New Urban Topologies in Alexandria, session II

 – February 21–23 2013.

In February 2013 New Urban Topologies returned to Egypt to conduct a follow-up to the visit in 2011. During the workshop we also produced the film "New Urban Topologies Alexandria" (above). The film depicts the situation in Alexandria today and imposes several general issues that could be applied to many cities around the world.

On 20–24 February 2013 Färgfabriken in conjunction with its Egyptian partner Gudran carried out an extensive session on dialogue, communication and participatory planning in the city of Alexandria within the New Urban Topologies (NUT) program. The participants were municipal representatives, architects, urban planners, scholars, students, activists and ordinary citizens from the cities of Alexandria, East Jerusalem, Beirut, and Jakarta and Stockholm. The initiative has a strong connection to the ongoing democratic transition in Egypt and was a result of a request from the Egyptian participants in previous sessions.

The purpose was to empower the individual participants and the NUT network through the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and analogue participatory methods.

After three years New Urban Topologies (NUT) have grown to be an important program for establishing new contacts within and between cities, knowledge transfer and cross-sectorial dialogue on urbanism. In previous sessions, NUT has shed light on different aspects of the cities visited, such as urban identity, cultural heritage, architectural ambitions, transport systems, segregation and public space. During the NUT session in Alexandria in October 2011 it became clear that the matter of dialogue and communication was the core challenge in a city where the uprisings earlier that year had shaken the society deeply.

ICT and democracy
Digital communication has played a crucial role in the recent political changes in the region. But what comes after Twitter and Facebook? The second session of NUT Alexandria wanted to investigate the next step in using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and further how these tools could be used together with the best-proven analogue participatory planning methods, such as open space workshops and charrettes. Complementing these methods with ICT could possibly create a holistic entirety where the two would fuse in a fruitful way.

nut alex2 questions box

The questions above were some of those posted by the young activists and students during a four-day long training that was offered by Färgfabriken. The intense course aimed to teach the participants how to use digital tools, in this case film cameras and movie cutting programs, to produce documentary material highlighting the realities on ground in Alexandria and empowering the participants to speak up and involve in the future of their society. After the workshop the participants went out in the streets to ask the citizens of Alexandria questions dealing with different aspects of the ICT theme. They then produced four short films that were shown for a large audience before the New Urban Topologies workshop.

Public seminar on participatory planning
The first public event of the second session of NUT Alexandria included a full day seminar where participants from the cities of Alexandria, East Jerusalem, Beirut, Jakarta, Mostar and Stockholm discussed local and global urban prospects and challenges with a focus on dialogue and communication. The conversation targeted community participation in official planning as well as and activist strategies of communication in the cities presented. (Please download full report from the seminar here.)
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Photo: Rebecka Gordan

Kafr Ashri case study excursion
The case study area of the second New Urban Topologies session in Alexandria was the residential district of Kafr Ashri, located in the industrial district of Minet El Basal in the vicinity of the western harbor, close to the inner city and framed by the Mahmodia canal. The good location, a mixed used fabric and the high land value makes it easy for the inhabitants to commute to the city and for visitors to come there. Lately there has been a decrease in the industrial activities in Minet El Bassal, which resulted in a substantial number of vacant industrial buildings and a high percentage of unemployed. However, the vacant buildings and the location offer many possibilities.
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Photo: Rebecka Gordan

A selected group of New Urban Topologies participants got to visit the area and talk to some of its inhabitants. The group was guided by Sameh El Halawany and Hebattallah Abouelfadl. At the site the group sat down with the local community representative Adel El Said who told them about the area and the problems the community is facing. The group was shown new badly constructed residential illegal buildings, streets in bad condition, the lack of street lights, empty warehouses in the vicinity of the area and the only bridge connecting Kafr Ashri to the south, made by cardboard and plastic and guarded by a man that asked for money when inhabitants are crossing.
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Photo: Rebecka Gordan

The group also got a change to talk to a few children. They said what they most wished for in Kafr Ashri was playgrounds and to have a school for girls. As for now the young girls have to walk a long way and also make use of the rundown bridge in order to get to school. The visit indicates that local actors as door openers when entering an area are crucial, and that partnering with local NGOs – which is a part of the NUT strategy – is a necessity.

The workshop – problems and possibilities in the Kafr Ashri area
The workshop session was introduced through the screening of a documentary short film made by Gudran where a couple of inhabitants of Kafr Ashri share their views of the area and their personal situation. The documentary was followed by a discussion and finally the young activists and students presented the documentary short films that they had worked on during the week within the NUT-ICT training course. Together with Gudran and the Swedish Institute Alexandria Färgfabriken then hosted a workshop in which the attendants were placed in four groups where they were mixed according to their professions and nationalities. Each group was designated to discuss one topic. The overall theme was Trust, the four topics were Public Space, Economic Local Development, Services and Housing. Each group worked on their specific them and made a public presentation. The presentation was followed by a final discussion where community representative and the Director of the Urban Planning Department discussed the themes of the day together with the audience. (Please download full report of the workshop here.)
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Photo: Rebecka Gordan

NUT-ICT; a new platform
The last day in Alexandria Färgfabriken organized a workshop that focused on Information and Communication Technologies and how NUT could develop through a digital platform for communication and knowledge sharing. Introducing the content of the day, Färgfabriken underlined the urge met earlier on in the NUT sessions by participants from different countries to share knowledge and build new networks together. The participators in the workshop – consisting of urban planners, artists and activists, all active within the field of local urban democracy working in the cities of Alexandria, East Jerusalem, Beirut, and Jakarta – came to talk about Internet access and the fact that many people do not have it in their countries. They all found their official digital infrastructure insufficient.

With around 35 million Internet uses in Egypt, the participants identified the need to develop and empower this phenomenon and make use of the full potential of this digital revolution. Hand in hand with the need to make good use of the digital transformation goes the NUT-ICT network, the participants concluded. A better communication within the group would affect also external communication. One further point was that local inhabitants outside the professional sphere should be invited to participate and share their views at the platform. “The architects need these people to give input to their design, and the people need the architects to be able to make use of the design tools allowing change”, one of the participants concluded.

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Photo: Rebecka Gordan

Visualizing the Platform
After discussing the major needs, the participants were divided into three teams designated to come up with ideas and proposals for how a NUT-ICT platform could be used and function. The participants imagined the platform as their portal collecting the different experiences from the NUT network that would inform the visitor. It was said that the platform needs to be very interactive with a design that is flexible. The basic idea of the teams was to create an international virtual portal with the participating cities and where participants could reach out. In this portal you have your respective city that you work with, but others can also share experiences they think could be of help to you. The teams underlined that the setup of a platform also is very connected to what they named “Security ICT”. They stressed that participants living in countries that do lack in freedom of expression must have their security guaranteed when contributing to the platform. On the other hand, if secured the platform could be a vital breathing space for these participants. In line with this, it was highlighted that authorities that normally do not publish their documents online could do so at the platform.

Mapping, sharing and strengthening the network
It was advised that the digital platform should include a presentation of New Urban Topologies, its aims and core values and a specific NUT dictionary. The site was also suggested to contain data on global urbanism as well as the specific NUT cities in the form of capturing texts, facts and figures. It was also suggested that the site should have one closed part for the NUT participants and one open part for the public. Regarding the content, the teams also stated that the platform should include a database of information, some sort of ”shared experience tool”. The possibility to compare the strategies of one’s own city to other cities was seen as an important ingredient. The teams stressed the importance of communicating the ideas of NUT. These ideas could come from anyone, which would make it very important to clarify that NUT is about listening and involving different perspectives and topics, from cultural heritage to informal economies. Sharing experiences and methods was identified as the main task of the platform.

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Photo: Rebecka Gordan

The participants found it very interesting with e-learning, and one team brought up the importance of developing a methodology similar to the Swedish “folkskola”, equivalent to a free public school open to all. All participants agreed on that personal development within the NUT program is very important and that a future online platform should give participants a possibility to develop. In line with this they stated that NUT should not only focus on institutions, organizations and municipalities but also the people the network consists of. Being part of the NUT network is a personal choice and the participants stressed that they engage not only to make a change in society but also to learn new methods and get new perspectives that they can make use of in their own daily work.
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Photo: Rebecka Gordan

Reaching Out
How can the findings of NUT be spread outside its core network? This was an issue that all the groups discussed. One of the teams stated that there must be communication tools on the ground before realizing the digital version of NUT. Inhabitants and other participants could be reached with various unconventional methods as graffiti on walls, art in public space, cultural activities, t-shirts, marketing campaigns and photography. The web site could then be based on these actions. Some participants stated that they were a bit afraid that the use of digital media exclude rather than include certain groups. This indicates that there is a need for ICT training and an inclusion of interviews on the website with those not connected to digital channels.

Concluding comments
As in the first session of NUT Alexandria the participants still stressed the need for greater dialogue between citizens and decision makers and asked for a greater transparency within processes of city planning and urban design. The gap between the people and the authority that they identified back then can though be said to have decreased to a certain extent as the second session made a serious interaction between the municipal urban planning director and two engaged inhabitants of a poor and neglected neighborhood happen. Summarizing the five days, Färgfabriken also identifies a strong wish among the participants for a sustainable digital platform that will fill the gaps between the analogue meetings. The essential functions of this site would be knowledge transfer within and between different cities and stakeholders, effective e-learning with an international perspective for a local adaptation, and a secure space for freedom of expression.

In the New Urban Topologies menu you can find reports, reflections and pictures from each city. It's also possible to download and read the two publications "The Chisinau and Minsk experience" and "Alexandria – City of Layers". New Urban Topologies is supported by the Swedish Institute and by the Swedish Institute in Alexandria.