Park Your Investment and Make Change

Darb al-Ahmar, Cairo (Photo Credit: Valerie Stahl)

With daily news from Egypt focused on unrest in the country – the kind of long-term pent-up frustration that comes from entrenched social, political and economic exclusion – I was fortunate to come across the work of the Historic Cities Programme of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) which undertakes initiatives with great potential for developing cities that could prove to be a worthwhile and replicable vehicle for socially responsive and environmentally sustainable urban investment.

In 1997, AKTC commenced work on a large, urban park situated on the edge of the historic city in Cairo. Starting in 2003, the organization launched a public-private partnership with the Governorate of Cairo to operate and manage the park, Al-Azhar Park, in the midst of a well-located but economically depressed neighborhood with a mind toward the park becoming not only a social and cultural hub for the area, but also an engine of economic and cultural development and a source of funding for built environment and physical infrastructure improvements.

Surely not, most people respond. How can a park in a poor neighborhood do so much? It has been a surprise to the AKTC as well, but in site after site, they learn that people happily pay for such services and can generate a healthy surplus – often very quickly, as in the Cairo case.

By the terms of the PPP agreement, park surplus is split 50%-50% with the Governorate and the other half is then devoted to schools, vocational training, health, housing, infrastructure, sanitation and microcredit to knit the park’s surrounding community into a healthier, more dynamic urban area while creating opportunities for local residents to enjoy higher standards of living. A combination of this PPP, grants and loans deliver much needed and varied financing tools to the community. At the same time, new private investments in community, residential, hospitality, retail and other buildings are part of the plan to rehabilitate the neighborhood.

These successes have propelled the AKTC into new similar projects to test and refine this model. Current projects include parks and urban regeneration projects in Bamako, Mali, , Aleppo, Syria, and Delhi, India. The Delhi project at the famed Humayun’s Tomb is particularly complex. It deals with multiple government entities (in many developing countries this spells a project’s certain death) and the surrounding neighborhood of Nizamuddin Basti is a Muslim area, which faces special economic challenges despite its proximity to the heavily visited tomb and several valuable and compelling sites within the neighborhood.

These projects require institutional and technical capacity, engagement with the community, a long-term commitment, breadth of experience and deep and multi-disciplinary understanding of these communities and their existing community assets. These projects are not just about building houses, cleaning streets or making a pretty park. Physical infrastructure improvements can only go so far. Ultimately, parks provide important services to people who have few. Ecosystem services for a start. Green spaces help with cooling the urban heat island effect of surrounding areas – scarce oases in the rapidly growing developing country megacities. Parks can boost neighborhood pride and build cultural identity. They can generate domestic and foreign tourism dollars and also create jobs if they are being integrated, as here in Cairo, into the lives of community residents.

What makes the AKTC approach “profitable” and a true impact investment ? First, it’s led by patient, visionary long-term investment. The investment is localized and place-based. It builds on existing undervalued assets and is integrated into the needs of people and communities. Ultimately, this is what cities for all are made of. In places like Cairo, where the pressures of political transition have unearthed deep social strains, investments in community cohesion and economic opportunity are that much more important.

Find out more from the project documents at ArchNet (an Aga Khan knowledge network project at MIT) or at www.akdn.org

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