By Katie Marie
As the Chinese proverb iterates, “a good neighbor – a found treasure.”
AUC’s Neighborhood Initiative, driven by the Department of Architecture, explores how the University can strengthen its mutually enriching relationship with its surrounding communities.
The University has a long-standing tradition of community engagement, which stems from its dual commitment to modeling good institutional citizenship and providing students with a dynamic learning experience. This commitment is practiced most visibly through entities such as the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy, Civic Engagement and Responsible Business, student-led community service clubs and programs, and a curriculum that challenges students to apply knowledge gained in the classroom to solve real-world problems.
In its first iteration seven years ago, the Neighborhood Initiative sought to connect with both external and internal stakeholders in order to better understand AUC’s role in the Tahrir and New Cairo communities. “We wanted to look at issues of sustainability not only from the environmental point of view, but also in terms of the social and economic impact that AUC at an institutional level can have on the community,” explained Khaled Tarabieh, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Architecture.
The knowledge gained from this project has helped AUC deepen its ties with surrounding communities and understand how to channel its resources to play a larger role in the development of downtown and New Cairo as urban spaces. “AUC is an educational institution, but we have a greater vision for our existence in the city. We also have expertise that allows us to play a positive role in shaping the transition that New Cairo is undergoing,” said Tarabieh.
Getting to Know Our Neighbors
AUC’s Neighborhood Initiative began in 2015 as a partnership with the American University of Beirut (AUB), which originated the concept in the MENA region. “We wanted to replicate and scale up the philosophy of what AUB had achieved in their own initiative but in a different context,” recalled Magda Mostafa, associate professor in the Department of Architecture.
With funding from the Ford Foundation and support from U.S.-based consultancy U3 Advisors, a team of graduate student researchers led by Mostafa, Tarabieh and former faculty member Khaled Abdelhalim, embarked on a two-phase study of AUC’s surrounding communities. “One of the things we wanted to do was gain an understanding of how our neighbors — the stakeholders and constituencies around us — perceived AUC. We worked with various groups on campus and with representatives of the Tahrir and New Cairo communities to explore this,” said Mostafa.
The first report generated by the project represents six months of research and the outcome of two workshops composed of AUC students as well as architecture students from different universities. It maps the physical, social and economic dynamics of each of AUC’s surrounding communities as well as the legal frameworks that govern these spaces.
The symposium, “Universities and Their Neighborhoods: An AUC-AUB Conversation,” was held in 2015 to examine the findings of this project, explore on a philosophical level the role of urban universities in their neighborhoods and begin generating specific recommendations for the AUC Tahrir and New Cairo campuses. “Right from the beginning, there was a clear distinction between the campuses. The neighborhoods themselves are completely different, and because of this, the role that AUC plays in each, how we operate, is very different. We found that the role AUC Tahrir Square plays is mainly that of a hub for cultural events and professional development,” noted Mostafa, highlighting the crucial efforts by the School of Continuing Education, which offers more than 90 different courses to over 22,000 people per year.
Despite the gradual transitioning of most core academic activities to New Cairo, AUC Tahrir Square has remained an important space where the campus community can commune with its neighbors at film screenings, lectures and other social gatherings.
The Neighborhood Initiative’s findings around the New Cairo campus presented a more complicated view. It first revealed that AUC has an important role to play in drawing people and businesses to the relatively young neighborhood of New Cairo, creating new economic and social opportunities. Yet in this more socially isolated urban space where most people live within compounds and rely on private cars to get around, it has been challenging for AUC to connect with its neighbors in a meaningful way. “We asked people about their perceptions of AUC, and they brought up our fence. It was unclear to them what went on behind our fence and what we could provide to them. The initiative triggered greater reflection on how we could transcend this fence to establish a greater connection with our neighbors,” said Tarabieh.
“We don’t want our students to only learn on our campus, as amazing as it is. We want them to take their theoretical learning out into the real world and test it. In doing so, we can also work to overcome the barriers between AUC and its neighborhoods.”
A yearlong second phase of the Neighborhood Initiative completed throughout 2016 shifted its focus inward.
The project team mapped the University’s campuses and internal resources for community engagement as well as the ways in which AUC is already demonstrating institutional citizenship. “This phase looked at the different patterns of use across campus, where students were congregating and moving, and how the different schools connected,” recounted Mostafa. “We found that there were many oases of excellence that could really benefit from more internal community building. So many areas of AUC across all disciplines are already doing work that relates to the communities.”
Mostafa added, “One proposal to come out of the Neighborhood Initiative was that AUC needed an agent or advisory committee that could more intentionally connect our community both internally and with our neighborhoods.”
The initiative also fostered more collaboration between AUC and the greater Cairo community. In 2015, AUC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Cairo Governorate that enabled the University to play a bigger role in shaping the rehabilitation of downtown. Through this partnership and others, AUC has actively supported several beautification projects in its neighborhoods, such as the renovation of the façade of the Lycée Français School adjacent to AUC Tahrir Square.
In New Cairo, AUC partnered with TAMEER real estate developer on a student design competition to transform the water tower outside of campus. “We ran a semester-long student competition with faculty providing mentorship and conducted design thinking workshops,” said Mostafa. “The student design teams prepared some really beautiful proposals.”
The jury for the competition included AUC, TAMEER and members of the Cairo design community. “I think this project is an excellent example of what the Neighborhood Initiative can do,” said Mostafa. “It was a partnership with one of our neighbors, and it brought students from different disciplines. They worked together to think about costs, aesthetics, constructability and lighting. It was a comprehensive challenge. I would love to see a series of events like this take place.” She emphasized that “Cairo is such an interesting laboratory for our students to observe. There isn’t an issue that the world is facing that isn’t also represented in the neighborhoods around us.”
Tarabieh echoed the same sentiment. “The community can be a living learning lab,” he said. “We don’t want our students to only learn on our campus, as amazing as it is. We want them to take their theoretical learning out into the real world and test it. In doing so, we can also work to overcome the barriers between AUC and its neighborhoods.”
In the intervening years since the first Neighborhood Initiative studies were completed, a lot has changed in both the landscape of Cairo and in Egypt. The COVID-19 pandemic forced people into isolation and strained the bonds of many communities across the world. Now that the worst part of this global tragedy appears to have passed, AUC faculty and students are returning to campus and in-person learning. The University is also seeking ways to reinvigorate its relationships with its neighborhoods and support their recovery from the challenges of the last two years.
“AUC is a unique intersection of both East and West,” Mostafa said. “We follow the American liberal arts philosophy, which is arguably the most impactful educational approach in the world right now. At the same time, we are rooted in Egypt and a rich culture that goes back thousands of years. All of our disciplines are already working with our neighbors in different ways. My hope is that with this renewed energy around community engagement, we can revive the Neighborhood Initiative and structure it in a more sustainable way. Just connecting these different pieces and giving them a shared platform would be a great starting point.”