Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Coming to Egypt? Why not take the Solar CITIES Tour!?

The Solar CITIES Solar Egypt Tour:

Now you can plan your trip to Cairo's Solar CITIES sites in Google Earth!

Coordinate your trip with your friends in UNYPE!

Navigate the streets of Medieval Historic Cairo and the Informal Communities without getting lost!

See the Renaissance of Solar Energy in Inner City Cairo!

Meet the people who are making it happen in the Zabaleen recycling community and Darb El Ahmar!

Ideal for Students in Urban Planning/Environmental Science/Ecology/Renewable Energy/Engineering/Health and Medicine/Arabic Studies/Younameit

To download the tour click here (latest .kmz update March 12, 2008)

Thinking of visiting Egypt, but worried about offsetting all the carbon from the long flight? Want to see the pyramids but afraid that the best things happening in Heliopolis (the Pharoanic "city of the sun") happened thousands of years ago?

Think again.

Great things are happening in Cairo, but in the most unlikely of places, off the beaten path, in places that tourists rarely get to go!

If you are interested in seeing how the urban poor, who produce the least CO2 per capita, are dealing with climate change and ensuring that as development proceeds, they can leap-frog into a cleaner, greener 21st century, then this is the Cairo tour for you!

On the Solar CITIES urban eco-tour, led in English and/or Arabic by local Solar Cities coordinators Hana Fathy, Mahmoud Dardir, Mustafa Hussein and friends, you get to meet with real people, visit real homes, have roof top tea by the shade of home-built solar panels, and learn how renewable energy is impacting the lives of "the other 90%".

Your tour of the do-it-themselves solar installations in Muqattam and Darb El Ahmar takes you through charming medieval streets still plied by camels, horses, donkey-carts and sheep.

It takes you to the imposing Saint Sam'aan monastery, carved out of a massive mountain of rock overlooking the Zabaleen garbage recycling community, where a miracle occurred a millenium ago to bring Christians, Muslims and Jews together in harmony and where, today, another miracle in peace-making through confronting our mutual environmental challenges is underway!

Then it takes you into the narrow winding streets beneath Muqattam Hills where mountains of Cairo's waste is carefully sorted and separated and turned into food for the animals and raw materials for a home-grown industrial ecology industry led by a culture of recycling experts.

The tour includes a lunch-time visit to the world-class lakeside cafe in Al Azhar Park -- once a garbage dump now turned by the Aga Khan Foundation into one of the most beautiful parks and botanical gardens in the world.

And your tour takes you out to the rural community of Abu Nimrus in Giza, to see first hand how urban sprawl is consuming what little is left of Egypt's fertile agricultural area, and to celebrate with the leaders of the Abu Nimrus Environmental Science Center the initiatives that could help avert the food crises that portends.

Finally, you end up at the famous Giza pyramids for the evening sound and light show made famous in the James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me", where the ancient history of "the city of the sun" is narrated to a spectacular blend of multimedia and music.

Want to save the world?

Join us on the Solar CITIES Eco-tour.

You'll never look at development the same again.


What does it cost?

We can accomodate tours for every budget category.

Soon we will be posting do-it-yourself foot-tours with metro and bus maps and self-guided foot paths. These tours are free and for hardy travelers used to going-it-alone. A minimal knowledge of Arabic is recommended as very few people in these communities, which have no official tourism industry, speak other languages. All we ask is that if you do buy things you spend locally by purchasing food and drinks and souvenirs from local vendors to help the communities' economies, and if you visit a home and the family spend time with you, consider making a donation for their time. The Historic Part of Cairo has the same handicraft merchandise as the famous Khan El Khalili, but is cheaper and better quality. The Association for the Protection of the Environment factory sells beautiful recycled paper and cloth products (stationary, rugs, wall hangings) that can also be purchased in hotels, but by purchasing from the makers themselves, you cut out the middlemen and put much needed funds into the pockets of the people who need it most!

If you visit the famous Zabaleen Informal Recycling School, run by legendary educational reformer Dr. Laila Iskander and her teaching staff, we encourage small donations to help keep the school running.

If you would like a guided tour by our friendly and knowledgeable local experts, Hana and Mahmoud and Mustafa and their team are happy to make appointments to act as official tour guides, charging a "plumbers' normal day rate" of 60 LE (about 10 bucks) for each group of 1 to 4 people, to offset foregone income (they would otherwise spend the day doing environmental development work and building and plumbing solar hot water systems). For groups larger than 4 people we ask for an additional 10 LE (about 2 bucks) per person.

Car, day taxi, or minivan rental can be arranged by your, your hotel, or by Solar CITIES coordinators. A day taxi can usually be hired for about 60 LE for the duration of the tour.

Lunch, if provided by one of the families on the tour (generally chicken, tuna, home-made bread, local goats or sheeps cheese and tomatoes with soft drinks and tea) is generally about 15 LE (3 dollars), while lunch in Al Azhar park at the Lakeside Cafe, with its beautiful view of Cairo, generally comes to between 50 and 75 LE (8 to 14 bucks, standard tourism prices).

Entrance to the sound and light show is about 30 LE for foreigners.

Do I have to visit all the spots on the tour?

Goodness no! Arrange it to your liking! You can do as much or as little as you like. Some people find walking through poor communities, particularly places where infrastructure is crumbling and garbage overflows in the streets to be overstimulating and often depressing, despite the uplifting experience of seeing the innovative ways people are improving their lives. Others only want to visit historic Cairo, others only the Zabaleen. You can call it quits anytime. We apologize, however, that we cannot reimburse you for the tour guide's fee if you have booked one of our team as tour guide, since they will have lost work, and they must eke out a living in informal communities where there are no salaries, no social security, and no safety net and the struggle for survival makes every day count!

How do I get in touch with the Solar CITIES team?

Write to:

Hanna Fathy :
Mahmoud Dardir:
Mustafa Hussein:

How do I get in touch with YOU:

As Solar CITIES founder, I find myself travelling a lot, like my nomadic Arab and Irish ancestors. Look for me on Facebook to keep updated about my whereabouts, and drop me a line at, and perhaps we can arrange to be at the same place at the same time!

How did all this start?


For us the idea of inner-city Eco-Tourism in the slums of developing countries began when UCLA Professor Scott Sherman and I were presenting on behalf of the Los Angeles Eco-Village at the Earth Summit in Johanesburg South Africa in 2002.

The inspired and highly motivated community leaders of the South African townships in Johanesburg turned the conference delegates' prurient desire (one Stephen King suggests we all share in his essay on "rubber necking") to gawk at tragedy and iniquity into an opportunity to share vision for how to help us all emerge from and/or avoid the same fate. They led us on tours of township eco-villages -- parts of the slums where bicycle cooperatives using new micro-credit loan initiatives were building repair hubs and bike lending stations to solve the transportation problems of the urban poor in a green way, places where innovative designs for urban composting toilets were solving the sewage problem and eliminating odor and disease vectors, places where small solar panels and LED lights were giving kids a chance to read at night and women a chance to have safe communal spaces, and places where urban horticulture of appropriate indigenous crops were offsetting the threat of starvation.

At the many Earth Summit centers (for the conference was spread out across the vast city) colorful home-made brochures and maps for these inner-city shantytown tours were in abundance at kiosks or distributed by friendly volunteers with broad smiles who took pains to allay the fears of white guests who might otherwise not have considered a visit to the "black ghettoes". The maps showed the best and safest ways in and out of the townships and at each stop on the map there was a description of what you were likely to see.

There were also mini-van tours provided to the distant "Tlholego Eco-Village" (near the Molokwane Iron-Age Village Conservancy near Rustenberg) were we could contrast rural sustainable development ideas with the urban ones we saw in J-burg.

Scott Sherman and I, who had been working with Maya Quiche development specialist Pedro Cuc on rain-forest village eco-tourism in Macanche, Guatemala (in the Peten near Flores and Tikal) were deeply impressed by the South African's urban initiative.

We had experience in inner-city eco-tourism from our years living and working with the visionary founder of the Los Angeles Eco-Village, Lois Arkin -- in fact many Sundays between 1999 and 2003 I hosted international and national visitors in my Eco-Village home at 112 Bimini Place to demonstrate my "earthquake and terrorism/disaster-proof off-the-grid apartment" where I had cut myself off from all city services except incoming water (but including a cut off from city sewage) installed my own solar electric system and solar hot water system, built my own indoor composting toilet, had two bicycle generators to get through any unusually long strings of cloudy days, and established a rooftop water purification system to recycle grey water. You can hear and read the transcript of a radio report done for NPR (National Public Radio) by Alan Weisman (author of "The World Without Us") here.

Lois Arkin and the Eco-Villages, along with Julia Russel of the Los Angeles Eco-Home, have, for years, also organized city-wide and region-wide tours of the "homes for the future" -- places where ordinary folks have taken it upon themselves to reduce our dependency on fossil and nuclear energy and unsustainable lifestyle practices. During those tours Al Silva and I, who had formed an inner city group called "Solar South Central" in "The 'Hood", also led tours to Al's Solar South Central Studio where we powered a video and audio production studio, used to produce gangsta rap music videos, using gentle sunlight.

When the Christian Science Monitor and when NPR's Alan Weisman and others came on our Solar South Central tour, we showed them how we were converting cars from gas to electricity (using Mike Brown's excellent do-it-yourself guide "Convert-It") , how we were raising chickens, ducks, and even cows in urban backyards, composting all the organic and kithcen waste and taking all cardboard, plastic and metal to the local recycler so no garbage trucks were necessary, and turning the dreadful american lawn in the front into a beautiful and functional place of corn and nopal cactus and climbing cherimoya vines (much to the consternation of the police who must have some deal with the mow-and-blow-and-seed-and-weed-the-turf " crowd because they tried to arrest Al and his mom and all the neighboring Mexican immigrant families for violating zoning laws that stipulate "no agriculture in residential areas"!)

So we had some personal experience in successful eco-ghetto tours. But the idea of creating such tours for the shanty towns of what Mike Davis calls our "Planet of Slums" as a real way of breaking the barriers between the haves and "the other 90%" have-nots, and inspiring change not just for the poor BUT FOR THE PRIVILEGED PEOPLE WHO VISIT THEM didn't really come home to me until Scott Sherman and I were at the Earth Summit.

Just before going to the Earth Summit I had gone with my UCLA Urban Planning cohort and Professor Abel Valenzuela to Brazil to compare favelas next to the eco-city of Curitiba with favelas in Rio de Janiero, and we had been treated to extremely uplifting and well organized eco-tours of the local Brazilian efforts to overcome poverty. The side of favelas that we saw helped us see poor communities as being rich in ideas and potential, confirming what you read in Hernando deSoto's "The Mystery of Capital".

So it was only natural to set up a similar eco-urban tour for my thesis advisor, Professor Randall Crane, when he led the next UCLA Urban Planning field program to Cairo, Egypt.

When Randy brought his 20 graduate students (Masters and Ph.D.) to spend 10 days in Cairo, we put together an itinerary that included stops to the Medieval part of historic Cairo, Darb El Ahmar, to see a presentation of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture's magnifience urban renewal project by the base of Al Azhar Park (once a garbage dump, now Cairo's first Green space in over 100 years) and to Dr. Layla Iskander's Roh El Shabab Informal Recycling School and the Association for the Protection of the Environment in the Zabaleen community.

I asked one question in both places that led to the same answer and ultimately to our Solar CITIES project. I asked both Seif Rashidi, the Urban Planner at the Aga Khan, and Dr. Layal Iskander "why don't we see any solar roofs in Cairo? Wouldn't it benefit the urban poor to use the abundant sunshine that God has blessed us with in this country, rather than relying on the uncertain availability but certain price hikes associated with fossil fuels and state provided electricity?"

They both had the same answer: "Why don't you come and help us bring these things to the communities? Each of us has a passion and an area of expertise, and the only way we move forward is by contributing the piece of the puzzle we care most about and the things we would be most effective in promoting. The people here need everything. These are the poor. That is the nature of poverty. That's why they are called the needy. And all they really need is somebody with the expertise and the will to come and inspire, and help get ideas and resources to the area and work side by side until capacity is built and they can take it on by themselves. If solar energy is your thing, why not come and help us get it going?"

It was a challenge I couldn't resist for it was elegant and simple and doable. It echoed something I read and discussed with my Indonesian biologist friends when they were studying development technologies in Japan written by David Wann in "Bio-Logic: Designing with Nature to Protect the Environment" . David Wann had exhorted us to get off our asses if we were unsatisfied with the way the world looked and design and implement our own solutions. He said something like "if you buy a box a choclate chip cookies and you find them tastleless and uninspiring, you don't stop eating choclate chip cookies, you say, "shoot, I can make my own cookies better than this" and you do." The same logic can be applied to urban design. If you don't like the way things "taste" in the world, what is stopping you from "baking a better cookie"? Why do you accept stuff "out of the box?" (This is a liberal paraphrase by the way; perhaps somebody who has a copy of this out-of-print book can leave the actual quote in a comment!)

Whatever the actual quote was, the idea stuck: If we want to see solar energy have a more present role in our economy , and we find a place where the residents also want to see solar energy, but neither of us have experience in building it ourselves, what is stopping us from rolling up our sleeves and trying?

So my wife and I stayed in Cairo, moved into an apartment in the slums, and started building with the community. And it all started with an inner-city eco-tour.

Today you can go on that same Eco-Tour of Cairo, and meet the same people we did, only this time, for the first time in civilization's long history in the land of the Sun God Ra you can visit homes with solar roofs and talk with people who built them and benefit from them. You can get involved as much or as little as you want in "building a better world" in the land where the first civilization was built, knowing that you'll not only have a great vacation, but that your presence and interest will keep the flame going for people whose biggest problem, according to Freedom Prize Economist Hernando De Soto, is their lack of articulation with the outside world and the global economy.

Urban eco-tourism is a way to end the isolation of the have-nots from the haves, and for both to share their dreams and their answers to our mutual dilemma of surviving on spaceship earth.

Solar CITIES is now preparing a tour itinerary of the inner city for the great team from National Public Radio when they come to Cairo to do their story on Egyptian Youth and the Environment April 3. It is similar to the tour agenda we set up for the environmental field classes for UCLA, American University in Cairo and for guests like film-makers Omar Khodir and James Dean Conklin and Elisa Zazerra. We would now like to open the tour possibility up to the whole universe of people interested in renewable energy sustainable development and poverty reduction.

How do you get on the tour?

The first step is to get familiar with the itinerary by clicking on the following link and loading this .kmz file in Google Earth. In Google Earth hit the "play tour button" and you will see a fly-through of the agenda taking you from the Marriot Hotel in Zamalek to our solar Cities projects in Manshiyat Nasser and Darb Al Ahmar, then, as a side trip possibility, on to Giza to the Abu Nimrus Environmental Science Center and, finally, the Pyramids of Giza for an evening sound and light show.

You can click on each tour stop for additional information in the pop up balloon.

If the tour appeals to you, contact us and we will put you in touch with tour leaders Hanna Fathy and Mahmoud Dardir who can give you options and prices and discuss possibilities.

One thing is for sure -- you'll see a vision of Cairo that very few others have seen -- a vision that boldly connects the history of civilization with its boundless and optimistic future, now taking place in a ghetto near you!

To download the tour click here (March 12, 2008)

(Note the tour will be updated with new locations and photos, so bookmark this and keep checking for updates reflected in date changes).


Andy Posner said...

Hey T.H.!

My colleague in the graduate program--Marie-Laure Couet--wants to do a contingent valuation survey for her masters thesis looking at the economic potential of community gardens to revitalize urban neighbourhoods in Providence, Rhode Island. She was wondering what books you used in order to design your survey in Cairo. She can use whatever suggestions you have--books, articles, essays and personal experience on how to design a successful survey. Also, she wanted to know whether or not you did a contingent valuation survey, and if it meets NOAA standards.

Bill_Marston said...

I heard a story about Solar Cities on National Public Radio today (Sunday May 4, 2008). When I did a little research I discovered that T.H. Culhane studies or studied at UCLA and has worked with Lois Arkin of LA Eco-Village. It is a small world: I worked with her and a couple of dozen other urban ecovillage activists to create the first Urban Ecovillage conference ever, at least in Central & North America. We paired it with the massive US Green Building Council's annual conference in Chicago, November 2007. We may try it again if I and others get up to it... feel free to contact me if any reader is interested. wjmars AT verizon DOT com

I am a 60-year old architect in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. The year I graduated from architecture school at Cornell (1970) I hung around the non-university part of Ithaca. I wanted some personal time before moving on into the world of work. In the public library of that small town I found two books I never saw during my architecture study: Architecture Without Architects (1964) by Bernard Rudofsky, and Architecture for the Poor (I think) by Hassan Fathy. Fathy apparently was an Egyptian who single-handedly saved local crafts & building techniques from modernity-subsumed oblivion.

So - I had to wonder if Hanna Fathy knows of this man's work? I'm sure Fathy is not an unusual name, but I wonder if there is a family continuation of Hassan Fathy's approach - especially now in light of what humanity faces. I see this type of local, climate- and resource-specific act of building to be core to the sense of what makes a sustainable city. Knowing how much building of new cities we must engage in worldwide to accommodate the hundreds of millions to be displaced by rising oceans, supply chain disruptions, peak oil, et al means that such skills and knowledge are essential to learn and to spread.

Barbara said...

Thanks for this resource!
solar energy