MLive - The Ann Arbor News
Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Landscape architects create green oasis at Cairo's core

Couple has offices in Ann Arbor, Egypt

News Staff Reporter

The sprawling city of Cairo has congestion, pollution and 17 million people. Now it has a 74-acre park right in the heart of its historic center.

The Al-Azhar park is a green oasis in the city where sand and grit can get into your clothing and the metropolitan area spreads along the Nile and into the desert.

Laila Stino and her husband, Maher, laid out the master plan for the park landscapes, working out which groundcover will keep a steep slope from eroding and which trees won't block out views of nearby minarets or the fortification of the Citidel. The couple, whose firm Sites International has offices in Ann Arbor and Cairo, experimented with designs for lights, benches, drinking fountains and trash cans for the park, which is set to officially open this month.

There are only about 6.6 square inches of green space for every Cairo resident, says Stino, whose firm currently is working on landscaping for a new campus of the American University in Cairo.

Stino met her husband at Cairo University, and worked for a short time at the office of architect Philip Johnson in New York. The Stinos attended Georgia Tech in Athens, Ga., before coming to Ann Arbor, where they each received a doctorate in landscape architecture at the University of Michigan.

Stino grew up in Cairo and still visits every year, but says Ann Arbor feels like home to her now. Her two daughters - one a dentist and the other a civil engineer - live or work in Ann Arbor and her son attends U-M.

Her bachelor's degree is in architecture, but she became interested in landscape architecture even while she was in Egypt. There is no school for landscape architecture there, says Stino, and she and her husband could be considered the first modern landscape architects to practice in the country.

Stino looks at Cairo and bemoans the lack of urban planning. Less than 3 percent of Egypt is arable land, which runs along the Nile or in its delta, while the rest of the country is the edge of the Sahara Desert. Much of that green valley along the river has been built on or paved over, with little construction in the adjoining desert, says Stino.

Al-Azhar Park is meant to renew some of that green space. For at least 500 years, the site was a trash heap, piled on the far side of an ancient wall built to protect the city almost a millennium ago.

The $30 million park project was paid for by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which is based in Geneva and helps revitalize cities in the Islamic world. Besides construction of the park, the project includes excavation of the ancient wall, renovation of a poor, tumbledown neighborhood next door and repair of several historic buildings in the historically Islamic area that includes a number of mosques, as well as religious and burial sites.

Some travel sources say you can see the pyramids from the park, but Stino says that's pretty difficult given the amount of pollution hovering over the city.

The idea of the park was sparked in 1984, but the two-year design process began in 1999, followed by three years of construction.

The first step in building the park was to remove an estimated 80,000 trucks full of debris and rubble. A thick layer of topsoil was spread over the alkaline base that remained, and the graded site includes a steep slope on one side over a walkway along the ancient wall.

The underground engineering work cost more than the work on the surface, says Stino. Three water reservoirs were built on the site and workers installed irrigation pipes to water the greenery, as well as to feed fountains and the channel of water that runs through the park.

The basic design for the park is based on a promenade that leads from an Islamic-inspired restaurant to a cafe house overlooking a pond.

Conservation of water is very important in Egypt, says Stino, and the fountains and water path were planned to make use of as little water as possible.

Still, the use of water is important in traditional Islamic architecture, in which a house will face into a courtyard to protect residents as much as possible from the harsh desert climate, she says.

Stino said she would like to see better urban planning that would send development out into the desert, and she'd like to see the end of the concrete-block apartment houses.

But overall, she loves her native city. Cairenes work hard, she says, and they stay up late, peopling restaurants and night spots until early in the morning.

That's the best time, Stino says. "I love the Nile at 3 in the morning."

Marianne Rzepka can be reached
at (734) 994-6820 or

2005 Ann Arbor News. Used with permission