Illustration by Margherita Miani

Greening Casablanca: is urban sustainability just another word for gentrification?

Cristiana Strava

Abstract

In the face of challenges posed by climate change, sustainability promises to safeguard our collective future. But not all sustainability projects have a positive impact, and not everyone understands sustainability to mean the same thing.

 

This is a story about Zenata, a much-celebrated Eco-City currently being built from scratch on a polluted stretch of coast in Morocco. Who benefits from such urban renewal projects and who gets left out? How sustainable is sustainability when it leads to displacement and reproduces inequalities? Answering these questions also points the way towards more inclusive methods for addressing the shared challenges posed by climate change.

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Cristiana Strava

Author

Cristiana Strava is Assistant Professor in the Institute for Area Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She received her BA degree in anthropology and visual and environmental studies from Harvard University (2009) and holds a PhD in sociology and anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (2016). She has over a decade of experience conducting academic and professional research in North Africa. Her previous collaborations include projects funded by the UNDP and the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GIZ) on sustainable building and community adaptation to climate change. Her research broadly deals with the co-production of space and society, and the challenges placed on marginalized communities by natural and human forces. Her publications include the monograph Precarious Modernities: Assembling Space, Place and Society on the Urban Margins in Morocco with Zed Books (2021), as well as several peer-reviewed articles on the politics of urban planning and housing informality (City & Society), waste (etnofoor) and mega-infrastructure projects (Ethnos). Since 2023 she serves as co-director of ReCNTR, a cross-faculty multi-modal research center at Leiden.

Margherita Miani

Illustrator

Originally from Udine, Italy, I completed my master in Architecture at the University of Ferrara in 2016. Immediately after I moved abroad, first to Amsterdam and later Berlin, where I still am based.

In the past 6 years I have been working as a landscape architect for several offices, completing various tasks, ranging from large scale urban design projects to more detailed executive planning. Together with the design of public spaces, I always found interesting to explore how an architect can communicate their own idea to the public, especially when it comes to projects that involve participation process.

Drawing has been one of my biggest passion since childhood and in the past few years I have been looking for opportunities to make it a more important part of my professional life. I use my illustrations as a tool to express my inner world, my feelings and thoughts. I also get a big inspiration from observing people around me and I am especially interested in their practices of self care and what makes them feel closer to themself.

Find Margherita on Instagram: @marghe.illustrates.things

Anne van Muijlwijk

Reader Podcast

Anne van Muijlwijk is a master student Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and freelance Community Manager at Namla.

 

In the summer of 2023, the Moroccan government announced another key phase in the completion of Zenata, a so-called ‘New Green City’ occupying about 18 square kilometres of polluted coast north of Casablanca. Created in 2006 at the initiative of the King, Zenata has been celebrated as “the first African city to be awarded an Eco-City Label (ECL)”, a certification that was granted in 2016 during the 22nd meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) before any ground had been broken on the site. Zenata is one of several ‘green’ megaprojects currently being built across Morocco. Projected to require a 2-billion-euro investment, it is partly financed through EU loans and responsible for the expropriation of 26 local informal communities on the periphery of Casablanca.

What follows is a story about how ‘sustainability’ has become an inscrutable and un-criticisable category, a ‘blackbox’ if you will of contradictory ideas and practices, with the result that it can and has been hijacked in the interest of profit-driven urban renewal. Zenata is just one example of this story. As we will see, ‘green’ projects like Zenata clearly contribute to social displacement and the rising cost of land and housing. Sustainability is hard to critique though. Few would stand against its positive and aspirational ethos as enshrined in the Millennium Development Goals agenda. But based on fieldwork conducted at this site since 2019, I will argue that we can and should be critical of neatly packaged success stories like Zenata, and instead pay closer attention to and learn from the alternative vocabularies and nurturing practices of local communities. These practices and vocabularies might not always neatly align with the technocratic language of international agendas, but they do have the power to inform and improve them.

I began conducting research on this project right before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions and labour conditions in the neoliberal university system have led me to adopt a ‘patchwork’ method to the research. As such, this piece is based on several short-term field visits between 2019 and 2024, combining participant-observation at the new town site, conversations with potential buyers and those displaced by the project, interviews with planners and developers as well as local climate activists, plus archival and (online) desk research. From this patchwork I try to re-construct an image of what urban sustainability looks like in the present moment in Morocco, and, with the help of my interlocutors, point out some additional approaches needed to foster a more equitable future.

Zenata

A series of short clips introducing the ecological and sustainability aspects of Zenata Eco-City first went live online in August of 2021. With the help of computer renderings and stock images, interspersed with a few actual shots of the still mostly empty building site, these short Instagram reels brightly listed the attributes of this new urban development to the tune of a generically upbeat melody. A young man providing the voice-over to the short clips tells the audience that Zenata represents “a significant step forward in Morocco’s efforts to develop modern, sustainable urban areas”.

According to its founding charter, signed in 2006 by the King himself, the project’s stated aims are to create a “healthy, balanced and sustainable urban environment”. This includes addressing issues like “housing, employment, education, healthcare, and leisure”, while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability. Its highest ambition is to become “a model for future urban development in Africa”. Technical briefings about Zenata’s development are more likely to describe the area it will occupy in terms of its real-estate value describing it as one of the “last strategic land reserves in the Casablanca metropolitan region”. Concretely, the new town is slated to cover an area about nine times the size of Monaco. It is wedged between Casablanca’s northern periphery and one of Africa’s largest oil refineries, an area was reclaimed through the dispossession of 30,000 low-income residents who held titles to the land, contrary to what online materials about the site claim.

This is not a new story. Similar to other previous urban revitalization projects across Morocco, the development of this new ‘eco-city’ involves collaboration between various governmental and private entities, and is overseen by a dedicated public-private development agency. In this case, the Zenata Development Company (SAZ), which is responsible for the new town’s planning, development, and management. The SAZ speculates that the city will become an economic hub, which will create 100,000 new ‘green’ jobs and foster regional economic growth. The development is projected to include several commercial areas (among them a new mall and an IKEA store) and an industrial park. The developers hope that this will attract both national and international investors to this formerly blighted area.

Building an entire new town from scratch, though, even a sustainability-minded one, comes with a hefty carbon footprint. In order to learn more about the Eco in the Eco-City label, in April 2024 I arranged an interview with one of the representatives of Zenata’s managing company. To reach the interview, which took place at the managing company’s headquarters, I boarded a crowded bus and settled in for an hour-long ride from downtown Casablanca to ‘La Ferme’ (The Farm), Zenata’s only completed neighborhood to date.   

When I reached Zenata, I was the only passenger leaving the bus. The majority of people continued their journey towards the lower-income areas further north. As I stepped off the bus I was greeted by large real-estate billboards announcing in French that my happiness could be found only a few paces away (“votre bonheur à quelques mètres d’ici”). Behind these boards, construction was in full swing for apartment complexes that offered its residents a “dream life” inside a gated community with two pools (“une vie de rêve”; “residence fermée avec 2 piscines).

The representative met me on the 5th floor of the managing company’s office tower. Towards the north and south, large windows gave us a bird’s eye view onto the eco-city’s growing building sites. To the east, the rubble of the last remaining informal settlement could still be seen. The inhabitants who had occupied it until recently had been resettled offsite into low-income housing. This is a common resettlement scheme used across Morocco for over a decade but heavily criticized by housing experts. In my own previous research, I found that this often re-marginalizes communities by pushing them further outside urban limits where they become cut off from their regular sources of income as daily laborers or small traders. In order to pay off the new housing they are given micro-credit loans, but in the context of shrinking income sources this can push some families into catastrophic debt and bankruptcy.

These details do not make it into the promotional materials of new towns like Zenata. During the one hour interview I was given a practiced pitch with the help of elegantly designed slides, highlighting the unique features of the Eco-City, while the representative regularly checked and swiped away at notifications on her smart watch. My questions were swiped away with similar efficiency. For example, when I pointed out that the city is being constructed in the shadow of one of the largest oil-refineries in Africa, my interlocutor responded that evidently the refinery had been certified to operate according to international standards, but also that, according to environmental impact studies that the SAZ had carried out, the wind currents would shelter Zenata from pollution. While promotional materials stressed the importance of public transport mobility as a key component of Zenata’s commitment to sustainability, the SAZ representative agreed that to date this had not been fully integrated into the material fabric of the eco-city, and in fact both current residents and herself used the nearby highway to reach the town. By contrast, the inhabitants of the displaced low-income communities had relied heavily on the local bus and shared taxi network, if mainly due to financial constraints rather than virtue signaling.

Sustainability’s colonial past

These days sustainability appears to us fully formed and self-evidently good. But as my encounter with the Eco-city’s reality suggests, not all sustainability approaches have a positive impact, and not everyone understands sustainability to mean the same thing. To get a sense of how the label of sustainability might not always serve the common good, we need to take a closer look at some of the historical, material, and political processes and actors that have contributed to its current meaning and application.

The history of environmental sustainability in North Africa, and Morocco in particular, has been shaped by a combination of indigenous practices, colonial interventions, and the rise and spread of contemporary global environmental discourses and policies. To understand where current ideas and responses to climate change come from, we need to take a short journey from the late 19th century to the present day. During this period, North Africa, including Morocco, came predominantly under European colonial rule. The French, and to a much lesser extent, the Spanish, had significant influence in the region when it comes to changing the landscape and its uses.

During the French occupation of Morocco (1912-1956), concerns about the natural environment and practices of environmental management were largely driven by colonial logics that were preoccupied with the military control of difficult terrain and the extraction of profitable resources. For example, the French introduced several laws whose aim was to secure large tracts of land from the local population in order to develop both mining and large-scale agriculture. This approach focused on achieving maximum economic gain rather than environmental protection. Indigenous practices, such as semi-nomadic herding and subsistence farming, which were more sustainable and adapted to the local environment, were made illegal and pastoralists were forced to become sedentary and give up their way of life. When droughts left these communities vulnerable to famine it caused a rural exodus into cities like Casablanca. Over decades this led to the creation of low-income communities living in informal housing like the ones displaced by the building of Zenata.

In the aftermath of the Second World War and during the decolonization period, countries in North Africa, including Morocco (which gained its independence from France in 1956), began to establish their own policies and approaches towards environmental management. Initially, because of conditions placed on them by international institutions like the World Bank, the focus was primarily on economic development and further industrialization. And this was often done at the expense of environmental considerations. However, there was also a growing recognition of the need to protect and manage natural resources, particularly for a (semi)arid  country like Morocco. Given the unchecked urbanisation mentioned before, over the course of the twentieth century much of the country’s population became concentrated along the Atlantic coast. Environmental work then became focused inland, in less populated areas, where efforts to safeguard landscapes from degradation was considered to raise fewer social tensions but also benefitted from less scrutiny when it did not live up to its goals. Projects were designed to address issues like water scarcity and coastal erosion, but these were often in conflict with economic growth agendas and were defunded by the introduction of structural adjustment reforms dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the 1980s.

Then, the late 1990s marked a period of transition. Starting with the ascension to the throne in 1999 of the current King Mohammad VI, Morocco has increasingly tried to brand and position itself as a regional leader in environmental sustainability. The country has made significant investments in renewable energy, particularly solar and wind power. This was accompanied by various environmental policies and strategies, nominally focused on sustainable development. Initiatives like the Green Morocco Plan (Plan Maroc Vert), launched in 2008, for example aimed to reflect a comprehensive approach to sustainable agricultural development, but remain committed to export oriented economic growth which many critics claim to be at odds with social and environmental agendas.

Throughout this historical trajectory, authorities have described the challenge for Morocco as one of finding balance between preserving a rich natural landscape and meeting the demands of economic development and a growing population. Community knowledge and practices however continue to be marginalised while approaches that are considered to be ‘modern’ or ‘scientific’ are privileged by those in power, without questioning how adequate they are or what their longer-term impact will be on local environments.

Alternative visions of sustainability

It should not come as a surprise then that not everyone is keen on visions of urban sustainability like those promoted and sold by the Zenata Managing Company. During an earlier field visit to gather material on this project, I was invited to attend the opening of an exhibit featuring the works of a group of graduating students from the School of Fine Arts (Ecole des Beaux Arts) of Casablanca. Hosted in the lobby of the French Cultural Institute, I found myself joining visitors from diverse walks of life – students, artists, local residents, urban planners, and housing activists.

Using the format of ‘scientific posters’, the exhibit gathered about a dozen group projects all framed under the theme of ‘Futuristic Architecture and Urban Planning’. Each poster appeared to act as a window into alternative realities of the city, where the familiar urban landscape had been radically reimagined by the graduating students, with both hope and disenchantment. The students, a dynamic and eclectic group, brought their visions to life using a mix of mediums – from digital art and mixed-media to collage and hand-drawn landscapes. I focus here on one poster in particular and its context as it was narrated to me in conversation with the four young students who designed it: Adel Azzouzi, Saad Karimi, Hamza Ezzaki, and Hamza Salaheddine.

The title of their poster already announces the critical stance they are taking: ‘Utopian Planning and Autistic Dialogue’, a play on words in French that lightly mocks the acronym for another existing urban development company (the Urban Agency for the Development of Anfa or Agence Urbaine de Developpemment d’Anfa – AUDA). Visually, the poster juxtaposes the city’s historic architecture with looming, hyper-futuristic structures. Three visual panels give different perspectives on future city life: eerily drained of its color, the Casablanca they present has soared to new heights, but beneath its towering edifices, tense social struggles seem to unfold. Each montage depicts a different angle on the city’s bustling streets, but with a twist – the human element has been distorted. There are Stormtroopers, drones and cyborg-like entities who populate the scenes, hinting at a future where technology has displaced human interaction and presence. The chilling alienation (‘autism’, in the words of the four students) in the images stirs a sense of loss among the viewers, a mourning for the vibrant street life that they claim is already becoming a thing of the past in Casablanca.

One of the poster images depicts a future Casablanca clearly affected by climate change. “Rising sea levels will transform the city into a flooded landscape, only the business towers will rise out from the water,” Saad tells me as he describes the image. Flooding is already a reality for many residents of low-income and informal settlements across the city, Zenata included, so Saad contends that his scenario is not that far-fetched. This dystopic vision sparks discussions among the visitors who join our conversation and bring up the urgency of including more concrete measures of environmental sustainability and resilience in urban planning.

The students, who are present throughout the exhibit, engage with the visitors, talking about their creative processes and the narratives behind their works. Their passion was palpable, as was their deep connection to the city they call home. They insist that current approaches to urban planning as an ‘autistic dialogue’ which they believe to articulate the appearance of public consultation but not the actual inclusion of diverse views into city planning. Their works appear to function as a love letter to the city as well as a refusal of current planning policies, a (bad) dream and a warning.

These futuristic visions also stand out for their sharp commentary on social disparity in the face of unequal urban development. By dropping a depiction of the Berlin wall in one of the collages, Adel tells me, the intent was to capture the stark contrast between newly-built affluent neighborhoods such as Zenata and the marginalized communities they displace all around the city of Casablanca. For Adel and his co-designers, the future is not just a matter of technological advancement, but also of social justice and inclusivity. The images, raw and unfiltered, evoke a sense of urgency to address the growing divide. Their speculative and imaginative approaches offer a glimpse into possible as well as desirable futures, harboring some seeds of hope amid dystopian realities.

Conclusion

The practice of sustainability in North Africa, and Morocco in particular, has been shaped by a combination of indigenous knowledge, technocratic and extractive colonial interventions, and the rise and spread of contemporary global environmental discourses and policies. The development of Zenata Eco-city offers an important lesson about how sustainability can be instrumentalized by different actors. On the one hand, the goal of providing high-quality housing in an urban setting that promotes ecological sustainability is a positive development. On the other hand, displacing 30.000 low income inhabitants off-site in order to make room for breezy green spaces and gated communities with private pool access appears to contradict these goals. Consultation and inclusion are frequently mentioned by rehousing plans, but how inclusive can these consultations be if the low-income communities are not allowed to remain on their lands and benefit from higher standard housing and amenities? As sustainability projects become increasingly entangled in global financial circuits they inevitably lead to gentrification as they displace certain populations to create profitable real estate markets. True participatory planning and sustainability would acknowledge the frugal and resource-saving ways in which low income residents already conduct their lives, even though it is out of economic necessity rather than virtue. Inclusive green cities should allow for mixed-housing, in which a certain number of units are allocated to lower-income residents, thus promoting social mixing rather than gated exclusion. These approaches however, require a shift away from profit-driven solutions to shared environmental challenges, both in urban Morocco as well as further afield.

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