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Egypt gets its own 'central park'

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But what typically determines whether such projects succeed depends on funding and getting the community on board. And, as with any development project, maintenance and sustainability is a big challenge.

Cairo's new Al Azhar Park, which began construction in 1997, is designed to reflect the Islamic heritage of the area. At a cost of $30 million, the park includes a citrus orchard, rows of palm trees, and waterfalls. A long, marble walkway in an Islamic geometric pattern directs the eye to a splendid view of Cairo's Citadel and its Mohamed Ali Mosque on the facing hill. The park also includes a playground, sports fields, an amphitheater, and an Islamic restaurant.

To create the park, which was a garbage dump for about 500 years and later a mountain of dirt, 80,000 truckloads of rubble and soil had to be removed. A nearly one-mile stretch of Cairo's 12th-century Ayyubid Wall was uncovered and is being restored.

Park creators also had to integrate three huge water tanks. Because of the arid climate, irrigation proved a big challenge, so developers installed a sophisticated irrigation system with a central control that monitors the weather to ensure just the right amount of water is used.

Observers say the outcome is impressive. "This sounds like a monumental park project, one of the largest city-park efforts anywhere in the world," says Peter Harnik, a director at the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land conservation organization in Washington, D.C. "Even though the physical size is only about one-tenth that of Central Park in New York, the amount of excavation is astounding."

What typically helps projects like the Al Azhar Park succeed, experts say, is good maintenance, adequate funding, and a competent administration. Getting the community to participate in the park's development and maintenance, they add, is also essential, otherwise the park remains underused, and eventually it deteriorates.

Besides the restoration of several historical monuments in the adjacent Darb Al Ahmar community, the Al Azhar park project also includes social programs for this poor, overpopulated neighborhood, with dilapidated houses and tiny dirt alleys - former havens for drug dealers. These social programs, with additional funding from outside sources, include employment training and healthcare services.

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