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Towards forming a socio-ecological action model for urban open spaces’ design in New Cairo, Egypt

Abstract

Under the supervision of UN-Habitat, the Egyptian General Organization of Physical Planning started its first phase of “Promoting Better Quality and More Manageable Public Spaces Project, 2021” that targets enhancement and development of open spaces quality in New Cairo, Egypt. This project is functioning under three main objectives: (1) recognize the most occupied urban open spaces in New Cairo, (2) identify the required community needs in these urban open spaces, and (3) evaluate quality and suitability of these open spaces for public usage. In this paper, we are attempting to achieve the 2nd objective addressed previously by laying hands on hidden correlations among socio-ecological community needs. This is achieved in two phases; the first phase is mainly concerned with adapting thematic analytical method to tackle multiple correlations while reviewing literature, while the second phase is focusing on conducting a pilot study survey in East Academy district to validate the previously concluded socio-ecological correlations. Also findings indicate that East-Academy’s open spaces have strong correlations with multiple socio-ecological attributes and that ten urban qualities showed the highest positive measures. These correlations, in the future, can be used to establish an intervention action model.

Introduction

We may claim that what defines social ecology as social is that almost all of our present ecological crises are a reflection of deep social problems. As stated by Janlin in 2012, “to separate ecological from social problems would be to grossly misconstrue the sources of the growing environmental crisis” [1]. Therefore, the way human-beings deal with each other as social beings is crucial to address our current ecological crisis. Reaching such change requires transformation of our mentality from domination to complementarity, in which our role will be shifted to being supportive and appreciative of the non-human life’s needs. This concept was initially presented in 1993 during the first public statement to advance the idea of social ecology, this statement claimed that “The cast of mind that today organizes differences among human and other life-forms along hierarchical lines of ‘supremacy’ or ‘inferiority’ will give way to an outlook that deals with diversity in an ecological manner, according to an ethics of complementarity” [2].

In 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global insight towards importance, quality, and suitability of urban open spaces is being magnified [3]. This paper comes aligned with this governmental decision to develop New Cairo urban open spaces as a pilot study for a community with better quality of life [4]. However, investing in green infra-structure together with energy efficient strategies was not of a concern. This derived a demand and need for transdisciplinary action strategies or guidelines to help in designing and assessing new urban communities. How can we design a space that is both socially accepted and ecologically oriented is a key question that this paper is trying to answer by filling the gap between literature and practice; this will help in showing broad lines for a pathway towards socio-ecological design. Therefore, this paper aims to achieve what was previously explained above by analysing literature, showing different themes of relations between socio-ecological variables and drawing action strategies that can be used as a framework for an eco-city model in Egypt, such as renewable energy, permaculture, environmental design, eco-waste management, green transportation, and green cities.

Social ecology

The sociology field has an over lapping concerns with related disciplines; some scholars have begun to doubt whether sociology does have a clear focus of its own or not [5]. Thus, sociology focuses on social psychology, social stratification, the new sociology, demography, and social problems at the expense of other important approaches such as ecology, psychology, and social spatial patterns.

Sociology is so complex and diversified concept that cannot be interpreted from a single approach. What is needed is a multidimensional approach with multiple perspectives to highlight the relationship between different concepts. Moreover, researchers cannot discuss communities’ life without taking into consideration the following questions: How did these communities get to be the way they are? And what are the existing forces likely to produce change? Any efforts to describe the current social realities are difficult without mentioning the social change. By time, social patterns are the urban representation of social change; when observed it can be analysed by tracing its “Physical Traces” [6].

The ecological perspective

Natural environment has been neglected as a topic of concern from ecologists for years. Sociologists have been also criticized for failing to adequately deal with physical environment and social factors interrelationships [7]. Meanwhile, ecology is concerned with the processes and forms of people’s adjustments to their physical environment. More specifically, the study of territorially based on spatial systems created by human efforts has come to be known as “ecology” [8]. Otis has gone further in viewing community as an ecological system; his concept identifies the major four classes of eco-system elements as follows: population, environment, technology, and social organization.

The cultural perspective

Cultural perspective components include values, norms, sanctions, and symbols. The point being made here is that both material (physical) and nonmaterial (non-physical) cultural aspects are integral components of the physical structure and social life of all human communities [9].

Environmental psychology

Environmental psychology is the science that examines the relationship between humans and their environment using tools, such as users’ needs assessments known as PDR to evaluate requirements prior to design. Environmental psychologists help to understand the differences between temporary and long-term needs. This includes a multidisciplinary approach to understand human behavioural response and motive as well. Theories in the human environment relationship aid the process of understanding the users’ needs before a design is created. They include integration, stimulation, control, and behaviour setting.

Generally, these theories explain the stimulation of human behaviour relationship such as the arousal perspective, environmental load, and adaptation. These theories of environmental properties are pleasure-arousal-dominance hypothesis [10], Kaplan and Kaplan [11] preference framework [12], and Lynch’s elements [13] of legibility [14].

Environmental psychology models, perspectives, and implementation

Theories, models, and perspectives in environmental psychology are presented in Table 1.

Table 1 Theories, models, and perspectives in environmental psychology [15]; edited by Dalia M. Rasmi (author) 2021

Environmental psychology concepts and its implementations

Environmental psychology concepts are presented in Table 2.

Table 2 Environmental psychology concepts 13; Dak Kopec in 2012

Action models

Place making model (PMM), Project for Public Spaces 2013

Project for public spaces (PPS) organization in 2013 has found that successful public spaces usually share four main qualities: being accessible, engaging people with physical and mental activities are comfortable, and have a positive image, in addition to being perceived as sociable spaces [16]. After evaluating thousands of open public spaces around the world, PPS developed a model that is called “The Place Making Model” as shown in Fig. 1. This model plays a role as a diagnostic tool for any space whether good or bad [17]. In Fig. 1, a specific open space such as a street, plaza, or play-ground can be evaluated according to four main criteria that are displayed in the inside ring. Outside of this ring are a number of qualitative aspects by which to judge a space accordingly. Finally, the outer ring shows the quantitative aspects that can be measured by statistical research.

Fig. 1
figure1

Place making model by project for public spaces in 2013–2019 [17]

Matrix of S.E.A.M’s variables

The matrix of social ecology evolved from multiple sources of knowledge that differ from books to theories. A comprehensive reading and a thematic analysis took place to establish the base for S.E.A.M’s variables formation. In an ascending state, according to date of publication, nine main sources are used to extract these variables: The book of Santayana “The Sense of Beauty” published in 1955 [18], the mental map elements by Kevin Lynch in 1960 [13], the “Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander in 1977 [19], “Human Aspects of Urban Form” by Amos Rapoport in 1977 [20], “Creating Defensible Spaces” by Oscar Newman in 1973 [21], the eco master planning (the four infra-structures) by Ken Yeang in 2009 [22], the variables of “Ecological Urbanism” by Mohsen Mostafavi in 2016 [23], variables of “Environmental Psychology” by Dak Kopec in 2012 [15], and lastly Helen Woolley’s variables of “Urban Open Spaces” in 2013 [24] (Tables 3, 4, and 5). Moreover, a comparative analysis between all the previously mentioned variables and “The Place Making Model” from project for public spaces formed in 2013 is explored to achieve the final matrix of S.E.A.M’s variables [15].

Table 3 S.E.A.M’s matrix of physical and spatial elements
Table 4 S.E.A.M’s matrix of social and cultural aspects
Table 5 S.E.A.M’s matrix of ecological and natural variables

“The Place Making Model” (31) parameters in Table 6 were cross examined with many variables concluded from literature to formulate the final representation of S.E.A.M’s matrix of 38 variables in Tables 3, 4, and 5 that will be latterly used to trace correlations. In Table 6, the first column represents PPS four main sectors: image and comfort, uses and activities, sociability, and access and linkages. Moreover, the second column demonstrates the list of PPS variables associated with each category. Furthermore, the third and fourth columns relate S.E.A.M’s attributes by code and name to each PPS attribute. However, the previously mentioned S.E.A.M attributes are originally branched from three main categories as mentioned in Tables 3, 4, and 5.

Table 6 Cross examination between PPS and S.E.A.M’s attributes

Methods

Methodology

The methodology comprises an in-depth literature search for previous work on ecology and social ecology to scan the field and understand where the Egyptian situation lays within these approaches. In this phase, the paper explored the current approaches and theories of open spaces development. It also went in-depth into scanning for existing design and strategic notions and looked at current examples that could be implemented in the Egyptian context. In order to achieve the main aim, the paper was divided into multi-layered activities [25] (Fig. 2). The first layer is concerned with extracting preliminary themes through readings, descriptions, and significant quotes. Concrete relations were indicated in the texts and tagged with preliminary themes. The second layer is composed of a detailed analysis of the extracted preliminary themes that are coded. The third layer is mainly concerned with finding the emergent common themes and recurrences. Those themes provide interrelations and allow for a holistic understanding of social ecology practice in open spaces [26]. This section starts by explaining quantitative and qualitative approaches such as variables’ synthesis, participants’ questionnaires, and Delphi method, as well as thematic analysis [27].

Fig. 2
figure2

Paper methodology graph

Case study selection criteria

The “East Academy in New-Cairo” was selected as a case study for the empirical work, since it represents an example of a new developing community with a need for understanding to its underlying community needs. East and South Academy are districts within the 1st settlement in New Cairo. These two districts consist of multiple neighbourhoods with concentric urban design. Most of buildings are villas with max height of four floors and at least a front yard. As shown in Fig. 3 [28], these villas are clustered around a shared neighbourhood green space.

Fig. 3
figure3

1st settlement satellite location. www.googlemaps.com in 2019

Quantitative and qualitative methods

S.E.A.M’s variables selection

Phase 1 of variables selection (comparative analysis with “PPS”)

A comparative analysis between “PPS” attributes and “S.E.A.M’s” variables are examined to identify the common patterns which represent the latest method of practice concerning open spaces’ design. The outcome of this comparison is presented in Table 6 which manifests a sum of 38 variables common between both “PPS” and “S.E.A.M” methods. These common variables will be processed later using “participants” preference questionnaire’ method to identify 10 variables with max importance and effectiveness from participants’ subjective view.

Phase 2 of variables selection (Participants’ Preference Questionnaire)

Preference questionnaire is a quantitative method that is considered a second filtering tool for “S.E.A.M’s” 38 variables. This step targets to reduce the number of traced variables to a sensible amount. The formation of preference questionnaire consists of four main sections.

Section 1 contains gathering of personal data such as age, gender, occupation, education, familiarity with space, participant type (resident, user, or expert), and years of contact with space, to gain a better insight about participant’s characteristics and background. Section 2 contains rating of twelve “Physical and Spatial Elements” (Table 3), such as plantation and vegetation, landmarks and attraction points, enclosure and openness, and space furniture. Section 3 contains rating of twenty “Social, Cultural, and Psychological Aspects” (Table 4), such as safety and security, visibility and surveillance, crime prevention, comfort level, and activities. At last, section 4 contains rating of six “Ecological and Natural Variables” (Table 5), such as green infra-structure, blue infra-structure, and waste management [29].

Moreover, the scale that is used through the entire survey is a five point rating scale with numerical representation from (1 to 5) to facilitate results’ quantification. The breakdown of the scale is as follows: very low (= 1), low (= 2), moderate (= 3), high (= 4), and very high (= 5). The previously stated numbers represent variables’ importance according to participants (user, resident, or expert) preference [30]. In addition, a graphical representation of each variable was presented to facilitate the process of recognition and avoid terms’ misperception among all participants (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
figure4

Example of Participants’ Preference Questionnaire

S.E.A.M’s model correlation analysis

Phase 1 of correlation themes (thematic analysis)

Thematic analysis is usually used in qualitative research, according to Braun and Clarke it is defined as “A method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns within data”. A theme captures what is considered important about the data in relation to the proposed research question and represents some level of patterned meaning within the data set. It minimally organizes and describes data rich in details through its theoretical freedom. “Thematic analysis provides a flexible and useful research tool, which can provide a rich and detailed, yet complex, account of data” [24]. The following diagram represents the adopted sequence of phases (six main phases) for good thematic analysis (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5
figure5

“Phases of thematic analysis by Braun and Clarke in 2008.” To be adopted for the research at hand

In this paper, the translation of the previously mentioned steps is as follows: phase one, a cohesive reading and re-reading through literature took place with writing down initial transcriptions that is presented in Table 8 under the title “Description”; phase two, coding data and highlighting features that are related to certain categories are clarified under the name “Interpretation”; and phase three, collecting data into potential themes as presented in Table 8 in the column “Possible themes”. Moreover, in order to validate the previously mentioned “Possible Themes”, a review process took place. This review process was divided into two steps (step four and step five) that were undertaken by the author and again by group of experts (review phase 2, Delphi method). Finally, phase six was conducted to relate the thematic analysis results with the correlation analysis of S.E.A.M’s variables which are presented in Table 9 “Relation Matrix of S.E.A.M’s variables”.

Phase 2 of correlation themes (Delphi method)

This paper required expert’s consultation in two rounds of Delphi survey; the first round was to rate the importance of socio-ecological indicators to assess urban open spaces. The second round was to review thematic analysis and provide feedback to validate author’s correlational analysis. A multidisciplinary group of sixty participants and ten experts rated the importance and themes of 38 indicators with response rates of 60% and 75% in the two rounds. Delphi techniques have been used to develop S.E.A.M.’s socio ecological indicators among expert group. A Delphi involves an anonymous survey using questionnaires with controlled feedback to allow rotation within a panel of experts. It is also understood as a tool for reaching expert’s opinion through scientific discourse in complex situations in which the relations between variables are not clearly evident [25]. The Delphi study presented here was developed in a structured format in order to assess a list of pre-defined indicators drawn from the literature.

Delphi procedure

Invitation letter was sent to the nominated participants by email to complete the rating process. They were asked to give their demographic information. The participants were to rate the importance of each indicator on a 5-piont scale (1 = very low important to 5 = very high important). The questionnaire included a section where the participants could add free text comments. A reminder email was sent in each round. At the second round, the experts were presented with feedback results for each indicator rated in the first round. Indicators were extracted from the literature reviewed and subjected to consultation about comprehensiveness in a pilot rating exercise from three volunteered experts.

Results and discussion

Variables selection criteria results

Results of the “Participants” Preference Questionnaire’ helped in categorizing the socio-ecological attributes into groups according to majority of votes. High and very high scores were represented by 1 in the “majority rating column”, while lower scores were represented by 0. Moreover, another filtering technique was applied following each attribute tendency towards low or high rating score. By calculating the mean values of the attributes; attributes with mean scores lower than 3.5 were considered “moderate with tendency to low”; on the other hand, attributes with mean scores higher than 3.5 and lower than 4.0 were considered “moderate with tendency to high”. These “Means’ Tendencies” were translated to one-digit representation either 1 or 0 in the column “Tendency to High” (Table 7). As a direct result from the previously explained filtering technique, a number of attributes were highlighted (10 attributes in total). These socio-ecological attributes are accessibility, walkability, safety and security, crime prevention, comfort level, sense of beauty, green infra-structure, waste management, pedestrian paths, and space maintenance.

Table 7 Participants’ Preference Questionnaire results summary

Correlations’ extraction

Possible themes as a result of thematic analysis

In order to track possible themes between varieties of socio-ecological attributes, a comprehensive thematic analysis was conducted (Table 8), in addition to creating multiple thematic tables. In this paper, a sequenced of processes for analysing the input data from literature were adapted. Also, specific phrases related to the paper questions were selected and quoted for further investigation. These phrases are displayed under the title “Description” in Table 8. This table is a part of fourteen analytical tables that were finalized by the researcher and reviewed by a team of experts. The “Interpretation” column is a breakdown of what was mentioned in the “Description”. This breakdown can be considered guidance to certain relations/correlations between variables. Moreover, “Possible themes” were extracted with more focus on one to one direct relations. These direct relations were the starting point to search for validation by experts in later steps.

Table 8 Thematic analysis and extraction of possible themes

Correlation matrix and Delphi method results

A “Correlation Matrix” is a graphical representation of concluded themes between S.E.A.M’s variables; these themes were reviewed and validated by Delphi method. The review of these themes was conducted by a group of ten experts. Those experts provided researchers with a written feedback in two formats. The first format was either confirming or denying the correlation provided from thematic analysis. The second format was composed of added notes for other possible themes or correction for the extracted written one.

After collecting all experts’ feedbacks; a final confirmation round was published among the same experts’ panel to share a final insight. The confirmation round was conducted by email to facilitate sharing all comments among the panel. At last, these correlations are represented in Tables 9, 10, 11, and 12 as a result from both thematic analysis and Delphi method. These correlations are represented with two symbols either () as a mean for proofed correlation or (X) as a mean for possible correlation.

Table 9 Proofed and possible correlations symbol and meaning key
Table 10 Correlation matrix between the chosen ten S.E.A.M’s variables and the 38 variables of PPS-S.E.A.M’s attributes
Table 11 Correlation matrix between the chosen ten S.E.A.M’s variables and the 38 variables of PPS-S.E.A.M’s attributes
Table 12 Correlation matrix between the chosen ten S.E.A.M’s variables and the 38 variables of PPS-S.E.A.M’s attributes

To conclude, the main outcomes of this paper are proofed and possible correlations between multiple socio-ecological attributes in New Cairo, Egypt. These proofed correlations are extracted from a triangulation method where literature, participants’, and experts’ preferences were counted. It was established that from urban and spatial elements’ correlations, (1) accessibility is correlated with comfort level and gardens, and (2) walkability with comfort level, gardens, and pedestrian network. From social and cultural aspects’ correlations, (1) sense of beauty is correlated with historical values, plants, heritages, memories, and pedestrian network; (2) safety and security are correlated with boundaries, plants, navigation, accessibility, proximity, connectivity, interaction, activities, social ties, diversity, participation, social cohesion, group membership, crime prevention, and visibility; (3) comfort level with historical value, plants, accessibility, walkability, heritage, memories, interaction, gardens, agriculture, playgrounds, street landscape, allotments, and natural habitat; and (4) crime prevention with boundaries, navigation, accessibility, walkability, proximity, connectivity, sense of beauty, safety and security, interaction, activities, social ties, visibility, gardens, playgrounds, space maintenance, waste management, and water features. From ecological and natural variables’ correlations, (1) gardens and parks are correlated with plants, accessibility, walkability, heritage, memories, safety and security, sense of pride, interaction, comfort level, activities, social ties, place attachment, entertainment and pleasure, participation, social cohesion, group membership, crime prevention, and pedestrian network; (2) space maintenance correlated with safety and security, and crime prevention; (3) waste management is correlated with safety and security and crime prevention; and (4) pedestrian network with walkability, sense of beauty, and gardens.

Conclusions

This paper was set out in order to explore the key preferences of socio-ecological attributes that can potentially contribute in creating a positive impact in urban open spaces of New Cairo, Egypt. The paper has also sought to define social and ecological concepts in urban settings, also to understand the urban physical elements, social and cultural aspects, ecological and natural variables, and their correlations on open spaces of New Cairo’s context using a single case study (East Academy District). Data were collected through a triangulation method using thematic analysis, users’ survey, and experts’ panel. Findings indicate that East-Academy’s open spaces have strong correlations with multiple socio-ecological attributes and that ten urban qualities also showed highest positive measures.

Moreover, this paper laid hands on hidden correlations between socio-ecological variables. This may lead in the future research to interventional action strategies for residential open spaces in which both the variable itself and its strongest relation are taken into account. This is achieved by conducting the thematic analysis method by scanning the literature and highlighting the main extracted themes between the different variables of the socio-ecological ecology variables. Due to the wide variety of socio-ecological variables, a selection technique was applied to nominate the most important ten variables according to participant’s preference. Later, a “correlation matrix” was generated to illustrate the validated correlations of these ten variables: accessibility, walkability, safety and security, crime prevention, comfort level, sense of beauty, green infra-structure, waste management, pedestrian paths, and space maintenance; also, it was validated by panel of experts following Delphi method.

In conclusion, a few limitations of this paper are highlighted to provide a better opportunity for future research. Only one case was investigated; in future research, more than one district could be analysed from different locations across New Cairo and Egypt to see if there are similar results and patterns. This would also help in generalization and in increasing the validity of the results. In addition, a comparison could also be made with districts in different countries to identify possible commonalities between the perceptions of users among different cultures. Furthermore, another objective could be achieved by creating “S.E.A.M’s Action Strategies” from multiple disciplines, urban open spaces, physical and human, social and cultural, natural and environmental, and regenerative design. This “S.E.A.M’s Action Strategies” is open for future research to relate it to “S.E.A.M’s Correlation Matrix” which can be an attempt to conclude design recommendations on how to reach ecological, social, and regenerative enriched open spaces.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and/or analysed during the current paper are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Abbreviations

PPS:

Project of public spaces

S.E.A.M:

Socio-ecological action model

COVID-19:

Coronavirus disease 2019

PMM:

Place making model

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to acknowledge Toka Fahmy for her contribution as a peer reviewer and for assisting with the analytical part of this research. Also, we would like to thank all participants and experts for their participation in answering the preference’s questionnaire as well as being a member of the experts’ panel.

Funding

Not applicable. This study had no funding from any resource.

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Authors

Contributions

The corresponding author, D.R., wrote the paper, analysed, and performed both theoretical and analytical data as well as the empirical work in this research as part of the author’s PhD thesis at the Architecture Department, Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University (CUFE). H.G. supervised, guided, helped to interpret, and reviewed this paper as the main supervisor of D.R. PhD thesis. M.Z. performed guidance and reviewed both theoretical and empirical work as part of being the second supervisor of D.R. PhD. thesis. K.D. was a major contributor in revising the paper. The authors read and approved the final paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dalia M. Rasmi.

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Rasmi, D.M., Zayed, M.A., Dewidar, K.M. et al. Towards forming a socio-ecological action model for urban open spaces’ design in New Cairo, Egypt. J. Eng. Appl. Sci. 68, 3 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s44147-021-00005-z

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Keywords

  • Urban open spaces
  • Urban design
  • Urban attributes
  • S.E.A.M’s matrix
  • Physical elements
  • Social and cultural aspects
  • Ecological and natural variables
  • Thematic analysis