By Devon Murray
On a windy afternoon in February, AUC students from the Urban Design and Landscape Architecture course, taught by Momen El-Husseiny, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture, piled out of a bus and onto the sandy grounds of Mostakbal (Future) City — one of Cairo’s up-and-coming satellite cities located in the desert about 55 kilometers east of Tahrir Square.
Humming with a mixture of excitement and confusion, the students looked around at the barren lot that would soon be home to one group’s masterplan for Egypt’s first-of-its-kind college town, Bloomfields.
Under a partnership between AUC and real estate developer Tatweer Misr, El-Husseiny’s students have been working since the beginning of the Spring 2022 semester on proposals for a phase of Bloomfields slated to launch in 2030.
“We are motivating our students to envision future modes of urban planning while having a developer who comes to the studio ready to push these ideas forward into the real world,” El-Husseiny said. “This is a positive atmosphere to make a change.”
Ahmed Shalaby, CEO of Tatweer Misr, explained that the town will be home to major schools and universities, an innovation hub, coworking and co-living spaces, and retail areas. “Education is at the heart of Bloomfields,” he said. “Through their proposals, AUC students are creatively addressing global concerns like climate change and promoting sustainable development through urban design and planning.”
Bloomfields is seeking to break from the stale formula many developers in Egypt are following — that is, creating exclusive and isolated communities — and instead working to stimulate openness and interconnectedness against the backdrop of education and innovation. El-Husseiny explained that by 2050, more than 70% of the global population will be living in cities. While Egypt and other countries have jumped to accommodate this growing figure, he argues that there are additional factors that demand consideration when tackling this challenge.
“The real challenge is different. We have to rethink these new urbanisms beyond the physicality of form and concrete structures, and reconceptualize them as modalities of inhabitation,” said El-Husseiny.
“We can’t have golf courses for scenic views and still believe they’re viable at a time when we need green areas for food security. We can’t have vast resources that waste water at a time when we are struggling with water challenges as a result of the Nile River crisis and climate change. We can’t assume that having green cities and a blue economy would sustain a healthy environment at a time when the quality of life is forcing people to drive their cars to run the most basic errands and exercise less. It is time to reincorporate urban farming instead of golf courses, active transport instead of motorized vehicles, self-time and community gatherings for meditation instead of shopping time.”
Several key design elements and considerations that hinge on sustainable development, such as inclusion, urban mobility and active transport, have been introduced to El-Husseiny’s students as part of the project. “My aspiration is to design cities where dwelling, working and playing become everyday practices for all people across all classes,” he explained.
Health is another key cornerstone of the project, said El-Husseiny, noting that cars, congestion, pollution, a sedentary lifestyle and environmental infrastructure all contribute to poorer health outcomes. “Having green space does not entail a healthy community per se,” he said. “There is a need to do more and develop mature, responsible designs based on storytelling, local and global collaborations, and an exchange of real-life experiences.”
Therefore, El-Husseiny first challenged his students to define the concepts of “well-being” and “livable community” — prompting them to dig deeper into the true meaning of the terms and their implications.
Listening to ‘The Other’
Students first began interacting with these concepts through a virtual exchange with The City University of New York’s Guttman Community College, under the Global Scholars Achieving Career Success (GSACS) program. Through GSACS, students from universities in the MENA region and The City University of New York conduct what is referred to as Collaborative Online International Learning centered around UN Sustainable Development Goals and career readiness skills.
In this particular exchange, El-Husseiny’s course was paired with an Urban Community Health class from Guttman. Focusing on Sustainable Development Goal #10 — reduced inequalities — students from both schools examined urban health challenges facing their respective campuses, particularly in terms of using health facilities and open spaces.
“Working with GSACS and Professor Kristina Baines from Guttman opens up an opportunity for our students to engage in their designs with a global perspective,” El-Husseiny said. “Such collaborations push our students to unsettle the norms and generative blueprints.”
Through interviews with AUC students on campus, El-Husseiny’s class worked to understand how different people interact with different spaces at the University in order to “map together the spaces needed for individuals to elevate their well-being,” El-Husseiny described.
“We started by answering the questions as a group to see how everyone might think about these spaces,” said architectural engineering junior Andrew Fayek. “All of us — even the TAs and Dr. Momen — were surprised by how each person felt something different in each space.”
Fayek noted that because Bloomfields aims to attract Egyptians and foreigners alike, it was important for his group to also learn how non-Egyptians thought about certain spaces and consider their perspectives when making design decisions. The exchange offered the perfect opportunity for this. “These interviews were very useful in showing us that we cannot design from our own point of view. We should also consider others,” he stressed.
Another student, architectural engineering senior Nadine Shaker, was inspired by her exposure to the diverse group from Guttman College. “We found common ground between ourselves and the Guttman students, and at the same time, we understood the differences between our cultures,” she said. “New York is very diverse and integrated, and my group is seeking to include that in our design.”
“The CUNY exchange has been very helpful in bringing forth new ideas,” Fayek added. “Architecture is learning about others and understanding them, and then including this in our designs.”
A Cultural Shift
During preliminary presentations in early April, which were attended by Shalaby and his engineering and architectural team from Tatweer Misr, one group showcased a proposal that incorporates the use of healing and relaxing flora, such as aloe vera and acacia, and spaces encircled by water — touching on themes of well-being and reinforcing a resilient ecosystem.
The proposal also included many specialized areas for marginalized groups, including a speech center for children with autism and an entrepreneurial hub for women. The group assured compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations throughout the phase.
“The Tatweer Misr team was thrilled, saying they would love to see these ideas in reality,” El-Husseiny said. “They are ready to experiment with some of these proposals alongside the students over the summer.”
Fayek’s group, whose theme centers around games, is exploring different ways to nourish the mind, body and soul through the lens of their proposal. “We’re trying to include a sports center for the body and a space for thought-provoking games like chess, backgammon and Sega,” he said. “The most challenging part is finding games for the soul, and this is something we are still thinking about.”
The group drew from their experiences at AUC to help them generate ideas for their plan. In terms of gaming, Fayek recalled how the Student Union’s on-campus competitions were successful in connecting students with one another. “We were inspired by this,” Fayek said. “A major part of being human is socializing with others, and these games could serve as a catalyst in breaking the fences built between us.”
Contemplating such concepts has allowed Fayek to explore his discipline on many levels.
“This project is all about layers. In our proposals, we have to consider a number of things — our group’s concept, city codes, environmental aspects and connectivity to nearby areas. It’s challenging but exciting,” he said.
Shaker also touched on the project’s multifaceted nature: “We’ve looked at sustainability, economic feasibility and the long-term goals of the area’s institutions.”
Motivated by taking a unique approach to design, Shaker’s group is proposing cycling paths, enhanced walkability and a major “spine” that connects all areas of the phase, similar to the one found at AUC New Cairo.
Shaker also stressed that there will be no gates enclosing Bloomfields, as is the reality with many developments in Cairo. “That alone makes it much more interactive with nearby communities, which will contribute to the area’s overall health,” she said.
El-Husseiny shared Shaker’s excitement over the lack of gates at Bloomfields, saying, “For the first time, there will be no physical barriers and no walls of segregation. This is all positive.”
Shalaby has been impressed with the proposals.
“All of the students are thinking outside the box. They don’t know the box, actually, so they are naturally thinking out of it at all times,” he said. “Some of these ideas may be new to Egyptian culture, but I think this is part of Tatweer Misr’s role as a developer — to introduce different concepts and techniques that make the culture a bit more sustainable.”
A New Chapter for Collaboration
Shalaby ensured that while Bloomfields may be the first AUC-Tatweer Misr collaboration, it will not be the last. “The students have done a wonderful job,” he said. “They are adopting innovative concepts and techniques in solving real estate problems. This is exactly what we are looking for.”
El-Husseiny shared similar sentiments. “This collaboration is the essence of changemaking education that leaves an impact beyond the course and classroom,” he said. “Having the support of the AUC administration, architecture department and Tatweer Misr — and having students come together from Cairo and New York — is the best practice of design thinking and a healthy community of listening to each other with multiple voices for the sake of a better future. This is exactly the kind of experimental learning and future urbanism that I seek in my design studio.”
And so, on that cold February morning in Mostakbal City, confusion gave way to excitement as students began to visualize different masterplans for Bloomfields. “At the site visit, we felt things that the maps and brochures could not make us feel,” Fayek said. “We could feel the direction of the wind and interpret what it might mean for future planning, and we visited the already-built residential areas to get a sense of the neighboring area. All of this connected us to Bloomfields.”
Back at AUC, Shaker noted a sense of accomplishment among her peers during the pre-final discussion.
“We never imagined that we were capable of something of this scale,” she said. “This project is a big deal.”
As complex as this project may be, El-Husseiny and his students are driven by passion and a keen sense of ownership, which have been the secret ingredients keeping them going. “We’re having fun, and it’s nice to work on something real that I can point out to my friends on a map.” Fayek said. “This project will represent our class, AUC and Egypt. I’m excited to see what Bloomfields looks like in 2030.”
“There is nothing more rewarding to an educator than feeling that their labor is translated in real life,” El-Husseiny added. “To feel that change gives us hope to keep believing and working hard.”