Knowing Alexandria: Documenting the City’s Urban Situation

Monday, 24th April 2017

By the Mediterranean winter waves, a group of urban activists gathered for an urban research workshop at Alexandria’s Swedish Institute on January 13 and 14. Invest-Gate visited Tadamun Initiative aiming to develop the livelihood of historically-rich Alexandria neighborhoods.

“With the tools and methodologies we gathered to suffice different research fields, we had to reach out to a wider audience scope,” Deena Khalil, a researcher at Tadamun told Invest-Gate. Workshop Coordinator Marwa Barakat commented, “Alexandria is a big city, rich on research material, and plenty stigmatized and marginalized residential areas. It is also home to several already-existing youth urban initiatives that could help expand our campaign.”

The two-day workshop was organized by Tadamun, a Cairo urban solidarity initiative specialized in research, in collaboration with Save Alex, an Alexandrian initiative aiming to protect the city’s urban heritage and enhance its built environment. In the light of Tadamun’s previous work in Cairo, Alexandrians brainstormed current affairs concerning the coastal city’s urban situation.

During its course, the workshop dedicated its first day to presenting the tools and methodologies Tadamun researchers use, followed by a brainstorming session. The second day wrapped-up all thoughts and ideas while moderators continued to present visual and written samples.  

There is a growing community interested in preserving the architectural heritage in Alexandria, another advantage encouraging Tadamun to pack and voyage north. Areas rich in history – like El-Max – are poorly documented. “With all that given, we seized the opportunity to give Alexandrians a platform to speak about their hometown, delivering products using the same tools and methodologies that we use,” Khalil continued.

The workshop assembled architects, sociologists, and enthusiasts, who were all eager to illustrate their ideas and highlight their problems. Significantly, the researchers discussed their right to able to see the sea, the impact of private sector developers on areas of heritage, and construction violations.

Some urban activists discussed the idea of conducting a study on the already established buildings along with new development projects underway in proximity to the shore. Studies are to analyze these buildings in terms of floor plans and location, namely if the buildings behind will also be able enjoy the sea view.

They would also examine the newly-adopted architectural scheme of those projects, and measure the extent to which they are in harmony with the remainder of the buildings.

While they spoke about harmony, another participant, Aya Samir, an assistant lecturer at Alexandria University, thought-aloud about the tackling of street developments through private developers, such as Sigma’s developments in the famed Fouad Street, featuring cafes and restaurants.

Sigma CEO Laithy Mekkawy expressed his aspiration for the antique street and how he loved to take a stroll down the alley on a fine Friday morning. Mekkawy’s passion drove him to turn a television company on the ground floor of the 1928 Société Immobiliére into “L Passage”, a space for high-caliber cafes and restaurants. The Neo-Renaissance structured building was initially developed to gather the elite of Alexandria’s society for periodical meetings.

Samir spoke to developers about their choice of Fouad Street and how their urban experience worked there. Save Alex founder Ahmed Hassan Moustafa evaluated Sigma’s urban interventions in Fouad Street as more sensitive than that of Zizinia and Wabour El-Mayya; “most significantly because they have to preserve its historical buildings and put restrictions on how administrative and commercial signs should appear for example,” he explained. From a more societal perspective, through Moustafa’s observations, he found that Sigma’s choice of high-caliber coffee shops and restaurants might lead to social exclusion due to gentrification.   

Speaking of private developers, the urban discussion took an interesting turn on the relationship between developers and the municipalities. In the time between 2000 and 2010, there was governmental concern to care for the city’s beaches and coasts, serving the higher-income socioeconomic classes. On the other hand, architectural violations magnified.

“At times, the municipalities itself would set an example for committing violations in buildings, taking the Eastern Harbor Building at the courts complex as an example,” Moustafa said. “Especially after Abdel-Salam Mahgoub took office as governor, back in 1997, they would even indirectly incentivize real estate developers to appeal to him for approval to build higher than legally acknowledged to “beautify” one of the city’s squares in return,” he elaborated.

This series of violations excused by “so-called beautification” come with many side effects, blocking air, light and sun. Some community members have even developed illnesses due to poor ventilation resulting from the tight-knit buildings. “Sometimes streets have to be lit by lampposts during daytime for residents to see,” Moustafa continued.   

“We do not want this so-called beautification. We want real development in the built environment,” he remarked.

Moustafa, who is also an assistant lecturer at Alexandria University, briefed about what led Alexandria to this state of architectural deterioration, caused by a series of “uncontrolled urban development” in the past 60 years.

Starting the 1800’s, Alexandria was a very small town, with a population of around 4,000 residing in the area known as Bahary or Al-Hay Al-Turkey. The Mohamed Ali era gave Alexandria its second urban revival after the Ptolemaic era–the coastal city occupied a significant political, economic and cultural role at the time. From Mohamed Ali’s reign until that of King Farouk, the coastal city was so popular with the elites, for whom it became a regular summer destination and a spot to visit the European delegations. Mohamed Ali ruled the sultanate of Egypt and Sudan from Alexandria during the last days of his reign; so by nature, the architectural development took place due to the attention of the royals, although the areas serving the common Alexandrians like Bahary remained neglected.

After the 1952 military junta, Alexandria’s political significance dropped, leading to less architectural attention along with a surge of new residents from different governorates and rural towns, adding to the population due to the city’s industrial and commercial nature. However, there were no infrastructural and development measures taken to accommodate these numbers.

“Alexandria was facing intentional marginalization from late president Gamal Abdel- Nasser’s regime. To them, Alexandria was a setting to the fallen monarchy and the ousted colonialism,” Moustafa elaborated.   

In the end of the workshop, with the help of the rush of knowledge, thought and sound of waves seen right from the hall window, the urban activists had converted their mind maps into theses. The researchers would pass on the workshop outcomes to Tadamun for further editing to be published on their portal next to reports published on Cairo’s historical districts and conflicts about government-sponsored social housing projects, in the hopes that something ought to happen to preserve Alexandria’s lost heritage and develop its urban communities.

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