Category Archives: urban development

The “Trabway”

Traffic in downtown Casa has been particularly congested in the last few months due to tramway construction. Drivers found some boulevards suddenly reduced from four lanes to two, and the historic Boulevard Mohammed V is almost completely blocked. Here’s what it looks like these days:

I think Casa is still in the “grumbly” phase of this major infrastructure project, because I’ve rarely seen much enthusiasm from Casaouis about the new Tramway, scheduled to be finished on 11/11/2011. One friend told me that the project is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “trabway.” “Trab” means dirt, which is all that we see so far of the tramway project.

A rep from Casa Tramway says that the company did a lot of outreach, both to take into account the public’s input and to let them know about the project once it was underway–where to park, how to drive around the blocked streets, etc–but having never heard of any of this from anyone else I’m skeptical about the efficacy of their outreach… (although a very cute animated tram popped up today on their website to give tips on avoiding roads under construction)

It’s hard to imagine how a city will look like, and feel, and function, once a project like this is completed, but here in Morocco Casablanca will not the guinea pig. Rabat, just an hour away, is very close to offering tram service to the public. Right now the system is up and running, but only on a testing basis. What a tease…

In my very unscientific poll of taxi drivers in Rabat, I’ve found that there are some mixed, but generally positive, feelings about the tramway. The construction and newly narrowed boulevards have caused some traffic headaches, I’m sure, but at least the project has taken shape. And compared to the mess that is downtown Casa right now, boy does Rabat look sleak and sexy. Check out the “zellige” (mosaic) motif on the trams.



Filed under Casablanca, Morocco, Rabat region, Transportation development, urban development, Urban Morocco

3rd Annual US-Arab Cities Forum

In 2008, Chicago Mayor Daley launched the US-Arab Cities Forum in partnership with the mayors of two of Chicago’s sister cities, Amman (Jordan) and Casablanca. The stated purpose of the event, attended by mayors from American and Arab cities, was to build city-to-city relationships between the two regions at a time (ongoing) when many people see a “clash of civilizations.”

At this year’s forum, hosted by the City of Casablanca and co-organized by Sister-Cities Casablanca-Chicago Association, about two dozen city leaders from the US, Morocco, Jordan, Mauritania, Somalia, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia met for two days in downtown Casablanca.

As a volunteer at Casa-Chicago I played a limited role in helping to put together the event. Mayor of Casablanca Mohamed Sajid now recognizes me as “the woman who does translations” rather than “that person who accosted me at a party once.” As a volunteer I got to enjoy some really nice perks, like the privilege of chatting with mayors about their cities and a continental breakfast during every day of the event. Yum.

And I got to talk Chicago with Mayor Daley, which was definitely the high point of my week.

It was a thrill to be immersed in a days-long conversation about cities, urban development, and exchange between the US and the Arab world. I also got to get a visiting dignitaries’ perspective of Casablanca: tours of the Hassan II mosque and Art Deco architecture in downtown Casa, lunch at the top of a skyscraper with panoramic view of the city, dinner as a guest of the king in one of his palaces (though he wasn’t there).

I’m exhausted now, and way behind on my schoolwork, but I have renewed excitement about this city. While I experience Casablanca every day as a student, commuter, pedestrian, foreigner, woman, café patron, shopper, etc., it’s fascinating to get more of a bird’s eye view, and to tap into the perspective of those who are shaping this and other cities in the long term.

Although some mayors touched on concrete projects in their cities, the event had more of a diplomatic feel than anything else. In the three workshops, which focused on cultural programming, technology, and gender, nothing much was said that couldn’t have been put out in a city hall press release. I wouldn’t say that those conversations were particularly academic. But then again, this was a conference of politicians.

As for press coverage of the event in Chicago, it’s all quiet on the western front. There’s just mention of Daley’s visit in an article criticizing Daley for traveling. There was also no coverage at all of the first forum held in Chicago in 2008.


Filed under Casablanca, Chicago, Middle East, Sister Cities, urban development, Urban Morocco

Who’s to blame for last week’s flooding?

A week after major flooding around the country but especially in Casablanca, even Le Matin is critical of the city’s and the Wilaya’s (county, kind of?) “non-strategy” in the face of natural disaster.

Mayor Sajid continues to say not only that the city couldn’t have prepared for last week’s flooding, but that a plan cannot be put in place: “We can’t anticipate these kinds of situations.” (“On ne peut pas se projeter dans des situations pareilles.”)

Not true, according to an opinion piece on the same day in Le Matin by Youssef Chiheb, director of the “Urban Social Engineering” Masters program at l’Université Paris XIII. He suggests adding a disaster plan into the Plans de Développement Communaux (PDC) of every Moroccan city, similar to protocols put in place in Romania, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Although Chiheb’s piece overtly offers suggestions for a better disaster response on the part of the city, what’s most striking about his piece is his criticism of the residents who make the exact same claim: that the government’s response to last week’s floods fell short.

“The fly-by reports on television or in the press show the same images of devastation, disorganization, impotence of municipal authorities and improvisation of state services. These same sources summarize a public opinion that is always demanding of and accusing, whether rightly or wrongly, the authorities. “There has to…All we need is to…It’s the state who…It’s the elected representatives who…”. Here is a discourse that is obsolete, conformist and sterile because it never accounts for individual responsibility in this recurring disaster. If the evacuation channels for rainwater are inadequate because they’re dilapidated and outdated, it’s also the fault of the populace, who fills and blocks the gutters with food waste. In every neighborhood, the gutters are clogged. Water flowing in the streets accumulates and follows topographical inclines. As a result, large avenues, radials, and highways on an incline become the [hydrographical] beds of artificial streams.” (emphasis mine)

Casablanca certainly has a waste disposal problem. No need to be a trained engineer to observe that there is a lot of trash in the street. But we’re not just talking “déchets agroalimentaires,” as Chiheb says, but also trash in garbage bags. Why is this distinction important? Because people aren’t just throwing their banana peels on the sidewalk, they’re also trying to dispose of trash in a more organized way.

Implicit in the whole “déchets agroalimentaires” comment is something I hear very often about Moroccan cities. In the past few decades, there’s been a huge influx of immigrants from the countryside: pronounced l3arobia, and often with a hint of contempt. Countryfolks think they can just live in the city the way they lived in the countryside, goes the common complaint, to the detriment of the entire city.

It would be disingenuous to say, for the sake of political correctness, that individual residents don’t have a responsibility to adjust their behavior. But if the municipality fails to provide support or even outreach, we can’t claim that residents are to blame. Especially since those who might be considered most “guilty” of disposing their trash in the street are likely also to be those who suffer the most when the streets flood.

To read more:
Le Conseil de la ville dépassé par les évènements (Le Matin, lundi 6 Décembre)
Opinions & Débats: La prévention contre les risques de catastrophes naturelles doit être intégrée dans les plans communaux évènements (Le Matin, lundi 6 Décembre)

See also earlier post: Casa, under water

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Filed under bidonvilles, Casablanca, Immigration, Morocco, urban development, Urban Morocco, urbanisation

Casa, under water

This past Tuesday, in twenty-four hours Casablanca got half as much rain as it normally does in an entire year. Here’s what happened as a result:

And that’s just around Casablanca.

All classes were cancelled. Even the next day some of my classmates couldn’t make it to Ben M’Sik because a few major roads, and therefore bus routes, weren’t accessible.

I heard, in the press as well as from friends, that some neighborhoods were without power for as long as 76 hours. Rumors circulated that Lydec, the electric company for Casablanca, was going to cut off power in the entire city to deal with repairs. It was a good day for the candle business. As it turns out, Lydec had shut off power in many places because they feared that the flooding in basements and underground garages would cause fires or electrocution.

My own perspective of last week’s floods is very limited. My neighborhood, near the city center, didn’t flood and the roads were pretty clear. That’s not to say that the city center, or wealthy neighborhoods generally, didn’t suffer property damage, total destruction of cars in some underground garages, and some blockage of major downtown roads.

However, a common refrain in the press has been that the worst-affected areas were, predictably, the quartiers populaires and especially the bidonvilles. Why? It’s interesting to note that in press coverage*, it’s taken as a given that working class and poor neighborhoods suffer the most from natural catastrophes. I certainly wouldn’t argue against that point, but a lot of what I’ve read has been melodramatic. Nothing too wrong with that, especially in light of the fact that the floods caused truly serious problems. Except that I’m left wondering what exactly would need to change for this to never happen again.

I’ll offer my own, non-professional explanations for why quartiers populaires are so vulnerable. The old medina of Casablanca is considered a “quartier populaire” and is, well, old. They get flooded every year, which I’m guessing has to do with the age of the sewage system there.

If we’re talking about bidonvilles, we’re talking about stretches of one-story shacks.

And then at least one article talks about a neighborhood in a low-lying area where, naturally, water tends to flow. I seem to recall that Ward 9 in New Orleans, the poster child for “Katrina” and all the baggage now assigned to that name, is located below sea level. I have no idea if all, or most, or even some of Casablanca’s poorest neighborhoods are in low-lying areas.

And then there’s the aftermath. I’m not sure what is reasonable to expect from government or civil society in Morocco, but Maroc Hebdo, TelQuel, and Actuel Maroc all say that the residents worst affected by the floods have received help only from their neighbors and good samaritans. Maroc Hebo talks of an impromptu emergency center where neighbors and a local restaurant owner are feeding 150 people. There’s no mention of who actually set up the center.

There seems to be an agreement, across the city, that the infrastructure of Casablanca couldn’t handle the rainfall. The city council and its president, i.e. the mayor, have deflected suggestions that the problems stem from irresponsible development. They say that given the unprecedented amount of rainfall there’s no way the city could have prepared for this.

In the press coverage I’ve read, there is a lot of skepticism. TelQuel’s article on the floods ends, tellingly, with this remark:

As for city authorities, total silence. Contacted by TelQuel, Mohamed Sajid, the mayor of Casablanca, declined to answer our questions. Du côté des autorités de la ville, c’est silence radio. Contacté par TelQuel, Mohamed Sajid, le maire de la ville, n’a pas souhaité répondre à nos questions.”


Filed under bidonvilles, Casablanca, urban development, Urban Morocco

New modes of circulation in Rabat

I was in Rabat last weekend and I got to re-take some pictures that I’d lost on my first trip (earlier post: “Which is better, Rabat or Casa?”)

Tramway construction is well under way in Rabat, and in some places is in test-run mode.

In the meantime, this particular tramway route serves as a pedestrian-friendly area along the walls of the medina. It’s a rare open space where people don’t have to compete with cars, and during my walk I didn’t see so much as a moped or donkey cart. It’s not meant as a pedestrian hang-out spot, and there isn’t much along the road besides some bench-like structures right near the wall.

In some spots it’s clear that the tramway track area is not meant for circulation, but the fence that encloses those areas can easily be pushed aside. It’s just too useful an alternative to the very busy Hassan II boulevard, which runs parallel to the wall, or the inside of the medina, which is congested all day long, to resist the shortcut.

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Filed under Rabat region, Transportation development, urban development, Urban Morocco

“Which is better, Rabat or Casa?”

I feel full of energy and enthusiasm after spending the weekend in Rabat. Or I should say returning to Rabat. Although even as I write this I’m coming down from my high because it’s around midnight and I’ve finally adjusted to the different time zone. One week, right on schedule.

Rabat is at the same time exactly as I remember it and drastically changed in the past five years. The few months I spend living in the medina were the most stimulating of my life so far, so I have every detail of my stay burned into memory. I’ve been away long enough that all the children I knew have grown a foot or more, but I feel like I never left when I hang out with Safa and her family or walk around the medina. I am happy to brag that I was walking around with a fellow Ambassadorial Scholar and found the English bookstore on my first try—I’d only been there once. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to say that I did get a little bit confused when I thought it would be fun to try to find my way from the CCCL to my homestay family’s old house…

The city is undergoing a lot of exciting changes. The tramway I mentioned last year is underway, and I really hope to see it in operation. Construction is a pain, but it looks promising.

I wouldn’t have really noticed the quality of the roadways in 2005 since I almost never left the medina but Safa says that the city has done a lot of repaving. Oh, and I did a double take when I saw…a bike lane!

The riverfront has been completely redeveloped, although on the other bank it looks like about half a dozen hotels sit unfinished. That project was started not too long before the economy went down the tubes. They were supposed to accommodate the ten million tourists who were supposed to visit Morocco in 2010.

Yes I know, all this would be more interesting with pictures, but I accidentally erased all of mine from this weekend.

I also paid a visit to the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning, which houses the SIT program I attended. After catching up with a few wonderful staff members, I had the surreal experience of sitting in on an orientation lecture with the newly arrived American students. They spent the last fifteen minutes of class discussing how to be a guest in this country, and what it means to be sensitive and respectful in an unfamiliar culture.

On Saturday night I gave my first formal introduction in Arabic—and to a minister, no less. A real bigwig, apparently, although neither Safa nor I can remember what he’s the minister of. The occasion was a very fancy ftour hosted by I’m not sure who, but attended by members of Safa’s Young Researchers Association. I was underdressed. In any case, I am always a little bit lost these days but found myself sitting at the table where louazir wanted introductions all around. So I let loose: Ana Taliba fi bi3ta tha9afia bilmaghreb min Chicago, 3andi minha min ljama3ia Rotary linqra fi 7assan teni. *

*I am a cultural exchange researcher in Morocco, from Chicago. I can have a scholarship from the Rotary foundation to study at Hassan II.

This weekend I also reached the point where I actually believed that I will be conversant in derija by the end of the year. It’s one thing to be given that assurance by everyone here, it’s another to actually start to understand whole bits of conversation.

As for the title: Rabat and Casa, like Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, are only an hour away from each other by train. The rivalry is alive and well, and I am being pressured from both sides to accept that each is better than the other. Recording vocabulary in my little red book was confusing this past weekend because Casaoui and Rbati derija are slightly different. I am sure to get some laughs when I use a Rbati word in Casa, or a Casaoui word in Rabat.

This picture business is getting silly. I promise to work on that.


Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Arabic, Casablanca, derija, Rabat region, Rotary, Transportation development, Uncategorized, urban development, Urban Morocco

Je m’en irais à Montréal?

I am still recovering from the trip I made a few weeks ago, which started with a drive to Pittsburgh for my Ambassadorial Scholars training

Phase II of my road trip was in Montréal, via Buffalo (where I stayed with friends, who helped me out when I managed to lock my keys inside the rental car). I cut my trip to Montréal short by a couple of days when I was reminded, at the last minute, that I had to make it back to the Chicago area in time for the Rotary District Conference (Phase III–update to come).

So, sadly I couldn’t make it to le Petit Maghreb, as I’d hoped I might.

I spent most most of my three-day visit meeting with current and former students and faculty of a few urban studies and urban planning programs in Montréal. I’ve been shopping around for a Masters program, probably for Fall 2011. This Ambassadorial Scholarship business has put me in the habit of planning things far in advance…

Why Montréal? Aren’t there great programs in the U.S., even in Chicago?

On a personal level, the bilingual French-English environment feels like home for me. Purists will say that Montréal is not “true Québec” because so much of the city is anglophone, but I love that mix.

I really appreciate how cosmopolitan the city is, on several levels. First of all I think a society where people speak several languages is automatically less insular. (Oh hi there, Tim James.)

Second of all, Canada’s relatively progressive immigration policy, combined with the strong and vibrant francophone culture in Québec, means that Montréal is the destination for immigrants from all over the francophone world. Haitians, North Africans, the Lebanese, Francophone Africans, the Vietnamese all have a strong presence in Montréal. I don’t have sufficient background information about Montréal to comment too much on its immigrants or the multi-ethnic character of the city, although this is a topic that really interests me. I do know that the result is a society that is very different from both the U.S. and France (those two countries being my frame of reference). It’s fascinating to look at immigration, and how it shapes a city, through a different lens.

Which brings me to my next point: Yes, Chicago would be a great place to continue my studies in urban sociology. In fact I’m pretty sure that part of the reason why I’ve been attracted to the cluster of topics that make up “urban studies” has been because the literature in the U.S. so often focuses on my hometown. This is a problem! First of all, as someone who’s grown up with each foot in a different continent and country, I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. Second of all, it’s much more intellectually stimulating to step into a different context, as a way of shedding light on and challenging the assumptions that I’ve picked up and taken as universal truths.

This is also my reasoning for going to Casablanca to look at urban issues. I’m hoping I’ll get to better understand not just what’s going on there in terms of urban development, but also how people conceptualize “urban development.”


Filed under Canada, Immigration, Montreal, Québec, Travel, urban development