Aziza Chaouni: “How I brought a River and My City back to Life”

Above: Respecting public opinion and expectations about their city center and their river. This includes people from all economic and social strata Photo: http://www.asla.org

As India attempts to tackle the huge and growing problem of Urban water pollution and Urban rivers, there are repeated attempts to look outwards and try to learn from experience of successful cases from other countries. While replication of such cases is never easy and most of the times not possible, one can learn lessons from such examples. Here is one such case from North African Country of Morocco.

Fez River - A River of Trash as Aziza says Source - TED
Fez River – A River of Trash as Aziza says Source – TED

Architect and Professor at Toronto University, Aziza Chaouni narrates in her TED talk how the Fez River flowing through the City of Fez in Morocco (Northern Africa) is being cleaned up and uncovered and the role she played: “The Fez River winds through the medina (city) of Fez, Morocco—a mazelike medieval city that’s a World Heritage site. Once considered the “soul” of this celebrated city, the river succumbed to sewage and pollution, and in the 1950s was covered over bit by bit until nothing remained. TED Fellow Aziza Chaouni recounts her 20 year effort to restore this river to its former glory, and to transform her city in the process.”[1]

Fez River Crusader Aziza Chaouni Source - TED talks
Fez River Crusader Aziza Chaouni Source – TED talks

Her narration of the city and the river has striking similarities with Indian rivers and cities: “The Fez medina has about 250,000 inhabitants, and all their untreated sewage went straight into the narrow river that runs through it. The river was also heavily contaminated by nearby crafts workshops and tanneries — with chemicals such as chromium 3, which is lethal. People working in the tanneries were getting skin cancer, and some of them were dying. It was terrible. Obviously the river started to stink, so people started building walls to block the view. Then, because it became a health hazard, they covered it with concrete starting in 2002. And because it was covered, people began using that open space as trash yard.”[2]

Her description of how government functions is also applicable here: “Environmental protection is almost seen as a luxury in developing countries… you have high levels of environmental pollution, but you just don’t know about it as there is not much control or accountability”.

Fez River: How it was erased over the years Source - TED talk
Fez River: How it was erased over the years Source – TED talk

The interventions she proposed were relevant for the specific location and situation and the strategies are more generally applicable: “So we proposed three main interventions: a pedestrian plaza, a playground and a botanical garden. We used four main strategies: precisely placed interventions strategically phased to enhance water quality, remediate contaminated sites, create open spaces, and build on existing resources for economic development. These interventions had to benefit the population on several levels — social, environmental, economic, urban — and be resilient, so that it would still function regardless of changes in budget, political climate, and so on. At the wider city scale, we needed to prevent the newly cleaned river water inside the medina from getting polluted upstream, so we recommended measures for improving regional water quality, too. Depending on soil geomorphology, levels of water pollution, adjacent urban fabric and ecological systems, we purposefully located various rehabilitation tactics like canal restorers, constructed wetlands, bank restoration and storm-water retention ponds.”

Fez River: Rejuvenating step by step.  Source - TED talks
Fez River: Rejuvenating step by step. Source – TED talks
State of Fez River Source - Tedconfblog
State of Fez River Source – Tedconfblog

This is something which is entirely missing in our ‘Riverfront Develoment Projects” which lately are only about real estate and propose to do nothing for the river itself.

Her observation about difficulties of a municipal project are relevant for us too: “As some of my colleagues have observed, any municipal project around the world is the most complex project you can possibly work on, especially on a large scale. Because there are just so many variables, there are so many changes in the sociopolitical landscape, and so many commercial and economic interests colliding.”

About Chaouni’s background: “Born and raised in Fez, Morocco, Chaouni has long found herself fascinated with the Fez River, which winds through the city’s ancient Medina. Once considered the city’s soul, sending water to both public and private fountains, in the 1950s, the stream started to become a toxic sewer because of overcrowding, over-development and pollution. The city responded by covering the river over with concrete slabs, bit by bit, in the process destroying houses and creating dumping grounds. When Fez received a grant to divert and clean the river’s water, Chaouni proposed the Fez River Project to uncover the river, restore its riverbanks and create pedestrian pathways. Her vision: to reclaim these areas as public spaces and reconnect them to the rest of the city.”

“A project that Chaouni has been working on for two decades, her mission to transform the Fez River began with her thesis in graduate school and has continued throughout her career. Over the course of years, the river is gradually being uncovered—illegal parking lots are being transformed into playgrounds, trees and vegetation are being planted to create public spaces. Overall, the project is revitalizing Fez as a living city.”[3]

Community-centric plans for resuscitating the famed pits of the Fez Photo: holcimfoundation.org
Community-centric plans for resuscitating the famed pits of the Fez Photo: holcimfoundation.org

This example of Fez city and River is still work in progress, but what has been achieved there is certainly impressive. It can provide some lessons for us, provided we are ready to listen: It is possible to truly rejuvenate an urban river: and Sabarmati is not even the right example. In her TED talk, Aziza at one stage says that they could achieve some things only when they put on the ‘Activist’ hat, shedding the ego of the Architect.

Indian Government has no role for activists, unfortunately.


Impression of the resuscitated Fez River in the heart of the city Photo: Aziza Chaouni Projects
Impression of the resuscitated Fez River in the heart of the city Photo: Aziza Chaouni Projects


[1] http://www.ted.com/talks/aziza_chaouni_how_i_brought_a_river_and_my_city_back_to_life

[2] http://blog.ted.com/2014/04/04/from-an-open-sewer-to-a-jewel-of-the-city-aziza-chaouni-on-uncovering-and-restoring-the-fez-river/

[3] http://www.ted.com/speakers/aziza_chaouni