From an open sewer to a jewel of the city: Aziza Chaouni on uncovering and restoring the Fez River

For much of the past 20 years, architect and engineer Aziza Chaouni has been battling to restore the Fez River, which winds through the city’s medina – Fez’s historic medieval center and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Heavily contaminated and covered over with concrete to contain the smell, the Fez River had been all but forgotten in recent decades. Not anymore: Chaouni has succeeded in uncovering the river, by working with the city’s water department since 2007, and she is now restoring and reconnecting the riverbanks with the rest of the city, while creating open, green public spaces, allowing the medina to breathe again. At TED2014, we asked her to tell the story of this extraordinary task.

How did you begin the task of uncovering the Fez River?

The whole story actually started as my thesis at Harvard. My thesis advisor told me to do something “that you feel passionate about and that could make a difference.” For years, I’d seen the river in my hometown being desecrated, polluted and filled up with trash and rats. It had become an open sewer and a massive trash yard at the core of the city.

The Fez medina has about 250,000 inhabitants, and all their untreated sewage went straight into the narrow river that runs through it. The river was also heavily contaminated by nearby crafts workshops and tanneries — with chemicals such as chromium 3, which is lethal. People working in the tanneries were getting skin cancer, and some of them were dying. It was terrible. Obviously the river started to stink, so people started building walls to block the view. Then, because it became a health hazard, they covered it with concrete starting in 2002. And because it was covered, people began using that open space as trash yard.

Actually, the first covering began in 1952, when Morocco was still a French protectorate, but it was for political reasons — so that French colonial power could easily enter the medina and control the population. Then, as the population grew and Morocco became independent, covering happened because of the stench.

In your Fellows talk at TED2014, you showed how the water feeds into both public fountains and those in private courtyards. Do people actually use that water? Were they getting sick?

Of course they were, especially from the toxic chemicals dumped in the river by craftsmen. It became dangerous to drink from a running fountain. Besides, a series of droughts and excessive extraction from the water table left little water available for the medina water network. By the 1980s, most of the fountains had become defunct, yet they had been central to its urban fabric. Imagine if Rome had no more running fountains! Can you imagine La Seine or the Thames being suddenly covered? The Fez River is smaller in scale, but the effect is similar: a central part of the city was amputated. When I witnessed all this, I was in college at Columbia University in New York at the time. I would have been 19. I was outraged; I wrote an article in the newspaper and I received hate mail, because of course it made the city look bad. At the time, I was an aspiring engineer. But due to my age and lack of experience, I was not taken seriously.

 

Contaminated water will also have been entering your food supply, your groundwater. Of course! Yes! Yes and yes and repeatedly yes. It would pollute the water table, which feeds the most fertile agricultural basin of Morocco. But this didn’t upset anyone. Environmental protection is almost seen as a luxury in developing countries: economic development, health and education are understandably bigger priorities. It’s a different mentality in Morocco. I heard many times: “Look, we’re eating the food and we’re fine, hence  nothing’s wrong!”

Many people are eating food exported from Morocco.

I know. And of course it’s not just Morocco — in so many emerging countries, you have high levels of environmental pollution, but you just don’t know about it as there is not much control or accountability. But the point is that if you uncover such a large-scale environmental hazard, even as an architect, you feel outraged and want to do something about it. So I decided, for my thesis, to propose re-envisioning the medina if the river were to be cleaned and uncovered.

My thesis took a slightly different approach to what I’m doing now. You see, the medina of Fez used to boast one of the oldest universities in North Africa, the Quarawiyine, but after Morocco’s independence in 1956, the government established an American style campus outside the city, which symbolized modernity. The university’s move caused the entire cultural life of the city to fade away. In my thesis, I proposed building a university in the medina, with the various departments to occupy the urban voids along the river. These voids had been created when the river was covered: houses were destroyed to make way for the heavy machinery required. My vision was that, once uncovered, the river would serve as a pleasant green feature, and its banks would be used as a circulation system linking the departments. Classrooms would be located in nearby abandoned buildings. The university model was unusual and innovative: it would be one of a heterogeneous network of buildings embedded within the medina’s urban fabric.

For me, bringing back the water and the university represented a double win. The university idea hasn’t happened yet, but working on this thesis allowed me to start thinking about the potential of the river for the city and its inhabitants. Many ideas I developed back then became a solid departure point for the actual project, which I started in 2007 in collaboration with my then-partner Takako Tajima.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

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