Project Management Institute

Mystic river




Battling naysayers, a project team tries to clean up an ancient Moroccan city and the river that runs through it.

A moody otherworldliness permeates the ancient medina in Fez, Morocco. Framed by historic palaces, stores, residences and mosques, a labyrinth of narrow streets twists through the walled quarter built in the 9th century. But since the late 1950s, its lifeblood, the River Fez, has become tainted. Nicknamed “The River of Trash” by locals, much of the waterway has been covered with concrete in an attempt to stifle the chemical stench of runoff from the Chouarra leather tanneries.

One architect is taking her hometown's ecological fate into her own hands. Aziza Chaouni and a team of urban planners, landscape architects and designers have crafted a project to not only revive the river over the next 20 years, but also to restore the natural beauty of the medina and surrounding city.


Going for Gold

The project team struck gold twice, scoring two top awards from the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction. Armed with US$300,000 in prize money, the team formed a nongovernmental organization called Sauvons Oued Fez (Save the Fez River) to advance revitalization sub-projects and encourage community involvement.

You Can't Please Everyone

The medina's designation as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site in 1981 has made the project a contentious undertaking.

“Some colleagues said I was simply quite naïve when I started this project,” Ms. Chaouni acknowledges.

She and her team are juggling insights and investments from multiple stakeholders: preservation architects, urban planners, city architects, politicians and local business associations fighting for more vehicle access within the medina.

“For a municipal project, you have to be flexible,” she says. “When there is a change in politics, the budget may become more or less.”

The Plan Is Hatched

Ms. Chaouni's vision for saving the river dates back to 2002. She wrote articles in the Moroccan press and based her graduate thesis on the project. After Ms. Chaouni landed a post-graduate fellowship, the city's Department of Water and Power (known as RADEEF) commissioned her newly formed firm, Bureau of Ecological Architecture & Systems of Tomorrow (Bureau EAST), to propose a rehabilitation plan for the polluted river.


The number of buildings in the medina designated as historical structures

Packed In

The medina stretches across 280 hectares (692 acres) and is home to about 200,000 residents. That makes for some cramped quarters. Bureau EAST estimates there are 550 residents for every hectare (2.47 acres) of open space in the medina.


A Scale of Two Cities

“The project works at two scales—the city scale and the medina scale,” says Suzanne Ernst, project manager. The main goals are to improve regional water quality through three critical intervention sites, create public green spaces in the poorest areas and revitalize economic development.

RADEEF plans to open Fez's first-ever sewage treatment plants this year, which should help put an end to the dumping of raw sewage into the river. The agency also commissioned Bureau EAST to act as landscape architects for a rehabilitation project that addresses “not only the ecology of the river, but also social and economic concerns,” Ms. Chaouni says.

Play Time

The drying pit for the hides produced at the Chouarra tanneries has been converted into a parking lot. But beneath the pavement, high doses of chromium(III) deposits, which can be lethal to aquatic life, leach into the soil and the city's water table.

The Bureau EAST plan calls for the existing soil to be removed and replenished within the next year or two. This area will house the medina's first playground, with equipment created from salvaged materials. A manmade wetland of marsh flora will filter rainwater and runoff, revitalizing the riverbed ecosystem.


Controlling the Chaos

The medina's main hub buzzes with a jumble of cars, motorcycles, buses and, yes, donkeys. But a project is underway to transform it into a major public space, including a new river walk. To create room, the team plans to tear down the illegal buildings that have sprouted up in the city center. The proposed R'cif Plaza, for example, will be home to a new amphitheater, outdoor cafés, street vendors, a farmer's market and a garden of native species that doubles as stormwater filtration.



From Foul to Fair

Relocating and repurposing the famous Chouarra tanneries will be the most complicated—and probably most pivotal—portion of the project.

“We need to create a new space for them before we move people,” Ms. Chaouni says.

The plan is to relocate the tanneries to Ain Nokbi, a new industrial craft quarter outside the medina.

The current tannery site will become a leather workshop, with the central area transformed into a public botanical garden.

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