Future city builders: Karimah Gheddai and Shaimaa Atef

Karimah Gheddai and Shaimaa Atef
Karimah Gheddai and Shaimaa Atef (Photo by Romi Levine)

They're the new generation of Toronto city builders. 

Meet the ambitious University of Toronto students and recent grads poised to become big players in shaping the city’s identity and contributing to its growth. 

This ongoing series from Romi Levine, who covers the city beat for U of T News, shares their stories.

Toronto’s best qualities are the ones long-time residents often take for granted. 

But for those who’ve moved to the city from elsewhere, those same qualities were imperative to making Toronto feel like home.

Just ask U of T Masters of urban design grads Karimah Gheddai and Shaimaa Atef.

“I live in one of the best cities in the world,” says Gheddai. “Every day I’m marvelled at how people can get along here. You wouldn’t see this anywhere else.”

“There are so many festivals like the Greek and Polish festivals… You really get to live that home-feeling even if it’s just for a little while,” Atef says.

Gheddai grew up in Nigeria, moving to Calgary when she was 12. After living in a number of cities in Canada, she moved to Toronto. 

Atef was born and raised in Egypt, moving here to study at U of T. 

Their connections to Africa and desire to improve the lives of people in their home continent were the inspiration for their final urban design thesis project, which ended up winning the Heather M. Reisman Gold Medal in Design in 2015 – the most prestigious award for graduating students of Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design’s urban design program.

For the project, Gheddai and Atef looked at ways to transform informal settlements in African cities to better the lives of those who live in them. 

These settlements are usually built without proper planning and often illegally, usually accommodating an influx of people, often migrants or populations coming from rural areas. 

Gheddai and Atef focused on some of the oldest settlements in Africa, located in Cairo, Egypt and some of the newest in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

“Seventy per cent of [Dar es Salaam] is informal settlements, which is huge and only growing,” says Gheddai, who has worked in the Tanzanian city for the Canadian government.

(below: a rendering of the proposed settlement in Dar es Salaam, by Karimah Gheddai)

The graduate students created a new design for informal settlements that would foster healthy growth – “a prototype for African cities,” that could be used all over the world, says Gheddai.

Informal settlements continue to grow without proper planning, regulation and safety precautions.

“I always had the feeling that there has to be a way to help them. There has to be a way to reconnect the broken link between the government and those dwellers,” says Atef.

There are a number of ways Gheddai and Atef propose doing so, such as “upgrading accessibility to infrastructure, accessibility into the settlement, redeveloping the market network within the settlement and anticipating the growth in between spaces,” says Atef.  

(below: a rendering of part of the proposed settlement in Cairo, by Shaimaa Atef)

Gheddai and Atef say many of their ideas were shaped by their experience in Toronto. 

“Maybe we didn’t think about it, but we got a lot of inspiration the way the city of Toronto works. From urban agriculture to the entrepreneurship hubs, you have to take the best from everywhere and try and implement it in other places,” says Gheddai.

And the celebration of diversity that made Toronto such a welcoming place for Gheddai and Atef – that could be the city’s greatest export.

“With informal settlements like in Dar es Salaam, people come from the villages, trying to make it in the city – they’re bringing the knowledge and enthusiasm that a lot of people bring to Toronto,” says Gheddai. 

Gheddai is currently running her own wedding photography business and a filmmaking workshop for East African women entrepreneurs called Bia-SHE-ara, funded by the Toronto Arts Council. 

Atef is working as a junior urban designer at architecture and design firm Perkins + Will. 

But Gheddai and Atef have no intention of abandoning their thesis project. They hope to one day put it into practise. 

“We are looking to find certain ways to implement that by connecting to UN habitat, by connecting to NGOs back home,” says Atef. 

The desire to bring about change in Africa is an ambition they both share. 

“I want to move back to Africa and implement strategies, working as an urban designer or in local government,” says Gheddai. 

“My end goal is to make my country a better country,” Atef says. “I don’t know how or when, if it’s in my lifetime or the next lifetime, but I would like to make even a small contribution to that.”


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