The Rejuvenation of the Fez River

Traditionally known as ‘Oued Al Jawahir’ (River of Jewels), the Fez River runs through the heart of the city’s ancient Medina – a large medieval pedestrian urban area listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its cultural and historical value. As the urban area grew, the river became polluted with chemicals from tanneries and other craft workshops, as well as sewage from the growing population. Eventually city authorities started covering the polluted river with slabs of concrete, creating open spaces that became rubbish dumps. Today, primarily thanks to the efforts of Moroccan architect and engineer Aziza Chaouni, the river has been uncovered again and the areas around it are being turned into open, eco-friendly public spaces for the enjoyment of both locals and visitors to the Imperial City of Fez.

Born and raised in Fez, Chaouni was studying at Harvard when she decided to make the regeneration of the Fez River, an issue close to her heart, the subject of her thesis. In 2007 the city implemented a project to divert and treat sewage from the Medina, making clean water in the river a possibility. Chaouni and her partner, Takako Tajima, won the 2009 Global Holcim Gold Award for their proposed recovery of the River Fez. The project includes the creation of a pedestrian plaza, a playground and a botanical garden. Their main strategies were to use targeted interventions to enhance water quality; clean up contaminated sites; create open spaces; and to promote economic development by building on existing resources.

Enhancing water quality in the river had to start upstream, and recommended measures included constructed wetlands, canal and bank restoration, and storm-water retention ponds. With construction still ongoing in the medina and artisans reportedly still polluting parts of the river and its banks in some places, biodiversity within the medina has not shown much change. However, downstream there are noticeable improvements and Chaouni is confident that improvements will take place in the Medina in time.

The el-Rcif Plaza, which is still under construction, is already being used by the residents of the Medina. Trees have been planted and amphitheater style seating offers a place to sit and relax. The river banks will be transformed into pedestrian areas linked to the network of pathways of the Medina. There is still much work to be done, but the river is open again and beneficial changes are taking place in this historic Moroccan city.

In March 2014, Aziza Chaouni recounted her efforts to restore the Fez River in a TED talk which has been viewed by more than 340,000 people on the internet as it tells the tale of what can be achieved with vision and determination.