New Urban Topologies

Urbanism and society

New Urban Topologies in Alexandria


    On 23–26 October 2011 Färgfabriken in conjunction with its Egyptian partner Gudran carried out an extensive program on urban topologies in Alexandria for city hall representatives, architects, urban planners, academics, students and other interested participants from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Sweden. The aim of the initiative was to identify ways to strengthen culturally positive values and transform some of the many challenges facing the city of Alexandria.

    Background
    Alexandria is one of the major cities on the Mediterranean Sea, and plays an essential role in Egyptian economy and cultural life as the country’s oldest and largest port. The city is a longitudinal city with the highest-class residential areas close to and parallel to the coast. South of this area are the middle-class districts and behind the railway track and south of Mahmoudia Canal are the low-income areas, usually informal. The canal, once a clean canal for fishing and transport, is today contaminated because the lack of maintenance. Nearby are some of the city’s many informal housing areas, multi-story residential buildings erected out of necessity, without permission or design regulations.

    "Alexandria has something special. In cities where everything has not been designed and processed in detail, there are many opportunities for an intense dynamic life. I cannot help compare with the present Swedish situation. In our eagerness to plan and structure everything, have we in the process lost what is informal and coincidental, the things that give our cities a soul."
    Joachim Granit, creative director Färgfabriken

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    Different cities, different aspects
    The starting point of the New Urban Topologies (NUT) project in Egypt was a reception with a following seminar at the Swedish Institute in Alexandria. At the opening of the seven-hour long seminar, participants from Egypt, Sweden, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Syria listened to and discussed the prospects and challenges of the cities of Alexandria, Amman, Beirut and Stockholm.

    The director of the Urban Planning Department, Alexandria Governorate, Tahani Abou Emera, told the participants about the efforts of the city in relocating inhabitants from low-income informal areas to new, often remotely located, residential area, which has proven a difficult challenge. Other main targets for the city are zoning regulations, waste management and strategies to make it more appealing for tourists, she stated.

    Regional Planner Cecilia Lindahl from The Office of Regional Planning in Stockholm spoke on the Stockholm Regional Development Plan from 2010 and explained how governance works at the national, local and individual level. She underlined the importance of an elaborate participatory and transparent planning process. 

    Principal and Urban Designer and Planner Rowan Attour from the Amman Institute, a non profit organisation owned by the municipality, told the participants about the Amman Plan, under work since 2006. She underlined the need of diversity in housing typologies, affordable plots and public spaces as pedestrian streets and community centers within the urban fabric of Amman.

    Senior Lecturer Helena Mattsson from the Royal Academy of Technology in Stockholm explained the structure of the urban planning and architecture programs in Stockholm, among them a critical design studio that uses activism and gender theory as some of their tools. She stated that research is about asking questions, not finding answers.

    Architect Ninette Fadel from the Urban Planning Department of the City of Beirut pointed out the importance of having a comprehensive strategic plan that considers the needs of the city and its inhabitants, an asset Beirut has been lacking. She described some of Beirut’s many challenges regarding transportation, overcrowding, a lack of water and a sharp divcision in the city, parting the east from the west. 

    Joachim Granit, Creative Director of Färgfabriken said that one must accept that change takes time and that he believed in culture as a social catalyst. He spoke on the main projects of Färgfabriken and the development of the Swedish society, from the 1800s urban slums to 1960s massive housing projects to the segregation of today.

    Niklas Svensson, Urban Planning Strategist from The City Planning Office in Stockholm underlined the importance of cooperation between municipalities and a transparent planning process where decisions taken by experts are based on the inhabitants thoughts and participation. He decribed some of the industrial renewal projects in the city and stressed the focus on new strategic nodes outside the city center.

    Khaled Kaddal from Gudran for Art and Development in Alexandria described how the organization is using urban spaces to link art with society and how it creates creative meeting places and events in order for the inhabitants to meet and develop their neighborhoods. He highlighted three of Gudran’s projects, one focused on art and community strengthening in a fishing village in the outskirts of the city, the other two located in the city center, developed as cultural exhibition space and a cultural meeting place.

    Finally, Assistant Professor Hebattallah Abouelfadl of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Alexandria University, concluded the session together with the seminar speakers. Main issues that she identified within the presentations that also are applicable on Alexandria were: dialog and communication; trust between the government and the people; land ownership; participation; awareness among the city dwellers of the urban systems; the gap between thinking and doing; affordable housing; densification; informal settlements; segregation; educational systems and migration to the cities and the implementation of plans and policies.

    After most presentations a number of questions from the audience followed, where the participants discussed issues as the approach to the inhabitants living in informal housing in Alexandria, public transportation in Stockholm, segregation in Beirut, and questions of general character as energy efficiency, land ownership, commercial interests, planning methods, and participation.

    Eight sides of Alexandria
    The second day, the participants visited a number of areas, places and monuments throughout the city in order to generate a discussion and new thoughts within the group. The route included eight sites, which had been picked by Sameh El Halawany, General Manager of Gudran, and Hebattallah Abouelfadl who hade the role of guiding in the bus. The aim was to show a wide spectrum of what the city of Alexandria is like today. As a result the participants got to see many sites that are normally not included in similar architectural excursions, which usually only show recent profile projects. 

    On Saad Zaghoul square, two obelisks of Cleopatra once stood and there an attempt also was made in the year of 1919 to unify the Egyptian people against the British. The Minet El-Bassal District was an important center for cotton manufacturing in the 19th century. Today many of its industrial buildings stand empty, but the area is still a vibrant market area for old goods and could perhaps be renewed. Stanly Bridge is a landmark, inspired by the architecture of the Islamic Period and the first bridge in Egypt to be constructed over the sea. The Chatby-Aflaton Street hosts educational complexes, examples of the revivalism, an architectural style that uses the motifs and imagery of ancient Egypt. The new Alexandria Library designed by Norwegian architects with support by Unesco is a contemporary Alexandria landmark of international acclaim. The excavation area of Kom el Dikka accommodates architectural remnants of the Greco-Roman, Arab, the Othman and the modern periods, highlighting the many historical layers of the city. The palace and garden of El Montazah is the former summer residence of Egypt’s sovereigns. Nearby are high-end hotels and beach resorts.

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    After the sites had been visited, the participants were showed around at Gudran’s cultural center Al-Cabina. The participants were asked to contribute with topics and issues for the workshop the coming day, and some added one or many topics or questions. On the basis of the presentations, the informal discussions that had taken place earlier, the suggested topics, and discussions with the seminar speakers and some other participants Färgfabriken summarized five themes for the coming workshop day. The themes were: Transport and public utilities; Public space; Vision and identity; Participation and communication; Case study: Minet El-Bassal, the Cotton District. A sheet with 84 key sentences was also written, based on the input from the participants. Some of these were: Learning from Tahir: City belonging to the people; Transparent planning processes; Implementation of plans and policies; Women in public space; People-based tourism.

    Discussions
    The discussion on transport and public utilities spontaneously led to the case of the Qaitbay area near the Cornish as it is a social active district with different social levels, strong local identity and a mental ability to accept changes which could help spread the ideas to the rest of the city. The team members concluded that Alexandria today is very crowded, with traffic jams and poor public transport. They perceived an area with pedestrian streets, an involvement of artists shaping the look of the streets and means of transport, bicycle paths, and green sitting areas.

    The group that focused on public space came to discuss the problem in connectivity between the public spaces in Alexandria. The team members furthermore recognized that many of them have semi-public or private character where beaches and parks have been turned into clubs or are charging an entrance fee. Shops and street vendors are also taking up a lot of the public spaces, a trend that has increased since the revolution in February 2011.

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    The team members that that focused on vision and identity saw a present scattered identity and sought to find a common ground in the description of Alexandria. They identified five areas that characterises the city which could and should be enhanced. Alexandria is a cosmopolitan city with a heritage of cultural institutions, arts and music. It is a coastal city and could be made even cleaner, more accessible and pedestrian friendly with a new fishing port. It is a linear city, why it is important to work against urban sprawl and the segregation of different socioeconomic areas.

    The participants who discussed participation and communication saw a gap between the old and the young, the individual and the authorities as well as gender differences and a socioeconomic structure with a lack of dialogue. They also saw a lack of awareness of urban issues and the mechanisms of the planning laws. The team members suggested an increase in public contribution, public debates and artistic interaction. This could happen through community centers, community groups and media channels.

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    The participants focusing on Minet El-Bassal, the Cotton District, pointed out problematic aspects of the area, among them buildings in decay, an absence of life, and a lack of trust to the society, green areas, and security. However, positive aspects are the location, with closeness to the canal and the port, the beauty of the buildings and the spirit of the local residential and business community. The team recommended a preservation of the identity of the district where it could be developed step by step with the inhabitants and people who work there in mind.

    Alexandria revisited
    After the project days ended many of the attendants have asked for further collaboration and contact information to the other participants. “This seminar was an eye-opening experience to me. I got to understand where my city stands and what the problems we are facing really are compared to Alexandria. This was an opening to new solutions and new possibilities to how I can help my city” wrote Mai Awawdeh, Media for Development officer at PBYRC, Amman.

    Inspired by the results from the workshop, the director of the urban planning department in Alexandria initiated a second meeting for the New Urban Topologies in February 2013. The main focus for the workshop was participatory democracy and communication during planning process. In addition, NUT also initiated a research based on how information, communication and technology (ICT) are able to establish or improve the dialogue between municipalities and its citizens.

    By bringing together cultural institutions, international NGO’s, representatives from the city planning offices in Alexandria, Stockholm and Mostar, academic representants, students and other artists, NUT Session II created a valuable interesting conversation in which participants shared knowledge and experience regarding participatory democracy and how ICT-tools can be used in order to establish or empower the dialogue between municipalities and its citizens.


    Participants and contributors in Alexandria:

    Egypt: Gudran for Art and Development, Alexandria; Alexandria Governorate, Urban Planning Department; Alexandria University, Faculty of Fine Arts, Architecture Department; Pharos University in Alexandria, Faculty of Engineering; The Library of Alexandria; Eskendrella for Culture and Arts, Alexandria; House of Environmental and Architectural Designs (HEADS), Alexandria; Energy Efficiency in the Construction (MED-ENEC), Cairo.

    Sweden: Färgfabriken; The Swedish Institute in Alexandria; The City Planning Office in Stockholm; The Office of Regional Planning in Stockholm; The Royal Academy of Technology in Stockholm; The Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm.

    Jordan: Amman Institute, Urban Development; Hamzet Wazel Foundation; Jordan University (JUST); Princess Bossima Research Youth Center (PBYRC); Rubicon Holding.

    Lebanon: The City of Beirut; Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA); 98Weeks/Project Space; Solidere, Urban Development Division.

    Turkey: Istanbul Technical Universit.

    Syria: Syria Trust; All Art Now.

     


     

    The text is an shortened, and partly re-written, version of the report "New Urban Topologies Alexandria" by Rebecka Gordan.