The Medina: Sustainable City of the Ancient World

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For Your Consideration:
  1. What is a medina?
  2. This article lists many benefits of living in a medina – list them, adding any additional benefits that strike you. Then, create a list of drawbacks.
  3. Should cities in your country build neighborhoods that look more like this?  Would you live in one?
  4. Design your own ideal neighborhood – create a map that considers space to live, work, and play, as well as transportation and utilities like power and water.

A medina quarter (Arabic: المدينة القديمة‎ al-madīnah al-qadīmah “the old city”) is a distinct city section found in a number of North African cities, including in Morocco. A medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets. The word “medina” (Arabic: مدينة‎ madīnah) itself simply means “city” or “town” in modern-day Arabic.

Medina quarters have usually been inhabited for a thousand years or more, and often contain historical fountains, palaces, public squares, mosques, and churches.

The Medina of Chefchaouen.
The medina of Chefchaouen, Morocco – densely clustered, multipurpose buildings, many of which are both homes and businesses. (Chefchaouen, Morocco, 2019.)

Because of their very narrow streets, medinas are generally free from car traffic, and in some cases even motorcycle and bicycle traffic. The streets can be less than a metre wide. This makes them unique among highly populated urban centres. The Medina of Fes, or Fes el Bali, is considered one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world.

Aside from the addition of some electrical wires and modern plumbing, most medinas in Morocco today look a lot like they did in those bygone glory days of the trans-Saharan trade one thousand years ago. The streets are rarely wider that six or seven feet, and are sometimes as narrow as two or three. Mules and men with carts do most of the heavy lifting in the streets, delivering or carrying away what can’t be done by hand – no trucks or cars can penetrate, so most people buy groceries for today, and maybe tomorrow. Furniture and modern appliances are often transported into the medina over a neighbor’s rooftop, and down a home through the central, open air courtyard. Anger your neighbors, and you might have a hard time remodeling your house. 

Don’t think of a city like this as “backward” – think of it as a template for a life many in our modern times have forgotten… But which many of us are trying to rediscover.  What appear to be drawbacks at first glance, described another way, are what many Americans and Europeans list as desirable qualities in a neighborhood.

It is walkable, by necessity. Most anything you need is available in a five to ten minute walk from your door.  

It is communal – there are basically no police present, so most problems are solved in the community. Violence is squashed through neighbors’ intervention and social pressure. Public fountains with fresh, clean water can be found at most major intersections.  Same with mosques, which, in addition to the square full of small shops, are at the center of residents’ spiritual and social lives. 

Most all food is organic, fresh, and affordable, sold with zero plastic packaging.

The narrow streets, paved with stone, between high mud-walled homes are many degrees cooler than the open air outside the medina, meaning that while most who live within don’t have air conditioning, they don’t really need it either.

Without glamorizing the social problems like poverty and sanitation issues that persist in some medinas, there is a good reason that this way of life has persisted since prehistoric times, while the patterns of American suburbanization are barely a century and half old – but are killing the people who live there via social isolation, urban sprawl, excess carbon emissions, and water wasted irrigating green lawns.  

Which is really the ideal here? Can we learn something from our human past?

It’s not backward if it offers answers to questions of sustainability and community that so many in countries like the United States are trying in vain and at great cost to reinvent.

THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Medina Quarter
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