Street in the medina
The Medina, Fes-al-Bali, Morocco

The Moroccan Medina

Most of the cities in Morocco have preserved at least portions of their medieval medinas. The streets in these areas are very narrow, and they are, for practical reasons, substantially carfree, although not always motorcycle-free.

In early January 2002, I was fortunate to be able to participate in a workgroup studying the medina of Fes-al-Bali, believed to be the largest contiguous carfree area in the world, qua population. (Venice may be slightly larger in land area.) Our experiences and my photographs are the subject of these pages. The circumstances of the medina at Fes-al-Bali typify the other medinas, and since Fes-al-Bali is larger than the others, we will take it as a case illustration with respect to the pleasures and difficulties of life in a medieval carfree area.

It is worth mention that many cities in Morocco have "Ville Nouvelle" districts, built during the French occupation. The new parts of the city are often similar to the older parts in size and population. The new areas were built in the post-Haussmann era of French planning, which saw wide, straight boulevards and large block replace the tangled medieval practice of narrow, crooked streets. The new parts of Moroccan cities are almost as overrun with cars and motorcycles as their counterparts in the rest of the world, but the medinas remain an oasis of peace in a world that has become noisy, smelly, and dangerous.

The Medina of Fes-al-Bali

Fes-al-Bali, the larger of the two medinas of Fes, is a nearly intact medieval city. With a 2002 population of 156,000, it is probably the largest contiguous carfree area in the world today. In January of 2002, several like-minded friends and I spent five days in Fes during the course of a study tour. We met with local officials and toured the medina extensively in an effort to learn how the medina functions today and what problems it faces.

Attributes of the Medina

The entire medina was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, with 13,380 historic buildings since enumerated in the course of a thorough GIS survey of the medina. There are reputed to be 10,539 retail businesses in the medina, which remains a prime commercial center of the city of Fes (population about 1,000,000). The city is located at 34 degrees North latitude and 5 degrees West of the Greenwich meridian. The elevation is 414 meters, giving some relief from the otherwise very hot weather that prevails in the region for about nine months of the year.

The entire city is still surrounded by high walls penetrated in a relatively few locations by historic city gates. There is only one large public square of any size, located near the geographic center of the medina. This area is penetrated by a road that gives access to buses, trucks, taxis, and some private cars. Several other gates are also open to road traffic, but in all cases these roads penetrate the medina only a short distance and end at a parking area without connecting to other roads. It is not possible to drive across the medina.

Statistic Metric Units
Population 156,000
Medina Dimensions About 2400 meters E-W by 1600 meters N-S
Site Size 300 hectares
Developed Area Nearly 100% of total site
Green Area Virtually no public green space
District Density About 550 inhabitants per hectare, including many workplaces
Floor Area Ratio (FAR) Estimated at 1.5
Longest Journey Within the Medina About 40 minutes by foot
Automobile Traffic Limited road access to the medina proper; no through passage possible

Fine Grain, Human Scale

Fes-al-Bali is built to a human scale, and the building blocks of the city are small. The streets are very narrow and can at times suffer from serious congestion.

In a walled city such as this, space inside the walls is at a premium. The main streets are thus lined with thousands of small businesses. Their premises are rarely more than a few meters wide, and sometimes only a couple of meters deep. Larger establishments still have only small entrances, with the bulk of the store located behind several other small storefronts. These shops are typically family businesses, and they are packed to the rafters with merchandise. It is not unusual for the proprietor to use a ladder or long hook to retrieve merchandise for a customer. Compared to shops in the West, there is an extraordinary density of goods per square meter of shop space. Most of these stores have no "aisles" as we know them - the customer stands in the street and the shopkeeper stands inside the shop, amidst the goods. It makes for an exceptionally efficient use of space.

The population density of Fes-al-Bali is estimated at 550 inhabitants per hectare. By contrast, the reference design for carfree cities has about half as many people per hectare. I estimate the FAR of the medina at 1.5, which is about the same as in the reference design. This is achieved with lower buildings but a considerably higher plot ratio (about 0.7). Because the space per inhabitant is comparatively low, the number of inhabitants per hectare is about double that in the reference design. The number of workplaces in the medina is not known but is quite considerable.


Some streets are as narrow as 60 centimeters (about two feet). Few streets are as wide as five meters (about 16 feet), and then rarely for any distance. The streets are generally too narrow to permit the use of bicycles, although there are a few areas in which they and motor scooters are found, mostly near one or another of the gates. In these areas, a few small trucks sometimes operate, primarily to remove waste. The remainder of the medina is entirely carfree.


Buildings are typically 2-3 stories tall, with a fair number of single-story and 4-story buildings. No building exceeds four stories except the minarets of the mosques. Most residential buildings have interior courtyards, typically measuring five meters on a side.


In the hot, dry climate of Fes, rooftop space is valuable and much used. Nearly all buildings have flat roofs that are used to dry laundry, grow some ornamental plants, and sit out in the cooler evening air.


Within the city, almost no freight is delivered by truck, excepting a few areas near the gates. Several "utility areas" are located just inside or just outside a gate. This is where the change from motorized to non-motorized transport occurs. From here, freight is delivered by donkey, mule-cart, handcart, or on shoulders. The donkey is probably the most common means used, and one of the most common cargoes is LPG cylinders, seven of which can be carried by a single donkey. Even this load forces pedestrians to step aside in the narrower streets. (If gas were piped into buildings, the delivery of cylinders would, of course, no longer be required.)

In terms of labor intensity, freight delivery in Fes-al-Bali is probably quite expensive, but this is tempered by the fact that distances are short and traffic delays are rarely an issue. The transshipment of freight in the utility areas is certainly an added expense. This is mitigated somewhat by holding markets in the utility areas, so that the goods only have to be unpacked and sold once. Most of the goods then move from the market to homes in the hands of purchasers.

Emergency Access

At the time of our visit, Fes-al-Bali was preparing to implement a network of emergency access streets. These were to have a minimum width of 170 centimeters, a width sufficient to permit the passage of 140 cm. vehicles. A few bottlenecks have been identified where minor reconstruction will be needed to maintain the 170 cm. minimum width. The city has purchased a standard narrow-track four-wheel-drive vehicle to use as an ambulance, and similar vehicles are expected to enter service as fire trucks. It seems likely that the city will also elect to use motorized vehicles to collect trash along these routes. It was difficult to see how emergency vehicles would be able to pass through some of the narrowest and most crowded streets, although people are accustomed to moving out of the way of burdened donkeys, which are nearly as wide.


While the circumstances in Fes-al-Bali are not ideal for a modern carfree city, they have posed no significant barriers to the continuance of city life almost entirely free of cars and trucks. Despite the commercial difficulties with freight delivery, the area remains the commercial heart of a much larger city and draws large numbers of shoppers and merchants from other areas of the city.

While we would today almost certainly never lay out a city with such narrow streets as Fes-al-Bali, these narrow streets are not, in fact, a serious burden on the city, its residents, or visitors. On the contrary, these streets serve a great many purposes besides transport. They act as informal social spaces (in some areas bordered by sidewalk cafes) and serve as extensions of commercial establishments. Fes-al-Bali, as it now exists, serves as an excellent model for sustainability. Except for modest amounts of LPG used for cooking and some water heating, the city is largely sustainable. The animals used to provide freight transport have been used for this purpose for centuries and could probably continue to perform this chore into the indefinite future. While Fes-al-Bali is not a rich city by Western standards, the people are healthy and comparatively prosperous, more so than the comparatively low figures for standard of living would lead one to believe. Fes-al-Bali is worthy of the attention of anyone interested in sustainable urban development.

Acknowledgments would like to thank ADER, AUSF, and the municipality of Fes for their assistance with our study. Thanks also to Randy Ghent for organizing our trip.

Photo Tour

Maps of Fes

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Copyright ©2002 J.Crawford