Breathing new life into the legacy of past civilisations calls for a creativity, imagination, tolerance, understanding, and wisdom well beyond the ordinary. The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP), established in 1992, implements conservation, urban revitalization and area development projects in historically significant sites of the Islamic world undertaking the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures and public spaces in ways that spur social, economic and cultural development. Its projects seek to mobilize local potential and resources in order to ensure their eventual self-sustainability through operational income, human resource development and institutional management capabilities. Through this integrated approach, the Programme seeks to demonstrate that strengthening cultural identity can go hand in hand with socio-economic progress.
Going beyond mere restoration of monuments, the Programme engages in activities related to adaptive re-use, contextual urban planning and the improvement of housing, infrastructure and public spaces. It carries out related socio-economic development initiatives directed at upgrading local living conditions and improving quality of life.
Investments in single project locations or regions are coordinated with other Aga Khan Development Network programmes so that they reinforce each other as they grow together into a critical mass for positive change. In all project locations, community participation and training of local professionals are essential components.
Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (formerly Historic Cities Support Programme). 2004. Al-Azhar Park Programme Brief.
The origins of the Al-Azhar Park project date to 1984, when the Aga Khan Award for Architecture organised a conference on the subject of The Expanding Metropolis: Coping with the Urban Growth of Cairo. At that time, the city was confronted by the array of contemporary development challenges faced by many cities, not least population pressures, a decline in the quality of housing and the attendant problems these conditions create. Despite these challenges, the question of how to reconcile conservation and development was a fairly new one.
It was clear that Cairo needed more green space. One study found that the amount of green space per inhabitant is roughly equivalent to the size of a footprint. It is one of the lowest proportions in the world. It was on the occasion of the conference that His Highness the Aga Khan announced his decision to finance the creation of a park for the citizens of the Egyptian capital. The only central location which was of suitable scale and which lent itself to rehabilitation was the derelict Darassa site, a 30-hectare (74 acre), 500-year-old mound of rubble in the inner city, between the eastern edge of the 12th- century Ayyubid city and the 15th-century Mamluk "City of the Dead".
While the neighbouring district of Darb al-Ahmar was poor, it featured one of the richest concentrations of Islamic art and architecture in the world. The challenge was to revitalise this heritage in ways that turned traditional notions about cultural monuments on their head-that rather than being a drain on resources, they could be a stimulus for social and economic development. The Park project was therefore intended to be a case study for a variety of development challenges, ranging from environmental rehabilitation to cultural restoration. The objective was to create models of development that could be replicated in many other settings, and in particular in the historic cities of the Islamic world. Almost one-third of historic cities on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites are in the Islamic World. Many face pressures similar to those of Cairo.