May 5, 2015, Cairo – The American University in Cairo (AUC) has launched the Research Institute for a Sustainable Environment (RISE) to serve as a multidisciplinary institute dedicated to promoting research in sustainable environments in Egypt, the Middle East and North Africa. The Institute, situated at AUC’s New Cairo campus, is carrying forward the legacy of the Desert Development Center (DDC), which has recently closed due to the expiration of a lease agreement with the government for its land in South Tahrir. “The institute represents a reaffirmation and strengthening of AUC’s commitment to sustainable environmental education and research in Egypt and the region,” said Richard Tutwiler, the founding director of RISE. Housed on the New Cairo campus, RISE has been given a mission to promote sustainability in a diversity of environments in Egypt and the region –– rural and urban, desert and temperate –– through applied research, education and training programs. Tutwiler, who served as the DDC’s director since 2001, said RISE is building on the DDC’s accomplishments for more than 30 years in natural resource management, renewable energy and sustainable agriculture in desert areas.
“One of the primary projects is the Living Learning Laboratory, which is a campus-based research model that engages students from different disciplines in various sustainability research projects. These include the maintenance of plants and vegetables on the University’s first green roof; the design of a solar roof for parking areas, as well as a solar-powered greenhouse; and the monitoring of water quality on campus,” said Tutwiler. Through these projects, students get a hands-on appreciation of sustainability in their everyday lives. Another major on-campus event is Sustainable Campus Days, which aims to raise awareness of environmentally friendly initiatives at the University.
With RISE being based directly on campus, there is an interaction and integration between sustainability research at RISE and AUC students, faculty and staff. As a way in bringing AUC community together through organic gardening, RISE has initiated Adopt-a-Plot program, which encourages the AUC community members to cultivate and harvest their own vegetable plots on campus. Through this program, RISE provides each gardener with a plot of land. Under the guidance of Muhammad Wahba, a RISE researcher, gardeners are responsible for their personal plots for an entire semester. Seasonal fruits and vegetables such as okra, bell peppers, chili peppers, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, arugula, turnips, watermelon, radishes and leeks are now a part of campus –– and grown by the University’s own students, faculty and staff. For many, the program is primarily an educational experience. Gardeners come in with varying levels of expertise; some have never touched a shovel before. “Participants learn by doing,” said Tina Jaskolski, head of the research unit at RISE. “We want people to experience the environment. You get your hands dirty. It’s hands-on work.”
To provide a space on campus for both vegetation and learning, RISE, supported by the U.S. Forest Service and DC Greenworks, has established the first extensive green roof on the site office building where RISE is located. Covered with vegetation and succulent plants, which are planted over a waterproofing membrane, the roof serves a variety of environmental, economic and aesthetic purposes. The extensive green roof is conceptualized as an experimental research project that tests different ways of growing on a roof, including wooden planters, a vertical garden system and an aquaponics system that involves a circular water exchange with a fish tank.
RISE decided to build the green roof in order to test how such roofs can work in Egypt. This includes understanding different technologies, plants, irrigation schedules, drainage, weight and ways to work with aquaponics. RISE will conduct research on the performance of the systems it installed so that it can measure the effects and benefits. This research will also help it advertise green roofs in Egypt and assist others with installations in the future.
Green roofs have several benefits, including the production of vegetables and enhancement of food security. “They also improve air quality, reduce the urban heat island effect that occurs in heavily-built conglomerations such as Cairo, and provide natural cooling for the rooms underneath,” explained Jaskolski. “Green roofs absorb solar radiation and act as carbon sinks, taking carbon dioxide out of the air, while providing a natural habitat for birds, bees and insects. And they look good.”
In an effort to showcase the biodiversity of AUC New Cairo, RISE created a Campus Tree Walk. The tree walk is a 2.5 kilometer walk, which includes 59 different tree species, a map and an explanatory brochure. Each tree has a label with its scientific name and its common name in Arabic and English, as well as other relevant information. The walk gives people an organized and scenic way to learn about the trees on campus,” said Tutwiler. “It also highlights interesting features of the campus besides the trees, like the waterfall grotto in the garden and the vertical garden by the sports complex.
The trees reveal much about the history of Egypt’s plant life, with native trees labeled by green plaques and non-native species given black ones. “The non-native trees on campus have been introduced to Egypt at various points throughout the last 1,000 years,” Tutwiler said. “Some are very well-established, such as the mango tree, which originated in South Asia, while others arrived here very recently, such as the Bearss variety of seedless lime, which the DDC itself introduced to Egypt in 1982.”
RISE also maintains a research station and outreach center for educational programs, technical training and community services at Sadat City. “We are expanding the work of the DDC on projects where we have prolonged engagement with local communities, such as the Farafra oasis resource management initiative and the evaluation of water use and irrigation practices in Monofiya governorate. Moreover, environmental education programs continue to be offered for school children of different ages,” Tutwiler said.