For nearly a millennium, a 30-hectare wasteland in the heart of Cairo was used as a dumping ground for rubble from earthquakes, wars, fires, and urban reconstruction—eventually the site grew to a height of 45 meters. In 1984, His Highness the Aga Khan announced his plan to reclaim the wasteland and create a public park for the dense populations that surround it. Thus began a complex urban redevelopment process that spanned 20 years and included social and economic community regeneration, historic restoration, and the provision of open space and recreational facilities.
Sasaki was engaged in 1994 to work with Sites International, the project’s master planner and landscape architect, as they responded to the many unique challenges of the project. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) opened Al Azhar Park opened in 2005 and today more than two million people visit the park each year. Visitors span a range of social and economic classes, and include locals, those from greater Cairo, and tourists.
One major challenge was the historic Ayyubid City Wall, which runs the length of the park and was largely buried by the rubble. The team removed one million cubic meters of debris to expose much of the wall as part of the park’s design and construction. Further complicating the planning and design, USAID provided Cairo with an extensive new domestic water system with three underground reservoirs and related infrastructure buried within the park boundaries. While the water reservoirs were under construction, the team conducted extensive on-site testing of stabilization techniques and landscape plants. During this time, the AKTC and Sites International established a large off-site plant nursery to provide the park’s landscape materials.
Because the huge mounds of rubble were created over time without compaction, the site had no consistent natural geology. Each building, road, path, and plaza required special foundation designs. The team provided restaurant and café buildings with piles and paved surfaces, which required deep excavation and special layering of compacted base materials. The new water reservoirs and piping were constructed on piles as well, exacerbating potential adjacent subsidence. Water for new landscaping further aggravated soil subsidence, thus necessitating under-drainage of all landscape features. In response to the highly saline soils, the team imported and blended organic materials from the Nile and off-site sands to create the 20 hectares of residual green space. Cumulatively, these special measures consumed inordinate amounts of the project budget—and were out of sight to the park user. However, the large number of specialized craftsmen drawn from the area for the park’s construction created a sense of ownership in the community.
In response to these issues, the team created Master Grading, Circulation, and Landscape Plans that establish the physical framework for all subsequent design refinements. The park has also been a catalyst for broader change. With AKTC’s assistance and guidance there has been a reversal of physical deterioration within the adjacent Darb al Ahmar neighborhood as well as improvements to health and education. AKTC and the Governorate of Cairo have developed a Public-Private Partnership Agreement for the continued maintenance and management of the park over time.