Searching for Common Ground in the Gardens of the Past

Searching for Common Ground in the Gardens of the Past

Résumé en français

En 2004, le Trust Aga Khan pour la culture (AKTC) alancé un programme des villes historiques, qui visait à « restaurer, créeret revitaliser de beaux espaces verts » dans les sites urbains historiquesdu monde entier.

Leur intention était que ces projets soient «conçus pour honorer le passé tout en servant l'avenir. Essentiellement, cesinterventions urbaines devaient être socialement régénératrices, économiquement durables et culturellement authentiques. Leurs emplacements ont été choisisavec soin pour reconnaître et protéger à la fois les paysages naturels etculturels et en particulier leur authentique «sens du lieu».

 Ils sont également un exercice de « pluralisme »,la même éthique de nivellement social, qui a dynamisé Olmsted dans Central Park à New York.

Les matériaux de construction sont au mieux d'origine locale et là où les compétences artisanales nécessaires pour travailler la pierre ou entretenir les pépinières sont absentes, ces compétences sont ravivées par des programmes de formation technique.

L'acceptation croissante par le public de ces parcs dans leur vie sociale personnelle et familiale est mise en évidence par leur nombre élevé de visiteurs et leurs visites répétées enregistrées, comme entémoignent les téléphones avec appareil photo.

Mon article cite deux parcs très différents, même dans des hémisphères différents, mais à la fois musulmans ismaliens et les deux un produit de cette méthodologie mais chacun est spécifique à sa propre histoire et à son climat.

Leur profonde puissance scénique et psychologique réside dans leur authenticité, leur échelle magnifique et leurs témoignages humains de guerre et de paix… Ensemble, nous pouvons lire le paysage, connaître leur histoire et, espérons-le, respecter leur «sens du lieu» particulier.

In 2004 The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) launched a Historic Cities Programme, which aimed “to restore, create and revitalise beautiful green spaces” in historic urban sites worldwide. They intended these projects to be “designed to honour the past while also serving the future. These urban interventions were needed to be socially regenerative, economically sustainable and culturally authentic. Their locations were carefully chosen to recognise and protect natural and cultural landscapes, especially their authentic “Sense of Place”. They are equally an exercise in “Pluralism”, the same socially levelling ethic that energised Olmsted in New York’s Central Park.Construction materials are at best sourced locally, and where artisan skills required to work stone or tend plant nurseries are absent, these skills are revived through technical training programmes. The public’s growing acceptance of such parks in their personal and family’s social lives is made clear by their high visitor numbers and recorded repeat visits, evidenced by camera phones. My article cites two very different parks, even in different hemispheres, but both Ismali Muslim and both a product of this methodology and each is specific to its history and climate. Their profound scenic and psychological potency lies in their authenticity, magnificent scale and human records of war and peace. Together we can read the landscape, know their story and hopefully respect their unique “Sense of Place”.


Two very different public parks, but both born out of conquering empires, one the imperial British, the other the Soviet Union, each a magnificent landscape that personifies common ground. It is cultural and emotional resonance that so defines true ‘sense of place.’

Figure 1:  Khorog City Park, Tajikistan (left) and Forodhani Park, Zanzibar, two different parks whose cultural and emotional resonance defines their sense of place (Source, Author)

It reveals a universal need to explore and express politics, and progress in places of near tangible, but unreachable grace and grandeur. It displays the desire of powerful people to define the lifestyle and landscape in which often isolated populations live. Both examples in very different cultures, cities and circumstances. It is evident in both insets that stressed urban populations reach out to “Nature, Scenery,Green Space” and traditional pastimes, to rekindle or recover their sense of belonging in shared sentiment and scenery.

Displaced people the world over continue to search for the space where they belong. Their common ground!

The City and the River ….: Khorog at the confluence of the Gunt with the Panj Rivers

A public park in Khorog, the capital city of Badakhshan, part of an urban landscape rehabilitation project in the High Pamir mountains of Tajikistan,Central Asia. The absolute remoteness of Khorog is difficult to comprehend. Situated in the Republic of Tajikistan, or more accurately the autonomous oblast of Badakhshan, Khorog is a truly remote city: the nearest large settlement  is over 1000 km away by car. It is one of the highest cities in the world at 2290 m and is surrounded by mountains that top out at 7495 m above sea level. The city’s botanical garden is said to be the second highest in the world. Jagged mountains cover 90% of the country’s surface like a 'Toblerone' and loom over a proud population concentrated in settlements, embedded deep in chasmic river valleys. Khorog is a place of extremes and a city up on the “Roof of the World.”

Figure 2: Khorog City Park is surrounded by jagged mountains that loom over the city. It is a place of extremes and a city up on the “Roof of the World.” (Source, Author)

Rocked by earthquakes and avalanches, Khorog has survived years of political and natural turmoil. The people are, if anything, tougher and more rugged than the landscape they inhabit, but each winter tests them anew. It is a time of yearning.Only the return of Spring’s buds and blossoms offers reassurance. Gardens,orchards and parks have clearly always had an emotional resonance in this culture. They provide a joyful celebration of living; people and plants mutually benefiting from cultivation, somewhere ‘between a rock and a hard place.’

The city of Khorog(population 30 000) lies huddled on the sandy plains of the Gunt River valley. All level space was clearly at a premium, the elevation climbed rapidly from the city’s riverbank and the outskirts of the town were already at the base of impossibly high peaks. A liveable city in such a situation and climate was hard to imagine, but here it was, a relic of the Silk Route and centuries of cross-border trade and politics.

The local terrain was visibly geological in scale and rawness. Nature had created a violent, rugged landscape of rock and awe!

Vegetation was sparse. and its grip was tenuous. Scree slopes prevailed, and perched boulders menaced. A glacial melt river raged and ripped at its banks and churned up a boulder soup, while pollarded, waterside willows grimly resisted its force. Most memorable were the iconic, pencil-thin Pamir Poplars that punctured the view, if not the skyline, one of continuous peaks. A dramatic location for a park, no doubt.

The project brief came from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) Historical Cities Programme.The Khorog City Park Project recognised the value of dedicated recreational spaces in which to socialise and play to isolated city dwellers. The centrally located site combined an important, but run down, public park and an urban thoroughfare, bounded by the city and the River Gunt. Once a formal park of the former USSR, overused and under maintained, it had fallen into disrepair and the opportunism of grazing animals, erosion and creeping building encroachment had completed the dereliction and despair.

Figure 3: The frozen river Gunt (left) and settlement housing huddled below the scree slopes of the adjacent mountains (Source, Author)
Figure 4: Once a formal park of the former USSR, overused and under maintained, it had fallen into disrepair and the opportunism of grazing animals, erosion and creeping building encroachment had completed the dereliction and despair.

In 2004 the site was chosen as the focus for an urban rehabilitation project; for a high-quality public park. From the outset the park was not viewed simply as a collection of recreational amenities, but as a re-connection of urban green space into the city network. AKTC coordinated broad consultation with the authorities and population of Khorog in order to determine the functional features of the new park and their assimilation into this complex and compact 6 ha site. There was a clear need for a public garden for both refuge and recreation.

The design intent was to preserve the best of what existed and then work creatively with the ordinary—stone, water, flowers and shade trees—in an extraordinary way.

In the interactions with the local population, much was found in translation rather than being lost. This was not just a project to deliver locally, but a pleasure park of green shady lawns,cascading water, a proliferation of flowers and blossoming orchards design locally in accordance once with AKTC, local artisans, materials and local preferences to simplified traditional patterns. The ‘sense of place’ is present both in the planting pattern and in the people who inhabit it!

Figure 4: Patterns, colour and display combat the looming grey of rocks and the winter sky (Source, Author)

The large-scale import of heavy or cumbersome materials or equipment was near impossible logistically and economically and so nearby sources of landscape elements were sought. The locals lead the way to the best stone, best sand and best flowering trees. It was as if they had been waiting for just this opportunity to reveal themselves. We went to the mountain screes for the stone, no shortage there! We turned to the old city gravity irrigation system and reconstructed derelict canals, both functional and subtle as water features crisscrossing the park.

We climbed to the botanical garden above the town, making friends of the gardeners and their dogs, always a wise move. Moreover the gardeners, from families spanning sometimes three generations, were delighted to share their wisdom with us. They also shared their food and made us honoured guests, which in the circumstances was pretty humbling.

Figure 5: Remnant Soviet era austerity conceals a Tajik passion for colour (Source, Author)

Since resources were in short supply, young soldiers were drafted in to help dig. Twelve men and one shovel started, but soon there were more of both. First the frozen snow was cleared. Beneath the old leaves of autumn cloaked the site and had to go.The local school children pitched in and made huge piles, into which they leapt and joyfully redistributed the leaves just collected! Already the park had a life of its own. Many technical skills had been forgotten over the years, discouraged by the USSR system of importing mass produced building materials and food. Consequently, an English Cathedral stonemason, one Tony Steele, was engaged to revive stone masonry for locals who were eager to learn and work on what had now become their park. Their special place!

Figure 6: The region's spirit of place is raw (Source, Author)

Throughout the detailed design phase we preserved beautiful trees, brooding rocks and splendid views. We enjoyed the site, the process, the people and the product and slowly the plan came together. Construction commenced in Spring 2005. Due to the long winters and an extremely short construction season, we were forced to condense the programme and started setting out and digging and even before the “tundra”of the site had fully thawed.

Figure 7: Conceptual early drawing of the park by Gruppe S, dreaming of 'enclosing woods' with special places for shelter (Source, Planning Partners International)

Figure 8: The final landscape master plan by Planning Partners International (Source, Planning Partners International)

An expert Egyptian horticulturalist, Dr El Saady Badawy helped to organise the plant resources needed for the project and an old Soviet geothermal green house was converted into a propagation nursery and produced throughout the winter. An upbeat example of assisted localisation unfolded. Even the marauding yaks were astounded and quietly watched the roses grow through the glass.

Figure 9: The green house used for plant propagation for the park's rejuvenation (Source, Author)

Figure 10: Nuances of rock, pattern and possibilities. Detail proposals were a mixture of craft and culture (Source, author)

Embraced by the site’s definitive green infrastructure of poplars and willows, facilities such as a riverside restaurant and tea house, open air theatre and dance floor, beautifully stone built toilets, a succession of children’s playgrounds and a stone labyrinth were “lost” in the forest. Footpaths wound around the park, urging the visitors to explore further.An old meandering loop of the river was incorporated into the design, as a swimming pool (with a beach!) In winter, this becomes, an ice skating rink(with skates donated by Canadians!). Each spring was to be celebrated in an ethnic zigzag of flowering crab-apple and cherry trees, where hedges enclose the formal flower gardens in a discreet and peaceful calm. The riverside promenade,a naturally grand and ascending route, was upgraded and made safe by a rugged revetment.

The use of stone in the park became, in itself, a major feature, restrained, but exquisite in detailing that evolved as we worked.

Street lighting, often limited elsewhere in the city, was carefully introduced into the park to extend its evening use and encourage visitors. The response was overwhelming and the lighting effect on the mature, pale skinned Pamir poplars was spectacular at night.                        

Figure 11: The riverside promenade was made safe by a rugged revetment (left) and the poplars creating a strong sense of place (Source, Author)

Projects of this nature and clarity seldom come your way. For my team and I, it was an uplifting and unforgettable privilege. In 2009, at the formal opening, the people of the city danced and there could have been a no more sincere show of acceptance and appreciation.

For those of us who live in a developed world, the developing world might often seem far away or irrelevant to our lives. The opposite is true. The world is very small place,and our coexistence or destruction, mutually assured. However, disconcerting the challenge may seem, I suggest meeting it head on, with unfettered, irrational enthusiasm and imagination. Landscape Architecture at best is a social endeavour driven by communities, only assisted by Landscape Architects, hopefully inspired by its ‘sense of place’.

Figure 12: The retained enclosing woods (left) and the 'pond' for summer swimming and winter ice skating (right) (Source, Author)
Figure 13: The completed park in the summer (Source, Author)

The City and the Sea … Stone Town Seafront, Zanzibar, Tanzania - Arresting decline, conserving the worthy and creating new spaces in old places

Figure 14: Stone Town's iconic seafront prior to its redevelopment (Source, Author)


Romantic it is, but Stone Town is falling down.Sometimes slowly, beguiling tropical dilapidation; sometimes quick, a catastrophic collapse. Its survival is a local and global cultural imperative. This is the story of the recovery of the significant Forodhani Park and the central seawall.

The historic and social context of Forodhani required a new and comprehensive planning framework in order to reconcile aspects of both its rehabilitation and revitalisation. This well-defined precinct is shared by monuments, inquisitive tourists, sun seekers, business people and most importantly, the residents of Stone Town. Their expectations may vary substantially and so success in urban recovery lay in balancing their varied needs. The common expectation was however, to create a contemporary, functional public space whilst retaining an authentic historic sense of place. Or simply put, “The City Spice, that is Zanzibar!”


Zanzibar, actually an archipelago, lies close off the East coast of Tanzania in East Africa. Most prominent is Zanzibar Island (in Swahili “Unguja”) and Stone Town the capital city on its West Coast, with an historic core known locally as “Mji Mkongue,” Swahili for old Town. It has long been famous for its collection of fabulous and eclectic architecture, largely late 18th, 19th and early 20th century, some much older. It is a fusion of Swahili, Arab, Persian, Indian and European influences and egos.

A conglomeration of humanity and habitation, palm trees and palaces, “massive Omani square houses, extrovert Indian embellishment, and the colonial intervention which made itself more palatable by orientalising itself.” (Sheriff, 1998). Only here do the Arab Fort, Art Deco, Sinclarian Saracenic, the authentic and faux, rub shoulders quite so closely,in the narrowest lanes humanly passable.

Stone Town is an extraordinary social and architectural relic, an urban accretion, largely composed of calcium carbonate; coral, lime and water; much like the island of Zanzibar itself. All came, travellers and traders, missionaries and navies,slavery and spice.

However, it is the architectural totality and spatial incoherence of Stone Town that makes it unforgettable, albeit disorientating to strangers. A maze of lanes, of light and shade. Too narrow for vehicles, the intricate pedestrian network has a fine crystalline morphology arising from the irregular juxtaposition of the enclosing buildings. It also boasts natural climate control. The monsoon rains necessitate projecting eaves, which on the buildings abutting the lanes create a near continuous cross- town canopy of shade. The pedestrian experience embroidered by the elaborate details of crenelated parapets, tea houses, shadowy fretted verandas, demur shutters and impressive brass spike studded doors, there to repel the elephants and still working today!

Figure 15: Stone Town is an extraordinary social and architectural relic - lanes for living (left) and lanes for a bazaar (right) (Source Author)

It is a theatrical experience to emerge from the narrow darkness of a lane into the glare or greenery of one of the few public open spaces. Their rarity makes them well populated and busy. These are the communal courtyards, or public gardens of Stone Town, truly shared space, very much a local tradition and necessary for respectable social interaction. In Zanzibari culture, hospitality, public or private, requires that neighbours and visitors be entertained on an appropriate privacy gradient. Between lane and inward-looking house, there is a comfort zone.

This custom inspired that essential piece of Zanzibari outdoor furniture, the barraza, a versatile stone bench that transforms an elaborately carved front door into a vestibule, a public square or park into an open-air parlour.

It is even more dramatic and remarkable to pop out blinking from the labyrinth of lanes onto the Mzingani Road Seafront,where towering palaces, mansions and colonial edifices comprise a wonderful panorama, fantastic when viewed from the ocean.

It was somehow inevitable that changes in the island’s economic fortunes and social demography, including decolonisation and revolution, would impact on the very fabric of Stone Town. Yes, the balconies now droop, the shutters sag and the tin roofs rust. Tropical islands are high maintenance, but what a patina! No ersatz antiquity this, so photogenic in decay, but for how much longer?

Out of over 1400 conservation worthy buildings 85% are in structural decline,and over 200 have fallen down in the last few decades. And as original buildings disappear less than authentic architecture appears in its place, a piecemeal sacrifice to opportunistic commercial aspirations and the average tourist’s lack of discernment.

In 1988 the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) focused world attention on the dilemma of Stone Town through an international seminar. This consequently led to a plan for the collaborative rehabilitation of Stone Town between AKTC and the Government of Zanzibar.

An exhaustive survey of the historic core and the development of an integrated urban strategy for Stone Town’s revitalisation was developed by AKTC (Historical Cities Programme) in conjunction with Planning Consultants Sasaki and Associates Inc, Boston, USA, a comprehensive work published as “Zanzibar, A Plan For The Historic Stone Town.” (The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Zanzibar a plan for the historic stone town). It succinctly and expediently defined general policies and went beyond to describe specific building projects and area plans. One such project was the restoration and rehabilitation of Forodhani Park and its protective sea wall and subsequently it became the focus of the Seafront Action Area, an intervention site selected for a major landscape and infrastructural upgrade.

The Park is conspicuous and the forecourt not only to the Omani Arab Fort, but also to the House of Wonders (Beit al Ajeib), Venetian style orphanage, the Sultan’s Palace and directly linked to the main seafront of Mzingani Road.

The historic seafront was, as to be expected, drenched in history, but, as the interface of the city and sea, it had become a vibrant commercial and recreational waterfront.

Fishing, boat building and cargo dhows all jostled for space,incredulous tourists wandered, camera to eye along dangerously driven roads and the locals continued to risk a walk around the degraded public garden. The popularity of the well-known night food market of Forodhani was legend in backpacker’s paperbacks but had all but destroyed the park by sheer attrition.The ageing seawall itself had become porous and collapsed in parts with the park behind being endangered by spontaneous sinkholes and the infiltration of seawater. Other areas simply eroded or flooded under the heavy beat of tropical rains.

Figure 16: The park and its seafront - a place of vibrant commercial and recreational activities (Source, Author)

In a community where public open space is at a premium and commercial resort development makes much of the coastline exclusive, to choose this area for restoration was uplifting in a profound way. It is in reality the front garden of Stone Town and accessible to all. However, implicit to any consideration or design of restoration or revitalisation was the recognition and due deference to the historical character and artefacts of what was now a derelict park, which overtime had been intrinsic to Stone Town’s story and unique sense of place.

Seafront Action Area

For the implementation of the Project, AKTC acting as Project coordinators and Managers appointed an interdisciplinary team comprising Cape Town based professionals; Landscape Architect, Coastal Engineer, Civil Engineer and Electrical Engineers, supported by a Local Quantity Surveyor in Dar es Salaam.  Thorough physical survey and research enabled the detailed design of the project to be undertaken with the co-operation and approval of the Local authorities, STCDA and International bodies such as UNESCO.

The project closely followed the urban design strategy of the original report, but also addressed the integration of local vendors and issues of practical day to day necessity. The objective being to promote a sustainable Public-Private Partnership as a model for the ongoing, sustainable financing and management of the park.

Analysis and synthesis

Forodhani Park is a place of landmarks, but it is also a space of leisure. A tropical climate demands breezy beaches and waving coconut palms. Cool lawns, a resting place and a sea view plied by dhows are the rewards of a passing day. Since the 1930’s it was always a relatively simple park. Shady, spreading trees, specimen flowering shrubs, and broad green lawns with neat, clean paths.

Good horticulture and care in establishment added to tropical growth rates had done the rest. But it was originally a reclaimed fill site with only a thin skin of topsoil, so it remained vulnerable. The park suffered from salt infiltration from waves and sea spray over topping the sea wall at high tide, compaction from overuse and consequently lost lawn cover. Soil erosion followed and the surface levels dropped by between 150 and 300 millimetres exposing the coral fill and the surface roots of the magnificent Albizia lebbeck, common name being the“Women’s Tongues Tree” from the rattling noise of the seeds in the pods, the four sentinels which dominate most photographs of the park. Ironically, these specimens were at the point of collapse and severely stag headed. The degradation of Forodhani Park has been a combination of natural erosion and unintentional attrition.

The solution lay in a twofold strategy of physical recovery and on-going management.

It was not simply an empirical planning process, but fundamentally consultative, starting with a social needs and desire study and followed by sustained negotiation with food vendors, fishermen,officials and the public. Forodhani was not only a once important open space and a tourist “must see” but remained a vital seafront thorough fare to the citizens of Stone Town, an inevitable route to the port and ferry terminals.

Figure 17: The final landscape master plan (Source, Planning Partners International)

A New Plan

Part restoration, part rehabilitation, part invention, a respectful sustainable, multi- functional park, promenade and thoroughfare was the intention. All that within tight World Heritage constraints. The pattern of the park, the layout and proportion of lawn, paving and planting were derived from the main cross axes of fountain, bandstand and pier, the original 1935/36 configuration. Detailing was designed in a robust, but not brutal manner in an understated vernacular style. Even the paving has an exposed coral aggregate finish, a reminder of weathered masonry surfaces seen everywhere in Stone Town. The old seawall was the dominant feature, massive and linear it literally made the park and resonated with the curtain wall of the Old Fort. Reconstituted coral stone blocks, hand worked, gave the rebuilt sections appropriate dignity and provided many jobs.

Mature trees in the park were rejuvenated for shade, shelter and integrated into the layout.

Many new specimens were planted to restore the green structure, colour and ambience of a private garden, but for authentic public experience.

The plant species selected reflect the ethnobotany of Zanzibar, sailors, scurvy and spice. Palms and perfume.Flowering trees and shrubs were high on the list of community expectations and were expressed clearly through the nostalgic memories of the public when consulted. Ylang Ylang, an unforgettable perfume tree was a favourite. The park’s planning respects its heritage, its present and its future. It is a versatile, vital urban space, but it remains an essential part of the pattern of Stone Town and its relationship with the sea, so essential to its unique character.

Even a positive spin was put on the barbeque food vendors. Considered by many to be an integral part of the seafront dynamic and economy, not to mention intangible character! The approach was both commercial and strategic. Firstly, identify their appeal – their market is tropical, colourful and romantic, above all keep the kerosene lamps! Secondly, identify the causes of decay – It was too successful, it wore out the soft parts of the park and the failing seawall led to the collapse of the hard.Soon there would be no park.

Tree level and sea level

Conservation of the remaining worthy trees was taken very seriously, tree root systems given aerating, anti-compaction drains, new topsoil, grass cover and irrigation. The seawall was restored in recycled stone to historical specifications or reconstructed in artificial coral stone to match the original quantities. Since no new stone quarries were permissible.

A contemporary issue regarding the sustainability of the seawall and park was the apparently rising sea levels which were a wake-up call to the effects of Global warming. Spring tides regularly over-topped the historic wall flooding a significant part of the park.Some thirty percent of the landscaped park area had to be lifted by 750mm to protect the park from regular inundation for the next 25 years? A clear step was detailed in the new wall to distinguish the historical from the necessary nouveau.

The restoration required and revived many necessary skills, long redundant. New training and imported supervisory expertise were necessary to empower locals and deliver the project timeously and credibly.

So the seawall was restored, the park was restored, even the evening barbeque was restored and perhaps so too was the self-respect of Stone Town, its residents and tourists and their expectations of a tropical paradise.

Figure 18: The rehabilitated seawall raised to account for rising sea levels (Source, Author)

Figure 19: The restored battery (left) and the restored park axis (right) (Source, Author)
Figure 20: People socialising in the revitalised park (left) and the restored park (right) (Source, Author)

Sentimentality and Sense of Place

In setting out in this article to ‘compare and contrast’ two seemingly very different small scale urban park projects. I found myself more stuck by the similarities of humble, but magnificent geographically, both cities made of stone and each by water, one a glacial river the other a tropical sea.

Both are isolated from urban centres with a history of capture and forced labour, war and revolution, and yet their populations remain in situ. They have more similarities in their beliefs and traditions, even cuisine and handicrafts than they have differences. In troubled times of civil war both cities were abandoned, but always slowly they grow again. They certainly both resonate with a tangible loyalty to their land, livelihood and religion. In both places their day to day lives revolve around sunrise, on mountain or sea. There is more that binds them than does divide. In each case local artisans, professionals and residents were consulted informed and involved in the nature of the Park’s restorations or, augmentations and day to day operations.

In Tajikistan regular earthquakes, avalanches and river flooding were unavoidable elements of the place which had to be understood in design and management.

In Zanzibar, the rising sea level previously un-noticed, initiated a response of raising the heritage sea wall of the British Empire period by 600mm and approved by UNESCO.

Such projects are uncommon territory for a landscape architect. In each case the recognition by all those involved, professional, artisans, and public was paramount.

Political or pressure group required a loyalty and appreciation of these two special places. And equally to the people who decided not to quit their homes, but to rebuild the community and their fragile revolutionary economics. Emotionally, they responded to their sense of community, culture, and their all defining sense of urban neighbourhood and ‘genius loci.’    

Figure 21: Even a single tree can create an intimate sense of place (Source , Author)


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