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TED2014

Aziza Chaouni: How I brought a river, and my city, back to life

March 17, 2014

The Fez River winds through the medina of Fez, Morocco—a mazelike medieval city that’s a World Heritage site. Once considered the “soul” of this celebrated city, the river succumbed to sewage and pollution, and in the 1950s was covered over bit by bit until nothing remained. TED Fellow Aziza Chaouni recounts her 20 year effort to restore this river to its former glory, and to transform her city in the process.

Aziza Chaouni - Architect + ecotourism specialist
Aziza Chaouni focuses on projects that integrate architecture and landscape, and that ultimately give back to their communities. For years, she has worked to revive the Fez River, which runs through her hometown of Fez, Morocco. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I would like to share with you today
00:12
a project that has changed how I approach
00:14
and practice architecture:
00:16
the Fez River Rehabilitation Project.
00:18
My hometown of Fez, Morocco,
00:21
boasts one of the largest walled
medieval cities in the world,
00:23
called the medina, nestled in a river valley.
00:27
The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
00:30
Since the 1950s, as the
population of the medina grew,
00:33
basic urban infrastructure
00:37
such as green open spaces and sewage
00:39
quickly changed and got highly stressed.
00:42
One of the biggest casualties of the situation
00:47
was the Fez River, which bisects
the medina in its middle
00:50
and has been considered for many centuries
00:54
as the city's very soul.
00:57
In fact, one can witness the presence
00:59
of the river's extensive water network
01:01
all throughout the city,
01:05
in places such as private and public fountains.
01:06
Unfortunately, because of the pollution of the river,
01:10
it has been covered little by little
01:13
by concrete slabs since 1952.
01:16
This process of erasure was coupled
01:19
with the destruction of many houses
01:22
along the river banks
01:24
to be able to make machineries
01:26
enter the narrow pedestrian network of the medina.
01:28
Those urban voids quickly became illegal parking
01:33
or trash yards.
01:36
Actually, the state of the river
01:38
before entering the medina is pretty healthy.
01:40
Then pollution takes its toll,
01:43
mainly due to untreated sewage
01:45
and chemical dumping from crafts such as tanning.
01:48
At some point, I couldn't bear
01:51
the desecration of the river,
01:53
such an important part of my city,
01:55
and I decided to take action,
01:58
especially after I heard that the city
01:59
received a grant to divert sewage water
02:02
and to treat it.
02:05
With clean water, suddenly
02:07
the uncovering of the river became possible,
02:08
and with luck and actually a lot of pushing,
02:11
my partner Takako Tajima and I
02:14
were commissioned by the city to
work with a team of engineers
02:16
to uncover the river.
02:20
However, we were sneaky,
02:22
and we proposed more:
02:24
to convert riverbanks into pedestrian pathways,
02:25
and then to connect these pathways
02:30
back to the city fabric,
02:32
and finally to convert the urban voids
02:33
along the riverbanks into public spaces
02:36
that are lacking in the Medina of Fez.
02:39
I will show you briefly now
02:42
two of these public spaces.
02:43
The first one is the Rcif Plaza,
02:46
which sits actually right on top of the river,
02:49
which you can see here in dotted lines.
02:52
This plaza used to be a chaotic transportation hub
02:55
that actually compromised the urban integrity
02:59
of the medina, that has the largest
03:01
pedestrian network in the world.
03:03
And right beyond the historic
bridge that you can see here,
03:06
right next to the plaza,
03:09
you can see that the river looked like
03:11
a river of trash.
03:13
Instead, what we proposed is to make
03:15
the plaza entirely pedestrian,
03:18
to cover it with recycled leather canopies,
03:20
and to connect it to the banks of the river.
03:23
The second site of intervention
03:27
is also an urban void along the river banks,
03:28
and it used to be an illegal parking,
03:31
and we proposed to transform it
03:34
into the first playground in the medina.
03:35
The playground is constructed using recycled tires
03:38
and also is coupled with a constructed wetland
03:42
that not only cleans the water of the river
03:45
but also retains it when floods occur.
03:47
As the project progressed and
received several design awards,
03:51
new stakeholders intervened
03:54
and changed the project goals and design.
03:56
The only way for us to be able to bring
04:00
the main goals of the project ahead
04:03
was for us to do something very unusual
04:06
that usually architects don't do.
04:08
It was for us to take our design ego
04:10
and our sense of authorship
04:14
and put it in the backseat
04:15
and to focus mainly on being activists
04:17
and on trying to coalesce
04:20
all of the agendas of stakeholders
04:22
and focus on the main goals of the project:
04:24
that is, to uncover the river, treat its water,
04:27
and provide public spaces for all.
04:29
We were actually very lucky,
04:31
and many of those goals happened
04:33
or are in the process of happening.
04:35
Like, you can see here in the Rcif Plaza.
04:37
This is how it looked like about six years ago.
04:39
This is how it looks like today.
04:42
It's still under construction,
04:44
but actually it is heavily used
04:45
by the local population.
04:47
And finally, this is how the Rcif Plaza will look like
04:49
when the project is completed.
04:51
This is the river, covered, used as a trash yard.
04:53
Then after many years of work,
04:57
the river with clean water, uncovered.
04:59
And finally, you can see here the river
05:02
when the project will be completed.
05:04
So for sure, the Fez River Rehabilitation
05:06
will keep on changing and adapting
05:09
to the sociopolitical landscape of the city,
05:11
but we strongly believe that by reimagining
05:13
the role and the agency of the architect,
05:16
we have set up the core idea
of the project into motion;
05:19
that is, to transform the river from sewage
05:23
to public space for all,
05:25
thereby making sure that the city of Fez
05:27
will remain a living city for its inhabitants
05:30
rather than a mummified heritage.
05:32
Thank you very much.
05:35
(Applause)
05:36

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Aziza Chaouni - Architect + ecotourism specialist
Aziza Chaouni focuses on projects that integrate architecture and landscape, and that ultimately give back to their communities. For years, she has worked to revive the Fez River, which runs through her hometown of Fez, Morocco.

Why you should listen

Civil engineer and architect Aziza Chaouni creates sustainable, built environments in the developing world, focusing on the deserts of the Middle East. Chaouni’s design philosophy holds that it is not enough for sustainable buildings to have zero impact—they must give back to the community on social, economic, infrastructural and environmental levels too. The founding principal of Aziza Chaouni Projects, she collaborates closely with local communities and experts from other disciplines to integrate architecture, landscape and infrastructure in innovative ways.

Born and raised in Fez, Morocco, Chaouni has long found herself fascinated with the Fez River, which winds through the city's ancient Medina. Once considered the city's soul, sending water to both public and private fountains, in the 1950s, the stream started to become a toxic sewer because of overcrowding, over-development and pollution. The city responded by covering the river over with concrete slabs, bit by bit, in the process destroying houses and creating dumping grounds. When Fez received a grant to divert and clean the river's water, Chaouni proposed the Fez River Project to uncover the river, restore its riverbanks and create pedestrian pathways. Her vision: to reclaim these areas as public spaces and reconnect them to the rest of the city.

A project that Chaouni has been working on for two decades, her mission to transform the Fez River began with her thesis in graduate school and has continued throughout her career. Over the course of years, the river is gradually being uncovered—illegal parking lots are being transformed into playgrounds, trees and vegetation are being planted to create public spaces. Overall, the project is revitalizing Fez as a living city.

 

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