 2009 for The New York Times, depicts how average Egyptians looked for green space among the bustle and traffic of the overburdened city. The city does have some parks, and museums offer gardens and sitting areas as well, but there is a severe green space shortage to someone who views the city through the eyes of a Northeastern American raised in the City Beautiful/Olmstead styles of urban planning.
One way that Cairo solved this desperate need for green space is the Al-Azhar Park. The first public green space to open in Cairo in over 100 years, the park is situated on top of a 500 year old garbage dump and provides an almost 360 degree view of Cairo. On a late spring Friday (the first day of a weekend in Egypt), the park is full with families from all classes, tourists and couples strolling among the many gardens. (Egypt on a whole seems much more open to couples than other Arab countries, I expected there to be families and tourists, but there are lots of young people walking in pairs.)
The park was built at the cost of USD $30 million supplied by the Aga Khan Trust For Culture as a gift of Aga Khan IV. Aga Kahn is a descendent of the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs who founded the city of Cairo in the tenth century. Fatimah, a daughter of the prophet Mohammad, married Ali – a cousin of the prophet and ruler of the Islamic Caliphate for a generation. The Aga Khan is a direct descendent of this union. A hereditary position, the Aga Khan is an Imanate, responsible for interpreting the faith to the second largest branch of Shia Islam and in turn, the quality of life of its followers. Today, Egypt is mostly Sunni (just interesting since it’s the Shia Iman who built the park. . . )
The park grounds include a 12 century wall, a 14 century mosque, family play areas, several restuarants, a lake as well as 3 fresh water resevoirs that supply Cairo with fresh water – and according to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, over 655,00 plants which include: 89 varieties of trees, 51 types of shrubs, five species of grass, 50 groundcover plants, 14 climbers and 26 succulent plants have been propagated, along with herbs such as chamomile, mint, lemongrass, coriander and thyme.
In 2005, the project won the Global Innovation Prize from Travel and Leisure for its broad community efforts, which include projects in the adjacent, underserved neighborhood. The park is one of the few places in the city that it seems all cab drivers know how to get to, it means that much to quality of life in Cairo. All of that is good, but not as much fun as spending a day in the park with family and friends, which Cairenes from any part of the city can now do.
If’ you’re interested in more of the urban planning going on in Cairo, check out Inhabitants article on the Zaballeen and Cairo’s Garbage City.