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While on a recent trip to Atlanta, Georgia, I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden. On exhibit was the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme Exhibition.

I was fascinated by large before and after photographs of historic sites around the Muslim world such as the Gardens of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, the Citadels of Aleppo and Masyaf in Syria. For more information go to www.akdn.org and click on “historic cities” in the column on the far left of the page.

Since l992, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP) has been undertaking restoration of historic structures and public spaces. Our tour guide explained the thinking behind this initiative by noting that rehabilitation of urban areas sparks social, economic, and cultural development within communities where Muslims have a significant presence. The projects go beyond mere refurbishment of the site addressing questions of the social and environmental context of the site to the local population. Each project includes adaptive re-use, an effort toward institutional sustainability and training of local people.
These projects impressed me as an enlightened way to preserve culture, engage in urban renewal, and give an economic boost to the local population.

Public libraries often serve a similar function. In Schaumburg, an old shopping center near the center of the village was shuttered and had become a real eyesore. In l995, new Mayor Al Larson saw an opportunity. By l998, the new 166,500 square foot Schaumburg Township District Library was dedicated and became the anchor for the revitalized shopping center.

Libraries are really good in this capacity because they are open long hours and are fun places of learning and culture that one visits again and again. Libraries are places where the community comes together.

The Schaumburg story was repeated in Des Plaines. Downtown Des Plaines was a collection of small shops and assorted buildings facing the railroad tracks. It had merely grown up over the years and was neither beautiful nor impressive. City planners wanted a project that would give identity to the downtown so, naturally, the library was selected as an anchor for this redevelopment. The current 82,000 square foot Des Plaines Public Library was dedicated on September 24, 2000.
The City of Chicago has long used libraries as an impetus for economic development. Mayor Richard M. Daley has said, “In Chicago, we look at schools and libraries as the anchors of society. Learning is key to success in this information and technology economy. Libraries are key to safe neighborhoods. That is why we have built so many libraries and why they also are architecturally beautiful.”

Starting with the downtown Harold Washington Library Center, completed in l991, in the once less than trendy South Loop neighborhood, Chicago library construction has been credited with the building of about 10,000 units of new housing, improvement to streetscapes, schools and parks, expansion of educational institutions and redevelopment with uses as diverse as blues clubs and trendy hotels.

Since Mayor Daley has been in office, 52 of the system’s 79 branches have been reconstructed or seriously renovated. Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey said, “I’ve purchased and knocked down more liquor stores, more no-tell motels, more really crummy and dilapidated, burned-out buildings in neighborhood after neighborhood and replaced them with libraries than I’d ever thought I’d do in my life.”

What do forward-thinking library planners have in common with His Highness, the Aga Kahn? Both believe in and have seen the positive effects of investing in cultural institutions that have deep roots in the community. A new or refurbished building is nice, but it takes a building plus an ongoing program to really have an impact.

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  Posted in         Ismaili News