Urbanism Chronicles: EZBET Project

Photo of postcard by EZBET Project. All right reserved.

Author: Rowa Elzain

During the months of October 2017 till January 2018, I had the opportunity to be part of the Ezbet project, carrying small tasks in terms of documentation when needed. During this period, I was introduced to the practical implementation and potential of ‘urban development projects’. The project exhibits how a community along with the support of academia following governmental regulation could achieve a contextualized sustainable urban upgrade. This article outlines a brief of the project in addition to impressions from interviews with team members and project leader on ‘Ezbet Project: Beginnings and Experiences’.

Initiated as a Semester Design Project in 2011 in the St├Ądtebau Institute by Dr. Manal Elshahat, the ‘Ezbet project is an academic-based integrated community development project’ (Ezbet Project, 2015). The project aims at understanding the community’s need in addition to integrating them in the development and implementation process. Currently, the projects are focused on upgrading the informal settlements of Cairo, Egypt. The research project follows three main pillars of sustainable development: Profession, Health, and Education. These pillars relate to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in terms of consisting of smaller goals that in a cross-multidisciplinary development would achieve the larger object of sustainable community development.

EZBET project vision is to “Improve Life Together with Place”. The mission of the project states that “sustainable development and the improvement of the place together with the life can only be possible through creating a healthy, well-educated, skilful Community that is capable to create its own chances and job opportunities and that can be positive part of the whole society”. Finally, the objectives of the project are “aims to establish a bottom-up approach for sustainable development by employing the academia and integrate all stakeholders in the process to improve the living environment of the area of “Ezbet Abu Qarn” which represents a case study for informal settlements in Cairo” (EZBET Project, 2015). Since 2011, the EZBET Project evolved in 4 phases: Project Design (2011-2012), a Egyptian-German Academic Project (2013-2014), A Participatory Need Assessment project (2015-2017), and finally a Research and Consultation Laboratory (2018, till date).

During the Sommerfest 2018, I have carried a series of interviews with a few team member of the EZBET project on the 19th of July 2018. The aim of the interview was to understand how the project originated and the impact it had on the team members. Hence the interview was titled ‘Ezbet Project: Beginnings and Experiences’. The documentation of these interviews are described in 5 themes, each interviewee tackling a topic based on their experience and perspective. These topics are: Beginning of EZBET project, Challenging the methods of urban development, Future of urban development, A new research methodology, and finally, A community.

The beginning of EZBET Project
By Dr. Manal Elshahat
Project Leader, University of Stuttgart
When asked about the critical point that initiated the project, Dr. Manal Elshahat refers to the year 1996 when she was student (third year) at the university of Ain Shams. During a design studio, they were assigned to redesign an informal settlements in Cairo. Unsettled by the current practises for informal settlement development along with the teaching methods of how to design these areas, she began questioning other alternatives. From her perspective during that period, the user of a space should be considered and respected with their social network and state network in order to develop any area, which was contrary to the current practices where the human aspect in terms of user and space was not taken into consideration in planning. Hence, the outcome of the design studio was proposing an alternative for development of informal settlements in Cairo which was received with positive feedback. The project did not progress further till the year 2011 (15 years later) during the Egyptian revolution. During this period, she thought of ways on how to give back to her country as she was living in Stuttgart, and the idea of the developing informal settlement came to mind. Focusing on the same informal settlement; Ezbet Abu Qarn, the project progressed as 'Semester Design Project' in 2011 aiming at developing a community center. Beginning with a site analysis, she was unable to recognize the area during a site visit, 15 years after her last visit. Hence, they surveyed and remapped the area as it seemed like it has witnessed urban change. From this time point onward, the research developed to the Ezbet project that we know now.

When asked what would have she changed, had she the option of starting again, Dr. Manal Elshahat responded with ‘The beginning’. She refers to the idea that one should communicate with the community or get involved with the community through a key person (and Non-governmental organisation) as the key issue for starting a project. In the case of Ezbet Abu Qarn, this idea of a key person caused a delay of the development process. Although she had her doubts with providing an NGO a main role in the project, she was hopeful that by continuing in this method, the project would still reach to a successful conclusion. Had the roles were different, the project could have been even more beneficial with higher impact to the community and space, had they NGO were excluded from the beginning or they didn't have a big role. Nevertheless, as the project was process oriented, even such unexpected incidents were acknowledge as part of the process. This contributed to the lessons learnt as it provided a first hand approaches for how to work with the community even with the a misleading partner. Thus, they now understand that the organisation has a corresponding influence on how the community cooperate and reacts, hence this can play a role in regards to understanding of how to communicate and involve the community in a community development project.

Challenging the methods of Urban development
By Shaharin Annisa
MSc Student, University of Stuttgart 
Shaharin Annisa, a 25 year old Bangladeshi-Omani is a Master student at the University of Stuttgart in MSc Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable design. She joined the EZBET project team on the 22nd of September 2017, however, she was part of PNA seminar by Dr. Manal El Shahat since March 2017. Her role in the project includes managing and organizing events in Stuttgart, coming up with ideas for the workshops, and working on a comprehensive publication for the publishing of the project. Her intentions for joining the project were based on two reasons: an opportunity to learn more Cario and the region along with challenging and understanding the idea of bottom-up planning. Following the Participatory Need Assessment (PNA) workshop, she got the chance to be part of the Ezbet team where she got to know more about the implementation aspect of the project which she found interesting. Because the context was different from Oman, Germany, and Bangladesh, were dealing informal settlements refers to traditional planning approach which usually carried by a top-down approach. However, here in Ezbet project, the team of academics and expert works with the people to try to understand what they need which reflect the definition of ‘participatory needs assessment’.

Previously, she couldn't believe something like this would work from her background, Hence, it was quite fascinating for her to see how bottom-up approach is carried in practice. One her motivation to continue working in the project is that chance to visit Cairo, where she would get to see the implementation process of the project and be part of it. During the visits and workshop carried in Cairo, she was intrigued to find that more women and children who are not usually in the upfront of planning and development were participating in shaping the project. The greatest impact the project had on her is believing in a bottom-up approach in urban development. The refers to a process where both the community and planner work together to figure out a solution, so neither of them would know what will be the end result from the start. Additionally, the product or output grows and develops along with the process. As an architect, she used to believe that large scale planning are better for urban development as it provides a comprehensive plan, however, the case of Ezbet project proofs that small scale has higher impact.

Future of urban development
By Ingy Saad
BSc Student, University of Stuttgart
Ingy Saad, a 21 year old Egyptian, is a Bachelor student at the University of stuttgart studying architecture. She joined the EZBET project in January 2018. Current role in the project is assisting with german translation in documentation and public discussion, in addition to assisting with planning and organizing of events. Her motive of joining the project is to help and assist the development of her country with any means possible and the EZBET project is only mean of connection with her country. As she has been living in Stuttgart for the past few year, she realizes the huge gap between livelihood standards in Germany and Egypt. She now faces a dilemma as the level education taught in Germany does not reflect the situation happening with the rest of the world, whether it is from technologies, development strategies, even architecture wise. Taking the example of EZBET project where even the development of a street or an public oven can have a high impart on the lives of the resident in terms of urban development approaches. Thus, she is planning to participate next semester (5th semester) in a project in india, similar to EZBET project, as she is not fully convinced the future is going to be build with purely technology, rather, renewable energies and affordable housing.

A new research methodology
By Nils Renkes
MSc Student, University of Stuttgart 
Nils Renkes, a 25 year old German, is a master student at the University of Stuttgart. He was introduced to the project in 2016 when he took a seminar with Dr. Manal El Shahat and has been part of the team since 2017. His current role is a volunteer assisting with writing reports in german, however, previously he helped with site analysis, conducting interview on site, preparation of exhibition, and writing observation protocol. As he took a visit to cairo take part in the participatory project in an informal settlement they are working at, he found it was an interesting method for research. In Ezbet project, the methodology begins with implement then evaluate and based on the evaluation you do science and based on that you progress on the project. Hence, his current master thesis is based on this participatory approach of planning taking the Ezbett project as a case study. He found the motivation continue as a team member of the project as the opportunities you get on sharing knowledge is quite diverse, for example the Summer fest.

A community
By Omar Adel
BSc Student, Ain Shams University

Omar Adel, a 20 year old Egyptian, is a bachelor student at Ain Shams University studying architecture. He joined the project in December 2017. His intentions of joining the project to contribute with something meaningful to his country as he believe the country deserve something good. He is currently the media department vise head, current task include publication, coordination, and gather material for the media department. What he considers special about the EZBET project is that it has a lot of commitment and a great working environment. It helps evolve not only the place but the inhabitants lives as well. As the project is within the realm of urban planning and architecture which reflects the current themes he has been learning in his bachelor degree, the ezbet project takes a practical approach to these topic which he finds engaging. The working team of the projects provides a knowledge sharing environment where they all learn from each other which can result to more experience gathered in a short period of time. These experiences are gained during the site survey and analysis that includes experts. Hence having a chance of working closely to them provides the opportunity to further one's communication and documentation skills.

The Ezbet project is now registered in Stuttgart as a ‘Verein’ referring to an association. Aiming to gather further funds in order to continue the research along with the practical projects that has a high impact on the community’s livelihood. The project is hosting a public opening on the 7th of November 2018 at the St├Ądtebau Institut at the University of Stuttgart, Stadtmitte campus. As I have personally been inspired by the project through being part of the team (for a very short period of time), I have taken steps towards initiating a project following a similar development approach. I would encourage everyone whether doubtful or interested in the role of bottom-up planning and it’s methodology to have a look at the Ezbet Project as a precedent of participatory planning in the MENA region.

- Ezbet Project. (2015). About: History. Available at: http://www.ezbetproject.com/en/About/History
- Elshahat, M., Annisa, S., Renkes, N., Saad, I., & Adel, O. (2018). Ezbet project: Beginnings and Experiences [In person interview]. Stuttgart Sommerfest 2018.
- Ezbet Project. (2017). Ezbet Project [Brochure]. Stuttgart: University of Stuttgart.